Evaluating this record is one of the most difficult reviews I’ve had to write for this project — because it’s quite difficult to assess this as a complete work, despite Bowie’s clear desire that we do so. This not-a-soundtrack album is one part notebook for sketching out the future, one part playground, and one part a change of scene. The best place (I think) to start judging this diverse and messy work is to look at where it fits into his discography.
The early 90s were, to be blunt, an incredibly mixed time for Bowie. He had finally tasted the huge and lucrative chart-topping success that had eluded him all his career with his early-80s albums. He had scored an international #1 with “Ashes to Ashes” from 1980’s Scary Monsters, he was on Broadway as the Elephant Man , and film offers were pouring in. Suddenly, he was single, off drugs, and free of his previous bloodsucking management. Everything he touched was turning to gold, and he was determined to capitalise on (and monetise) that success.
Thus began the heartbreaking turn away (to his long-time fans) from his peak with the Berlin Trilogy and Scary Monsters, and into a period where ensuring both his wealth and legacy as a major rock star was his priority (some dare say “cashing in”). We’ll come to that period in more detail in due course, but consider this: given how quickly New Wave went commercial, in retrospect, Bowie might actually have been smart to “sell out” when he did — and while it did serious damage to his career long-term, the success did set him up to (eventually) return to the kind of creative work his core fanbase most appreciated.
His brush with pop idoldom didn’t actually last long; following his monster 1983 album Let’s Dance, the 1984 follow-up Tonight — despite having a few flashes of brilliance — was really only a stretched-out EP and didn’t even match Let’s Dance’s low bar; his pet film project Absolute Beginners bombed; and it only got worse (in several different ways) from there. Again, we’ll cover his crawl back from the pit of the mainstream in future entries — but for context, his return to solo artistry after Tin Machine, 1992’s Black Tie White Noise, also did not do anything like the business his albums from 10 years prior had done, and he was effectively record-company poison by this point. It’s hard to imagine it now, but trading in your fan base for the embrace of the fickle public carries a very heavy price.
So finally, after years of giving audiences variations on a largely persona-less “real” (?) Bowie, he was back to where he’d started in the record business: full of charisma, looks, and talent — but unable to get it to all quite click. Fans will argue about where his long road “back” to being a major creative force quite began, but for me it started with the (still unreleased) material that lead to the focus of this review: a new and unpublicised work fostered by the most ordinary of “day jobs” — knocking out a soundtrack of incidental music for a BBC TV play called “The Buddha of Suburbia.”
2007 re-release cover
Bowie, in his liner notes for the later album of the same name, admits that the “motif driven small pieces” of music he made for that project don’t actually appear on this 1993 namesake album (apart from the title track, which is pure 90s-era Bowie … right down to the sax solos). Rather, that music became the jumping-off point for a written list of influences and memories that he tried to re-work into a full album project that he may have hoped would win back his late-70s audiences.
It didn’t, but not for lack of trying. Though it would never have been a hit anyway — it’s far too unfocused and eclectic — as a musical sketchpad of Bowie looking back on his life after 40 years in the music business, it is a nice change from the “driven by commerical interests” period that preceded it. Bowie later would periodically name it as his own favourite of his albums, but it’s difficult to gauge whether he was just protecting an under-loved project or if he genuinely felt (at least prior to his final two albums) that it was his most creatively-rewarding work. It certainly boasts the most extensive and forthright of any of his liner notes.
At the beginning of the resulting album, the idea of riffing off the motifs of the original soundtrack he’d done just didn’t seem to be working: Bowie and his collaborator on this project, Erdal Kızılçay, whipped up loads of functional sounds and some strong arrangements, but while the title track works fine, “Sex and the Church” just feels indulgent. The former song features some pleasingly quixotic lyrics (but without a strong musical counterpunch), just like most of Tonight and Never Let Me Down — and the latter is an admitted (in the liner notes) riff on provocative words without connection. These are followed with “South Horizon,” which I must bluntly describe as “mediocre jazz,” although it was nice to see old bandmate Mike Garson adding his signature touch to this and a couple of the other numbers.
Next up is another instrumental/ambient flirtation of the sort Bowie’s thrown around once in a while since at least Low called “The Mysteries” — and while enjoyable, it brings what little schizophrenic energy the album had managed to build up to a flying stop. As a piece by itself, it’s worthwhile, particularly in league with his other instrumentals over the years (and Bowie did eventually gather them in 1999 with the album All Saints).
“Bleed Like a Craze, Dad” picks up exactly where Black Tie, White Noise left off, with lots of faux-Rodgers touches, but also pointing out a path to where he was headed. It still doesn’t make a lot of sense, but the lyrics don’t use the dreaded “cut-up” Burroughs lyric methodology (which, truth be told, only works occasionally). The song has something to do with hanging out with the UK’s most notorious gangsters (Crays/Craze, get it?), and introducing them to his dad, and perhaps that wasn’t a good idea. Nice but kinda weird, just how you like your Bowie, and precisely the vibe he finally nailed down in his 1995 album, Outside.
Suddenly, though, a breakthrough: taking bits from all of his 80s music (even Labyrinth!) and blending it with chasers of Eno, Icehouse and Roxy Music, he comes up a cropper with “Strangers When We Meet,” a song so good he recorded it again for Outside. It’s such a startling change to the zig-zags of the record to that point that a dedicated fan listening on headphones, waiting patiently for some solid Bowie, might shed a tear of joy on hearing this obvious reconnection to his muse. The next track, the Kirsty MacColl-esque “Dead Against It,” only reinforces this notion: by gum, the Thin White Duke of Pop may be back!
The hat trick is completed with the rather different (but very foretelling) “Untitled No. 1,” the sound of which would turn up on Earthling and “hours …” in later years. These three songs lay out the blueprint for how Bowie would continue to work, up until his forced retirement from studio and touring performances in 2005 following a “minor” heart attack.
All too soon, however, Bowie brings down the curtain on this resurrection with another ambient instrumental entitled “Ian Fish, U.K. Heir,” which drones on too long (at 6:27) but does emphasise guitar more than most of his instrumentals (and I like the “fake vinyl fuzz” used throughout). The finalé of the album is a alternate version of the title track again (making for very obvious bookends) with a slightly harder-rock edge supplied by Lenny Kravitz (who, thankfully, does not sing). It’s not the best song on the album, and hobbled by its cut-up lyric style, so repeating it doesn’t do the listener any favours. It’s not a bad effort, but seems to say at the end of the day that all Bowie’s learned is that a bit more crunchy guitar laid over the stuff he did in the late 80s is all that’s needed (see also: Tin Machine).
Happily, that wasn’t the takeaway from Buddha of Suburbia for Bowie, and the subsequent albums — while no longer the trendsetting documents he once spit out like pronouncements on his sexuality — were strong and satisfying enough to win back his old fans along with some new ones, decorated as they were with gems of brilliance. As he began sliding into middle age, Bowie had begun to pull off perhaps his greatest trick of all — dragging himself back from the edge of embarrassment, away from the cliff of self-parody. If he still occasionally borrowed from his disciples (and himself), well, there’s worse ways to keep the fires burning.
Two things I learned from this album is that, firstly, the man was unquestionably more than just a talented trendspotter; he was working really hard to match his output to his mental image of what he wanted to do. And secondly, at this point in his career a lot of people were more than ready to write his career epitaph as an art-rocker who became an unlikely but reliable radio star — but the long-time fans who managed to even find this album (as Bowie himself noted, it was labelled a soundtrack, and thus didn’t get any real marketing) may have noticed that this journey he was embarking on was pointing Bowie away from society’s idea of “success” and back to his own definition of it.
After having paid a fortune and put enormous effort into creating what amounted to a far-ahead-of-its-time touring rock show-cum-broadway musical, Bowie — now immersed in more funk, R&B, early disco, and other predominately African-American forms of music, an evolution from the black (and white) blues foundations of the early rock music from his youth — decided to scrap much of the existing set, props, and theatrics. Halfway through the tour, he reverted the show back to a relatively straightforward musical revue show. His management must have loved that.
The revised show, which featured mostly new singers and musicians, now included numbers and styles that should show up later in the following year’s official album release, Young Americans. As mentioned in our previous entry, the bulk of Young Americans was recorded during a late-summer break in the Diamond Dogs tour —and his excitement over the direction and strength of the new material he had recorded for it influenced significant changes to even the earlier material still being performed. Nearly every song on the second leg boasted a noticeably-altered arrangement.
That said, the decision to change horses in mid-stream probably wasn’t a purely artistic one. Bowie was likely also influenced heavily in his decisions by the high and increasing costs of lugging that remarkable set and its ephemera around, particularly without having yet seen any royalties from David Live at the time. Numerous are the recording acts that embark on big, lavish tours which end up getting scaled back significantly before the run is over; Bowie was just one of the first to understand the cost and folly of touring elaborate musical-theatre or opera-level productions around versus the (then) far lower cost of a “rock concert” ticket.
Unmentioned last time was that while all of this was going on, the first — and in some senses most important — of documentaries on Bowie was being filmed by a young Alan Yentob, covering both the ongoing Diamond Dogs and Bowie’s own deteriorating mental and physical state, owing to his growing cocaine addition (accelerated, no doubt, by its easy availability in Los Angeles, where the tour was stationed for a seven-night run). The documentary was called “Cracked Actor” in part because of Bowie’s odd demeanour, and remains a vital look at him in the throes of addiction (as well as featuring rare footage of the actual Diamond Dogs tour set, and some of the performances).
See our entry for David Live for details on the personnel changes and other details, but the revamped tour went back out on the road in September of 1974, and as mentioned a high-quality soundboard bootleg recording from the 5th of September (roughly the middle of the LA run) originally known as Strange Fascination, was released as a 2CD set in 1990. A different bootleg, known as Bowie 1974, is said to be from the same night — or at least one of the nights from that week-long run — but is claimed to be an audience recording rather than the soundboard.
The original unedited recording was repressed under other titles, notably Glass Asylum and The Duke of LA. A later edit/remaster of the Strange Fascination source tape became the bootleg A Portrait in Flesh, released in 1998 (though with an original “copyright” of 1983, which remains unexplained). Besides the sound being remastered, Flesh differs from Strange Fascination in a few notable ways. The first was that Portrait trims down the overlong 10-minute (!!) intro of ambient cityscape and wild animal noises, as well as the “outro” of the original concert, which ended with the voice of the promoter on the PA advising that “David Bowie has left the building,” both of which can be heard on Strange.
Finally, this well-traveled soundboard tape made its way into the hands of Tony Visconti for an all-new mix job in 2016. Rebranded after both the song and the title of the documentary, the newly-official Cracked Actor album first appeared as a Record Store Day exclusive release in 2017 (following Bowie’s tragic death), and has since been released separately. Both the film and this album are highly recommended; the former documents Bowie in the worst excesses of his American influence (and cocaine), while the latter captures the hugely-revamped tour, featuring a band and singer-songwriter who were utterly on fire. To put it mildly, it paints quite a different picture than David Live. Together, the two live albums bear witness to Bowie’s latest evolution as an artist, struggling to paint his way out of a corner, and (just a couple of months later!) totally in thrall to his ingenius solution.
Cracked Actor starts off with the aforementioned highly-abridged soundscape that runs for a minute and three-quarters before kicking off with “1984,” which immediately highlights the differences of the two live albums overall: Bowie’s vocal isn’t quite as prominent in the mix this time, but it is still distinct and far more joyful; the backing vocals are the actual live ones, and (as befits the almost all-new backup singers) quite different and more soulful; the guitars are significantly more prominent (and funkier); the drums are nowhere near as muddy; there’s more percussion, and David Sanborn’s sax is more of a team player this time around, though still a prominently-featured element. It’s kind of weird to be able to pick out Vandross singing Bowie lines from Bowie’s back catalogue, and Luther and Ava actually do blend very well.
On “Rebel Rebel,” Bowie sticks to the arrangement heard on David Live, but the main difference is that every element is blended better; we can still hear the drums, and Mike Garson’s keyboards, but neither are as dominant as they were on Live. This moves straight into “Moonage Daydream,” where Cherry stands out more, and Garson and Sanborn aren’t harshly separated to left and right channels the way they were on Live.
The “Sweet Thing/Candidate/Sweet Thing (Reprise)” gives Bowie and his backup singers roughly equal volume, and for what it’s worth this time around we get a much better vocal performance from David. You can very much hear the sound of “Young Americans” being re-created in places, and the crowd can be heard in its enthusiasm — it’s very obvious they knew they were watching something special. Garson runs off with the end of the suite and masterfully lands his segue straight into the jazzy style and start of “Changes,” which plays up the alternate jazz and rock-anthem styles. Bowie changes the lyric to “these children that you put chains on,” a better choice than copping out for “spit” rather than the original “shit” he used in Philly. This song in particular has been reworked to be fully cognizant of its live-performance trappings, and exemplifies the revamped tone of the tour — from faux-musical “live movie” to ensemble rock-n-roll show with elements of jazz, cabaret, and even salsa rhythms deployed strategically.
From there we go to “Suffragette City,” which continues the rave-up vibe with some new improved call-and-response stuff, but a strangely-flat “climax” on the “wham bam thank you ma’am” section. Next up is of course “Aladdin Sane,” which again gets a more energetic and Latin-flavoured touch which famously throws in a snatch of the song “On Broadway,” because it becomes obvious in the playing live that it’s the same song — only this one has an Insane Mike Garson Finale™, which then jumps into an a cappella intro and a quick “good evening!” before starting a starkly cabaret-style buildup to the big chorus of “All the Young Dudes,” and indeed this might be the best of Bowie’s many attempts to recapture Mott’s glory in taking this “throwaway song” all the way to the top. It doesn’t quite work, but then none of Bowie’s versions do.
The brief guitar solo on “Cracked Actor” (the song) also really shows off the different feel new kid Carlos Alomar has brought to the party, compared to Earl Slick on the previous leg of the tour. While the set list for Cracked Actor and David Live are identical for the first half of the two albums, the difference sonically is tremendous, not least of which is due to the fact that Actor is, in fact, a completely live record — instead of the hybrid we got (by necessity) from David Live.
Foreshadowing his residence in Europe years later, Bowie employs a faux-Italian (maybe?) cabaret accent to set up the new and slower version of ”Rock n Roll with Me,” an accent he had flirted briefly with a couple of songs earlier. Once the song gets going proper, he abandons the affectation and the rest of the number is done in the new “white soul” style of the forthcoming album, singing around the beats in a manner not dissimilar to what Van Morrison was doing at the time. Bowie had a wide listening list and your humble narrator has little doubt that he was paying at least some attention to the king of Irish soul.
So on to CD2, and this is where we finally get to the “Soul Tour” portion of the rebranded “Diamond/Philly Dogs” tour, courtesy two songs: a cover of Eddie Floyd and Steve Cropper’s “Knock on Wood” and “It’s Gonna Be Me,” an “original” that shows Bowie had not lost his skills as an adept forger. Here, it appears as a previously-unheard new song and direct tribute to Al Green and the other soul singers Bowie must have studied ahead of recording Young Americans. The latter song was originally planned to be on the album, but got cut until the 1991 Ryko reissue added it back in — as a bonus track.
“Knock on Wood,” which was introduced in Philly for David Live as a “silly” song, really showcases how much Bowie at this point wanted to be a white soul singer. Although he came to execute the concept very successfully, the idea of literally The Palest, Most Fey UK White Guy wanting to remake himself as an RnB singer is still an amusing one.
In some ways, Bowie’s embrace of American funk and soul styles was clearly intended as an homage to the blues and RnB sounds he grew up with that also propelled the creation of rock-n-roll, but in other ways he was just borrowing another genre of music to get him over a creative hump as he had even in his earliest days — the fact that songs from black artists were topping the charts again certainly played a role as well. His version of “Knock” on David Live is rather stilted (hindered even further by the overdubbing that was needed on the horns) and sounds like an “easy” song for him to do halfway through the show, an on-stage “break” from his own, more difficult work. He obviously liked the song enough to sing it during the entire tour, but as with many of his other cover versions, it didn’t quite click.
Somewhere between Philly and LA, Bowie had added another new song to the lineup in “It’s Gonna Be Me,” which continued the voyage into R&B and was also rather undemanding (apart from a few falsetto notes). At over seven minutes, it’s far too long and probably brought the energy he had built up with the playlist thus far way down (though Bowie, as ever, had a plan for bringing the crowd back). Even on Cracked Actor, the number comes off like an indulgent side-trip deep into his latest obsession, a “look, I can write soul songs too!” moment.
As mentioned, it was recorded for, but not ultimately included on, Young Americans. Today, the song (at least the studio version) might easily slot into a “baby-making music“ playlist right alongside Al Green, Barry White, and Marvin Gaye (among others). As Chris O’Leary has noted, it’s no accident that Bowie was the first white solo artist ever invited on to seminal “black dance show” Soul Train.
Digression within the digression: I remember seeing Bowie on that “Soul Train” appearance; even though I was only a youngster, I had become enamoured of the show as an alternate/black-planet version of “American Bandstand,” which aired on ABC directly before it. Like Bowie, I was a lily-white white kid, and at that point I was living in the southern US, where “separate but equal” was still only in the process of fading away, so it made (in the environment I lived in) perfect sense for black people to have their own dance show.
Even back then, I preferred the music, the costumes, the hair, and the vastly-better dancers on “Soul Train” over the less-enthusiastic crowd on the 70s version of “Bandstand,” and I like to think Bowie did too. Even as a kid, I recognised the analogy of deadpan white-church hymn singing compared to the full-throated African-American gospel singing I had already witnessed in my young life,now being expressed through dance on my TV.
Bowie of course had loved prominent blues, R&B, and rock-n-roll black performers long before now, and worked with black musicians and vocalists prior to Young Americans, but perhaps seeing the huge black population of the US with his own eyes, getting involved with a black girlfriend (Cherry), and discovering shows like “Soul Train” on his tours of the US clearly grew his interest in current R&B and soul music during this period. In another stroke of fortuitous timing, his growing interest in African-American culture was mirroring my own (just as his embrace of androgyny had landed just as I was exploring my own budding sexuality).
Some might say Bowie’s attempt at inventing of “white soul” was just cultural appropriation that served little purpose beyond helping him reinvent himself, and any genuine interest he had in the culture and music that begat the styles coming to prominence in the mid–70s was no more of a factor than the idea that it simply be an inspiration for a direction that would get him out from under Ziggy’s shadow, even as he was rapidly succumbing to every future “rock star” cliche. I think it was a bit less cynical and a bit more organic than that, but as with the other side, I can’t prove it conclusively. Anyway, back to the show.
Regular programming for a Bowie concert resumed from here until almost the very end with a selection of fan-loved songs, the arrangements had altered on most of them, and they were definitely taking on a more soulful flair — more fully using the band and new vocalists. This final act of sure-fire hits started off with “Space Oddity,” and here Visconti left the wireless mic Bowie was using sounding like an inferior wireless mic, whereas on Live he tried valiantly (and mostly succeeded) in repairing the deficiencies of the gimmick. Bowie in turn delivers a more sonorous performance than he had in Philly, though given how much fun he appeared to be having during the rest of the how, I suspect it was him taking the piss out of his big hit.
While not meaning to harp on the point, a great comparison between Cracked Actor and David Live (and likewise the Philly and LA versions of the show) would be to play the two versions of “Diamond Dogs.” The Live version sounds positively dead by comparison: slower, more stiff and bloodlessly executed; all marks duly hit, but suffering from inexplicably underwater-sounding background vocals (perhaps a glimpse into why the other background vocals and horns had to be re-dubbed later?).
The LA version is far more lively, involves more (proper-sounding) background vocals, ups the tempo, and is much more a living beast that sounds way better to listen to — and that sentiment goes for the two records generally. To be fair, the elaborate staging and prop movement used in the first leg may have played a role in the way the songs were performed, and the jettisoning of most of those elements may have dovetailed with Bowie’s desire for livelier arrangements. It’s also fair to say that his new and retained band members were clearly making this more fun for Bowie by the time LA rolled around, and he in turn was audibly having more fun with it, despite the fact that the audience seems more enraptured on Live than the muted response heard on Actor.
On the latter album, “Diamond Dogs” is introduced with the taped “Future Legend” intro, while Bowie dropped “Panic in Detroit” (which followed “Dogs” in Philly), instead going straight into “Big Brother.” The different arrangement gives Sanborn on sax a better chance to wail, and the song ends with a taped version of the “bruh” record skip when then serves as a transition to Mike Garson’s intro to “Time.” I do believe there is exactly enough time between the departure of the lead vocal in “Brother” to the point where he has to be onstage to kick off the lyric to “Time” for Bowie to have a quick cigarette, as was his wont for decades. He certainly offers a more relaxed vocal on this version, though there’s no longer a short-and-bomkers Garson break as there was on the David Live version. Alomar infuses more of his own guitar style into the piece, adding to the less-formal feel of the thing.
A short accented vocal intro from Bowie gets added to the cabaret-styled verse for “Jean Genie,” which like the Philly version busts out the rock stuff only for the choruses. Having already oddly declared “this ain’t rock-n-roll … this is genocide” at the start of “Diamond Dogs,” (…oops…) the actual “Rock ’n’ Roll Suicide” opens with a simple, gentle piano intro before delivering the building, intensifying and emotional rock anthem Bowie was always so good at, this time in a bit of a different arrangement than was used in Philly, but just as effective (despite the dropped “wonderful” chorus). As with Philly, the regular show ended there, but instead of “Panic,” Bowie encored by introducing the band, and then finished the night with his latest effort, the distinctly post-Spiders but pre-disco version of “John I’m Only Dancing,” now known as “John, I’m only Dancing (Again).” You can really detect the hand (and voice) of a young Luther Vandross in the arrangement.
“John” had been released back in September of ’72 as a non-album single following his success with “Starman,” and it reached #12 in the charts in the UK (it wasn‘t released in the US due to Bowie’s famous “I’m gay and always have been” interview). That notorious talk was retracted by Bowie in the early 80s, once conservatism regained power in the UK and US. As O’Leary notes, history shows that while it is almost certain that Bowie had a number of homosexual and pansexual experiences early in life, nearly all of his notable long-term relationships (Iggy aside) were with women, despite obvious associations with the gay community well before fame came calling. His “coming out” has often been derided as a cheap publicity stunt, and perhaps that’s all it was — but it meant the world to actual gay people, and he had the street cred (thanks to pals like Freddie Buretti) to carry it off.
Sensing a sea change in gay liberation and acceptance, he sided with the underdogs, a calculated risk that earned him as many fans (or more) than it may have lost him — and a lot of teenagers (of both sexes) who were fans of his started having to ask themselves some tough questions about masculinity, femininity, androgyny, and where exactly they fell on this recently-invented spectrum. Since he was obviously married to Angie at the time, a lot of fans came to the conclusion that he was actually bisexual (and that’s probably correct, at least in that time frame) — which again created what we might now call a safe space to identify that way, dress like him, act like him. I doubt he had given much thought to the impact he was already having on young people around the globe when it came to blurring the lines of sexuality — but for some, his charm, flamboyancy, and talent combined to transcend some deep societal assumptions, and put everything their young minds thought they knew back into question.
Bowie invented crowdsurfing?!
Casual revelations aside, “John” had originally been recorded with the Spiders From Mars (complete with Bowie’s first proper “music film” by Mick Rock to promote the single), and was widely interpreted as a song about a gay man reassuring his partner that the female he was dancing with was no threat. There was a guest violinist on the track, and according to Nick Pegg’s The Complete David Bowie, handclaps were done by the Spiders and some members of The Faces who happened to have arrived at the studio. A second version (referred to as the “Sax” version) was recorded in early 1973 for possible inclusion on Aladdin Sane, and actually rocked better in my opinion. It of course dispensed with violin in favour of saxophone, courtesy Ken Fordham (not Bowie himself, oddly).
For some reason, the single from ’72 was reissued in ’73 with the “Sax” version being the only difference, and again ended up being a non-LP track when Bowie opted to leave it off the album (it would have been the final track). The “Sax” version turned up on some copies of the original ChangesOneBowie, but most have the ’72 original. The ’73 take finally found a home on two later hits compilations and (of course) the 30th Anniversary version of Aladdin Sane. The version created during the Young Americans sessions (from where the Cracked Actor version comes to us) also did not make the actual cut of the resulting album. A 1979 remix of the discarded 1972 Spiders version was issued as a single, and later included as a bonus cut on the 1990 Ziggy remaster, and the Young Americans “Soul” version was later rightfully added to Young Americans for its 1991 and 2007 reissues.
While Cracked Actor was not officially released by Bowie himself, it now counts as an official Bowie live album, having been issued on Parlophone in 2017. It is an invaluable “companion album” to David Live, and really shows Bowie becoming a far more commanding singer; much more willing to play with the material to make it work better in a live setting, and use a greater range of tone and style to infuse more variety into the performances. With apologies to Trevor, the word we want here to distinguish this album is bolder.
The version of Bowie we hear on David Live is of someone focusing on telling a story or creating a mood while also singing, much like a Broadway performer; the Bowie we get on Cracked Actor is a singer making sure his songs are killing the audience with pleasure. It’s a huge difference that goes well beyond the various musical alterations. Though it only came out recently, Cracked Actor is a portrait in time of 1974 and America as seen through Bowie’s eyes, and an invaluable way to contrast and compare the two legs of the Diamond Dogs tour (not to mention where Bowie’s head was at before and after recording Young Americans). Thanks in large part to Tony Visconti, both albums — the incompetently-recorded “pro” concerts and the soundboard bootleg — emerge as must-have historical documents of a particularly busy year of ch-ch-ch-changes (ooh, I’m gonna lose points for that).
With this post, we have spent the last year looking at the first full decade of David Bowie’s presence in the public consciousness, half of which he spent as an abject failure and half as a luminous success. Following his one-off success with “Space Oddity,” he struggled to make his career work, despite putting out some truly remarkable records. With his glam reinvention as Ziggy, he put his obscurity behind him and became a major name in rock, kicking off an intense period of work and artistic development that paid handsome benefits in the short- and long-term for his career. By the end of 1974, there was no doubt that Bowie was a major success, a major influencer, and (slightly less obviously) a major coke fiend.
At this stage, at least, it was a huge benefit to keeping the market sated with new product (even if some of it never saw official release; see our previous entries on his unsuccessful attempts to adapt 1984 and mount either a Ziggy or 1984 musical). It also clearly provided the fuel he needed to keep exploring and experimenting at a breakneck pace: working with Burroughs’ cut-up lyric technique, increasingly looking to R&B and soul (alongside other genres of music) for inspiration, and taking on the daunting task of largely replacing the band that had brought him so much fame and fortune.
Most of these changes were successful, and his two official albums of ’74 both scored extremely well in the charts, with Diamond Dogs expanding both his audience and musical repertoire considerably, and David Live, despite some serious flaws, solidifying his reputation as a major British artist. For a guy who was, in 1971, looking at already being a novelty act, Bowie’s “second act” — a period of huge artistic and commercial success that wouldn’t wane for nearly another decade — must have seemed to him like every possible dream come true. But he was already starting to pay a price, both in financial and health terms.
What a difference …
… visually and aurally
As the cover of David Live (which even Bowie himself said made him look like a zombie) showed, the tell-tale signs of cocaine addiction were obvious: never a fellow accused of being overweight, the ghostly light the Dagmar photo captured of him on stage originally made him look as blue as the soul-inspired suit he was wearing. Thankfully, a later re-release of the album properly colour-corrected the image — but Bowie still had the pale pallor of a recluse, and the emaciated frame of a bulimic teenager.
The original release of this album, rush-released to coincide with the second major leg of the tour, also came across as something of a corpse of the original version of the show — even as it showcased a number of interesting (and in some cases enthralling) new arrangements of both the old and new featured songs. Critics listening to the original version complained that the playing was often rather muted, the audience enthusiasm obviously mixed down, the background singing uninspired, and Bowie’s own performance somewhat strained and occasionally off-key.
Tony Visconti, called in to do a rush-mix of the live tapes he had not supervised, had to cope with a number of technical problems on the original performances, recorded over two nights in July in Upper Darby, Pennsylvania. The finished product in 1974 featured both harsh and variable qualities, with studio overdubs of both the horn work and background vocals being required to make it a saleable release. Visconti still says (of the original version) that it is the Bowie project he was involved in that he is least proud of.
There were other problems behind the scenes, to put it mildly: while most reports of the shows from the first leg of the tour are said to have been exciting, fresh, and well-received, the 12-piece band and singers on the first evening of the recording were blindsided to discover that the Philly shows would be captured for a live album release; they had neither been informed of this nor paid extra for it, a major violation of union rules. Hours before showtime, they threatened not to perform.
It’s not clear how Bowie felt about the situation (which would almost certainly have been a failure of his management not to let the musicians know), but he eventually settled it — less than an hour before showtime — by agreeing to pay every member a $5,000 bonus for the recorded shows. While this might have satisfied musician union rules, the last-minute nature of the deal clearly did not sit well with the band, who by most accounts did not perform with the same enthusiasm they had up to this point. This can be heard quite audibly throughout the album, most notably on Disc Two, though I am unaware of which nights are represented by which songs on the album; I only know that the performances vary between great and plodding, sometimes hitting these two extremes one song after the next.
Photo credit: Terry O’Neill
Still, for those buying the record, the production problems were either unknown or overlooked, as the album did incredibly well — especially given that it was not really as well-produced as other live albums for the period, and got a certain amount of panning from a wide variety of voices, from Lester Bangs to Mick Jagger. In hindsight, the innovation of the new arrangements — already showing off the increasing funk/soul influence Bowie was taking on, as tipped off by his unusual-but-urgent remix of “Rebel Rebel” for the US single — and the skill and variety of styles Bowie showed off in his well-chosen setlist saved the day, even when they didn’t always work on an audio-only level. As later releases proved, even the sub-par performances some say is captured on this record shows off an incredibly entertaining evening that the audience were clearly enthused about.
Thankfully, time and improvements in audio technology meant that later on, the album would be remastered from the bare original tapes — a job that happily fell to Visconti himself in 2005. As far as this reviewer is concerned, this is the only version of David Live that should still be acknowledged: the corrected colour cover matching perfectly with the rediscovered and enhanced performances to do as much justice as possible to the show, and recapturing more of what that portion of the tour — halfway between the grim Orwellian Diamond Dogs and the forthcoming “plastic soul” of Young Americans — must really have been like.
Side note:a dozen years after the 2005 update, Visconti was called upon once again to help remaster another document of the later, “Soul Tour” part of the overall tour, called Cracked Actor. This album started off life as a high-quality soundboard bootleg (then called A Portrait in Flesh) of the 05-September performance in Los Angeles, after Bowie had reworked the show, ditched the hideously-expensive and problematic “Diamond Dogs” city set, and replaced many of the original tour performers with his Young Americans entourage, having recorded that album during a short summer break in the tour.
It was during this return to the studio to cut Young Americans that the overdubs for David Live were done, and as a result of the studio experience and personnel changes, the second half of the tour took on a distinctly funkier, looser flavour, according to those who witnessed it. As can be heard clearly on Cracked Actor, the injection of Young Americans material ahead of the album’s release had clearly livened up the band, the singer, and the audience.
All that said — as a document of the first leg, the 2005 version of David Live, now properly remixed and restored by Visconti, is now a valuable document, though it could never capture the remarkable (and expensive) visual aspects of the first leg, which including moving and functional cityscape sets and functional props, like streetlights. The 2005 resurrection and the original 1974 version are both included in the recent Who Can I Be Now? box set, though the 2005 version was and still is available separately.
A rare glimpse at the “Hunger City” cityscape sets used on the first leg of the tour (which apparently cost $275,000 in 1974 dollars), largely abandoned during the second “Soul Tour” leg
In addition to greatly improved sound (though still with detectable issues throughout), the 2005 version also corrects the track listing back to the original running order, restoring songs that had been cut from the 1974 release or inserted randomly as “bonus tracks” on later re-releases. One of those restored was Bowie’s high-wire performance of “Space Oddity,” which was sung into a wireless mic hidden in a telephone from high above the stage. It was previously left out of other versions of the album due to the poor quality of the captured vocal, but Visconti was able to use digital software to patch it up sufficiently to put it back in the album — albeit with a still-noticeably poorer quality than found with the stage mics.
Two other tracks, “Time” and a cover of the Ohio Players’ “Here Today and Gone Tomorrow,” were originally returned to the recording in the 1990 Rykodisc version, along with a brief segue where Bowie introduced the band. In addition to those songs and “Space Oddity,” the 2005 release also restored “Panic in Detroit.” The 2005 version of David Live is, of course, this one we will be using for this review.
The audio difference in this version is immediately obvious with the very first track, “1984.” David’s vocal is remarkably improved from the 1974 vinyl and 1990 CD releases, and the entire mix is far better balanced and less harsh, particularly in the blending of the (overdubbed) sax and background vocalist parts. While the vocals are considerably restrained from the Diamond Dogs version, it seems like this may have been due to it being the show opener, or perhaps a difference in the first and second nights of recording; his vocals warm up considerably later on, though he is not without strain or occasional other issues. Most of the arrangements here seem designed to prevent Bowie from over-straining his voice, a sensible precaution on a long tour (80 dates, though two were eventually cancelled) but resulting in inevitable complaints of a loss of urgency and energy in the performance from time to time.
The US single arrangement is used for “Rebel Rebel,” and the first and second numbers quickly establish the important presence of Mike Garson on keys, Earl Slick on guitar, and David Sanborn on alto sax (Richard Grando plays the baritone sax, while both would switch to flute as needed, such as with the opening number). Slick, doing his first work with Bowie on this tour, would go on to replace Mick Ronson for the next two tours and albums — and others later. The ever-reliable Herbie Flowers supplied the bass. Tony Newman, who played drums on the album, did the same for this part of the tour tour.
By the time the third track, “Moonage Daydream,” comes along, Bowie seems fully warmed up (or this is from the second night) and turns in a strong performance. Likewise, the entire band seems fully engaged for the suite of “Sweet Thing/Candidate/Sweet Thing (reprise)” — although, as there is a lot of sax and background vocals here that were laid on later, it’s hard to properly judge. Overall, when combined with the visual and theatrical elements that would have been part and parcel of it, the entire suite seems to work better here than it did on the original album.
Garson runs through an awkward charge of piano runs at the end of it to bring us to the beginning of a set of Bowie’s recent hits, with “Changes,” “Suffragette City,” and “Aladdin Sane” following in short order. While there is a little strain in Bowie’s vocal on “Changes,” he’s clearly a million miles away from lapsing back into his short-lived cabaret act. He even changes the lyric (back to) “these children that you shit on” in this version.
The “Suffragette City” performance, however, is a good deal less energetic on Bowie’s part, with the saxes and guitar making up for his lacklustre vocal. He does seem, throughout, to have more enthusiasm for songs that get the newer arrangements. Listening to the now Latin-inflected treatment it’s given here, with another trademark bonkers Garson solo, it reminds me of something Joe Jackson might have done on his Night and Day album, and Bowie even throws in two lines from “On Broadway” just to tip his hat at the jazziness of it all.
We then get to one of the first real surprises of the evening — his first formal performance of the incredible hit single he wrote for Mott the Hoople, “All the Young Dudes.” The audience was clearly thrilled, but as with all the Bowie versions of the song, it doesn’t quite work — but not for lack of trying. This time, it suffers from a “theatrical” arrangement that sucks out its urgency (much like “Changes”), which one has to assume was due to the staging. Sanborn’s aggressive alto cuts into it rather too much as well, but his sax falls back into line with the song “Cracked Actor,” which properly belongs more to Slick’s guitar pyrotechnics.
“Rock n Roll With Me,” is where all the various band elements, including Bowie’s vocal, really slide into place. This version works much better than the album version, in our view, thanks to a genuinely more soulful feel (borrowed as it is from Bill Withers, it may not be that surprising that a more R&B arrangement works better).
After cryptically saying “you win” to someone, Bowie launches into a fairly anemic version of “Watch That Man,” a song you’d think the backup singers (including Warren Peace of the Astronettes) would go to town on, but they are strangely held back — as are the rest of the band. Rather than applause, the track ends with a pause before the next number, since this was the end of the first record/CD.
The second disc opens with Bowie telling the audience (who presumably know this by now) “we’re going to play a selection tonight … some silly ones” and then immediately launches into his cover of “Knock on Wood,” likely intended to kick off a short “soul” section but which flops around like a fish on a boat dock. Heavy guitar chords would seem to herald a number from, perhaps, “The Man Who Sold the World,” but it then lurches into cabaret-cum-Elton-John style number with almost no groove (see also Tonight’s terrible version of “God Only Knows,” and other misfire cover versions from across his career). While “Knock on Wood” was released as a single, the world opted to wait for the vastly-superior disco version by Amii Stewart five years later, and even Mick Jagger made fun of how “lame” a version it was (on the 1974 album).
This is followed by “Here Today and Gone Tomorrow,” with all the soul sucked right out it. A month before he would record Young Americans, Bowie was in the process of aping a soul singer, but had not yet quite found his inner funk. It’s not at all surprising to learn, then, that after recording the next album he scrapped the Diamond Dog stage elements of the tour and much of that band. Among the new background vocalists were a young Luther Vandross and his main Astronette, Ave Cherry. Also brought in for the “Soul Tour” leg was Carlos Alomar, again the start of a long affiliation.
Flowers on bass and Newman on drums were replaced with Doug Rauch and Greg Errico (respectively), but they only lasted a month before being replaced with Willie Weeks and Dennis Davis. The backing vocals expanded from two in the June-July leg to six in September and beyond, which made quite a difference. Slick, Garson, Sanborn, percussionist Pablo Rosario, and Warren Peace were the only on-stage performers apart from Bowie himself who made it through the entire tour.
On “David Live,” it isn’t possible to judge how the audience reacted to these previously-unheard covers and other oddities, but in the opinion of this reviewer the horn sections, lacking trumpets, were very underutilized and sometimes restrained on most numbers, and didn’t offer much to help infuse the needed soul into Bowie’s version (even when they are set free on other numbers). Specifically with “Here Today, Gone Tomorrow” (Bowie’s slight retitling), the Ohio Players version remains vastly superior.
After a short instrumental break featuring an uncredited acoustic guitarist (Slick, presumably) and Garson, the audience cheers briefly as it recognises the forthcoming “Space Oddity,” followed shortly thereafter by the unexpected sight of Bowie appearing from the rafters in a chair, singing the song into a telephone (with a hidden wireless mic in it) as he is moved out over the front rows of the audience. The new arrangement is slower and a bit more psychedelic at times, a bit more cocktail-lounge at others — and suffers from both the distortion the wireless mic introduced in Bowie’s louder notes, as well as a generally lower-key performance from all players. Ironically, the 1969 original single was re-issued by RCA a year later in 1975, and finally hit the top of the charts in the UK, rather than this version.
The palpably-lower energy heard in Disc Two thus far extends to the next number, the title track of the Diamond Dogs album, which is greeted with considerably more enthusiasm by the briefly-heard audience than is given back by the performers. Compared to the original, the performance throughout is lethargic, and the background vocals literally sound like they were recorded underwater, in what was presumably an intentional effect on stage but is disconcerting in the hearing. How a band can turn such a lively and well-written number into such a mundane club performance I don’t know, but this was likely one of several targets for the critic’s ire on the lower-quality performances here and elsewhere, though a brief highlight is David’s added shout of “keep cool, the Diamond Dogs rule, okay?” with an echo effect on it.
Things pick up considerably from Bowie on “Panic in Detroit,” with the band and the singer finding some new energy (again, I suspect this is from a different night than “Diamond Dogs” before it), and the saxes again trying to fill in as a whole horn section (which is really what was needed). Slick really goes to town here during the solo break, though the background singers remain somewhat lower-key than they should have been. The number ends rather abruptly with some (very clearly) grafted-on audience reaction.
By contrast, “Big Brother” benefits considerably from a new and superior arrangement to the album, convincing vocals from Bowie, and someone appears to have woken up the backing singers. This number segues into the Sanborn-dominated “Chant of the Ever Circling Skeletal Family,” this time a mercifully brief and sax-heavy version, ending with the “runout groove” repeated “bruh” vocal.
Having been spliced back into its correct running order, there’s another noticeable edit in the tape before the audience welcomes “Time,” which (even only in the hearing) is clearly part of the staging that would have accompanied “Big Brother/Chant.” For the former, Bowie sang inside a glass-and-mirror “asylum,” and used the “Chant” section to re-emerge to sing “Time” seated in a giant open hand (“big” brother, get it?). Now here is where we get a full-on relapse into faux-Rocky Horror-cabaret best suited for rock theatre, with a dramatic performance from David and (finally) strong support from the band and other singers. Even Garson gets a few moments to go a little berserk on the keys: he’s more of a punk rocker on that instrument than he could have known (punk at this point only being a small cult scene in New York City and London; a glimmer in Joey Ramone’s eye, you might say).
“The Width of a Circle” also seems to work well with this arrangement, helped along with (surprisingly) equal contributions from Slick, Sanborn, Garson’s Mellotron, his backup singers, and Richard Grando’s bass saxophone along with Newman’s drums. A true collaboration in all parts that works really well as both a song and a jam piece, working way better here than in its original incarnation, complete with its big showy finish.
This smartly moves into a rather chill opening for the first few lines of “Jean Genie” before bringing back the power for the chorus, then reverting back to the low-key intimacy for the second verse (where the audience can, remarkably, be heard clapping along). Throughout David Live, the audience reaction is mostly simply added at the end as (enthusiastic) punctuation on the musical sentence, and occasionally heard reacting to the beginning of a song.
Like Stop Making Sense, the listener is only periodically reminded that there was an audience at all for this, though the dynamics, staging, vocals, and other elements always make it clear this was a live recording. As we’ve noted, the stagier arrangements used throughout work better with some numbers than others, and with “Jean Genie” the new arrangement is appropriate for the circumstances and fine for it, but in no way does it best the raw power of the studio version.
Likewise, the end of the show and “Rock and Roll Suicide” merits an opening cheer as Bowie starts the number quietly, and shows off how rough (on some notes) his voice had gotten after such prolonged and mostly strong singing, but it is carried off — albeit with less urgency — and Bowie introduces the band and the cheering fades, and we’re done.
Next up:Because it provides a notable contrast and record of the quite-different second leg of the same tour, we’ll again digress and take a look at Cracked Actor, now a posthumous “official bootleg” (hat tip Bob Dylan) that was again blessed by Pope Visconti of the Church of Bowie in a new mix released in 2017.
Our David was a busy boy in the second half of 1973, with a bunch of different little projects going on in various directions — but no clear vision for what his next album would be, other than the song “1984” which he’d recorded in January of that year (a second version, “1984/Dodo” turned out to be his last-ever work with producer Ken Scott). He also had the ideas and some material created for “The 1980 Floor Show,” which was of course based on George Orwell’s seminal 1984 and had been kicking around pretty much since he’d started making albums under his own control.
Scott moved over to work with Supertramp on Crime of the Century, while Bowie axeman Mick Ronson chose to start recording his own solo album, so I’m sure Bowie’s original plan was to just keep himself busy until (at least) Ronson would be available again, leaving an opportunity for a few notable side-trips. Among them were the ill-fated Astronettes album, “The Man Who Sold the World” single for Lulu, and a guest appearance on one track of Steeleye Span’s lovely Now We Are Six album. If you missed it, we took a deeper look at The Astronettes’ abandoned album here.
Bowie also turned down a request to produce Queen’s second album, and refused an offer to collaborate on a film version of the comic book series *Octobriana,* (which would have starred another girlfriend, Amanda Lear). There exists (allegedly) a demo for another song called “Star” (not the same as the one on Ziggy), which was said to have been written for Lear. Wait, though, we’re not done! He also entertained and had a recorded chat with Nova Express author William S. Burroughs (which would come out a year later in Rolling Stone) in which he first revealed he was trying out Burroughs’ “cut-up” technique for writing — in David’s case for lyrics and a potential Ziggy Stardust musical that would have scenes that could be presented in random order. He continued using the technique, off and on, for the decades.
While only two new Ziggy-style songs came of that intriguing West End musical idea, by the winter Bowie had apparently decided instead to go with a television musical adaptation of 1984, and had already written a number of songs (or repurposed some older material) for that project. When Orwell’s widow turned down the 1984 idea, Bowie — in a process not unlike the creation of Nosferatu — decided to create his own “original” work which would just happen to have a very similar feel. The problem is, he wasn’t anywhere near focused enough to actually construct an entire show on this theme (which, barring direct evidence, we’ll put down to a combination of youthful distraction and his growing cocaine habit).
While an eventual staging was still on his mind (a number of drawn set ideas could be seen in the V&A “David Bowie Is” exhibit), the project ended up mostly flowing mostly into the first few minutes (and artwork) of Bowie’s studio album release for 1974, Diamond Dogs. Perhaps he would have created more material for the project (and the promising new persona of Halloween Jack) with more time, but Bowie was obligated to start touring again in the new year, so the record needed to get done and released. He salvaged what he could of the aborted 1984 material, threw in some Ziggy-type stuff to keep the kids happy, and stuffed it together into an extremely loose concept album (and this is one, barely) that definitely creates a mood, but falls more than a bit short on the narrative side.
As Pegg notes, this ended up not being necessarily a bad thing. The rush to fill out the album ended up expanding Bowie’s repertoire rather considerably, added new funk and R&B elements he had been tinkering with via the Astronettes. Being unable to wait for Ronson to become available again, Bowie himself handled the guitar chores on the album, and he had to work with a new producer.
It also introduced his more mature lower-register singing voice — a new instrument only barely hinted at previously — and one which would play a very significant role in his later work. His basso profundo was a big influence later on for a number of other singers (most notably Peter Murphy). Taking on production duties himself as well, he was (at a guess) forced to make amends to Tony Visconti when it came time for string arrangements and mixing, since Bowie knew nobody better at it. This turned out to be a fortuitous event, as Visconti went on to work with Bowie for decades onwards.
Overall, Bowie’s willingness to push himself a ways out of his comfort zone (he would later say in interviews that he actually practiced guitar for several hours a day to prepare for recording) made for a more interesting record than the “soundtrack” to a non-existent stage show likely would have been — though if the track “1984” is an indication of what he might have done if he’d gotten the rights, his original vision and songs for that version of the show might have done quite well. As it is, the album hit #1 in the UK and Canada, and #5 in the US — though this was largely on the strength of the first single, “Rebel Rebel,” rather than the title track.
Diamond Dogs opens with an introduction to set the mood and fill in just enough story to set imaginations working. “Future Legend,” a heady mashup of George Orwell, William Burroughs, and Anthony Burgess, would absolutely have been the curtain-rising start of the theatrical show, though calling it a “song” stretches credibility a bit.
The sonic collage with narration paints a picture of a dystopian future New York City where “peoploids” roam and die upon the “slimy thoroughfare” while gangs of elite vampire thugs swing from the spires of Chase Manhattan Bank. It sounds (and looked like it would have looked like) a cross between Mad Max, A Clockwork Orange, Escape from New York and Lost Boys, all but one of which came out well after this record, but it would have been exceptionally tricky to realise on stage at the time. Someone (Bowie) can be heard playing “Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered” in the background, along with someone (Bowie) doing an impersonation of Scott Walker, alongside the sonic wall of sirens, dogs barking, children wailing and other such dystopian sounds.
It segues into the sound of a crowd cheering (stolen from a Faces album), and Bowie proclaiming “this ain’t rock ‘n’ roll … this is genocide!”, one of the most nihilistic rock calls ever. As if to prove his point, he immediately launches into his most blatantly Stones-influenced ripoff yet, the title track. From the melody to the arrangement, Mick and Keith would have had a very strong court case if they’d sued over the music, though the lyrics were rather a different (and darker) affair that save it from being pastiche. Even the humour in it was black as night: the opening stanza talks about the character having a “10-inch stump,” and seconds later mention he was “crawling down the alley on your hands and knee,” the singular “knee” — get it?
Bowie’s idea was that his burnt-out NYC gangs were kind of scavenger pimps-cum-Lord of the Flies in an anarchic ruin, left alone to do as they pleased — and what they pleased was to plunder the stores and bully the locals with a bit of ultraviolence. “When they pulled you out of the oxygen tent, you asked for the latest party” is another great opening line from David (and, years later, used visually for Screaming Lord Byron), and the song proceeds with considerable steam courtesy of all that ripping off of “It’s Only Rock and Roll.” Despite the strong opening gambit and catchy music, the song comes off the casual listener as just a considerably darker Stones number (and divorced of its context, that’s kinda what it is), and consequently as a single it didn’t do very well (by comparison with his recent successes), failing to crack the top 20 in the UK and not troubling the charts at all everywhere else.
Many — including Bowie himself — have cast Diamond Dogs as being a harbinger of the punk movement that followed only a couple of years later. I’m more inclined to think that the same books and visuals that influenced Bowie along helped create punk, especially when combined with raging youth unemployment and a seemingly-uncaring government had more to do with it. Still, he gets credit for bringing those books’ and visuals into the rock arena first, and in a powerful way. As an album, I think Diamond Dogs was more of a breakup letter to/last hurrah for glam rock, and an embrace of concepts that would eventually evolve into Goth and New Romantic cultures.
But before we get to that, there’s one more “theatrical” movement to get through, the “Sweet Thing/Candidate/Sweet Thing (reprise)” suite. It’s a nice change-up, with the aforementioned R&B elements and his lower-register intro. There’s also an unusual but welcome Asian keyboard fill, courtesy of Mike Garson. The “Candidate” portion (which bears almost no resemblance to its original demo form, which was resurrected much later) harks back to — and is indeed pretty much the last echo of — the “stage show” idea, and the whole suite retains enough of the theatrical feel that listeners would be reminded that this is a concept album.
Then — out of nowhere — Side One ends with the goods: Bowie’s best-ever guitar lead (though he’s not the one performing it, ironically) and a powerful, poppy summing-up of his entire androgynous-glam-rocker milieu: “Rebel Rebel.” It was the natural choice for lead single, and pushed the album to the top of the charts all over the world. Bowie had proven he was more than Ziggy, ironically by calling up his ghost.
Thank heavens, that mullet is gone for good!
Side Two kicks off with a rather more Van Morrison-ish mid-tempo rocker, “Rock n Roll With Me,” a rare (to this point) co-written song; Bowie handled the lyrics and the chorus, while former Astronette (and school-age chum) Geoff MacCormack (going under the name Warren Peace) wrote the melody. It’s a bit reminiscent of Bill Withers’ 1972 hit “Lean on Me,” but rather more theatrical in Bowie’s hands as you might expect. Pegg notes that this song might originally have been written for the proposed musical based on the Ziggy album, though as with it being in Diamond Dogs there doesn’t seem to be any connection whatsoever to the claimed concept/story.
Listening to the album on CD as one does these days, the shot of adrenaline that was “Rebel Rebel” subsides and suddenly, the album takes a subdued and mildly soulful turn, with gentler tunes filled with introspective lyrics. When listening to the album on vinyl, of course, “Rebel” makes for a thrilling end of the first act, and the show must be rebuilt on Side Two to a finale and denouement. Heard in that way, the sequencing makes more sense than it does when you listen straight through.
“We Are the Dead” slows things down further, though it serves to start dragging us back to the original 1984 concept the album ostensibly represents — and indeed at one point “We Are The Dead” was to have been the album’s title. As a prelude to the restatement of the concept it starts off nicely, and sure enough once it fades out we are in full-on Issac Hayes mode with “1984,” which serves as the first half of the pinnacle of Act Two. If Bowie helped invent cyberpunk with JG Ballard (who, O’Leary notes, wrote a book about high-rise residents gone tribal that was published a year later) via “Diamond Dogs,” Visconti should get credit for helping popularize disco by going into a full-on disco Shaft-splosion with the string arrangements, adding a hell of a lot to the song compared to its two previous versions (from *The 1980 Floor Show* and a contemporary studio version), really giving life to the “plastic soul” concept that would emerge more fully in less than a year’s time.
The video below is a composite re-editing of the “1980 Floor Show” performance taken from rehearsals and outtakes in better quality, but gives you a much better feel both of the original performance and how different the songs were at this stage:
While Bowie was not the first to touch on “blue-eyed soul,” he certainly exploited and expanded on the efforts of his early influences and contemporaries, bringing rock back to its R&B roots as a replacement for glam — even if his execution at this point was sometimes a bit awkward (like the rather embarrassing album closer). Before that, though, we get a nearly Miles Davis-sequel opening for “Big Brother,” nicely segued from “1984” and continuing the excitement with bold, up-front lyrics and vocal fireworks, and a chorus (and some lyrics) seemingly “inspired by” the Bonzo Dog Band’s “Follow Mr Apollo.” It also features some Eno-esque synth work that foreshadows both his collaboration with Eno a few years to come, and the influence both this and those later records would have on a young Gary Numan.
Diamond Dogs is undoubtedly the most commercially successful return to Bowie’s Nietzchian obsession with false saviours and dystopian overlords that plays nicely with Orwell’s warnings, and makes it easy to see why Bowie was so attracted to the book in the first place: it’s a more visual, producible version of the saga of the ubermensch that Bowie has been reaching for since at least his third album. The track is nicely accentuated with trademark Bowie sax squonks, augmented horn works, and a chorale that shortly gives way to yet another “brother” segue before launching into a rather embarrassing (and culturally tone-deaf, if not downright insulting) tribal jam known as “Chant of the Ever Circling Skeletal Family” to lead us off stage and into that good night. The vinyl version originally ended with a looped “bruh”; the CD version mercifully fades this out quickly. Remember “Memory of a Free Festival” from Space Oddity? Something like that, but with a primitive — rather than hippie — vibe to it. Somebody who’d never heard it before and listened to it out of context might even think it was a bit racist, but in context the effect intended was clearly more about societal breakdown and devolution.
There are quite a few different versions of this album available now, with no less than three different remasterings. The first remastering was the 1990 Rykodisc/EMI release of the album, which features two bonus tracks: the rather retrograde “Dodo,” which was a standalone version re-recorded during the Diamond Dogs sessions, and a misnamed “demo” original version of “Candidate,” which except for a pair of re-used lyrics and the title is for all intents and purposes a completely different (and far, far better) song than its album namesake. For completists, “Dodo” appears to exist in four distinct versions, scattered among various reissues and other works.
“Dodo (You Didn’t Hear It From Me)” was originally intended as part of the original 1984 musical venture, and this is supported by its lyrics (with its references to children reporting their own parents to teh authorities). There was the version that appeared in “The 1980 Floor Show,” paired with an early version of “1984.” It was first recorded (the aforementioned last-ever work with Ken Scott) in late 1973, and languished in the vaults until it turned up on the 1989 Sound & Vision box set — a criminal act, as while the DD version of “1984” is more soulful, the version from ’73 is quite impressive in its own right.
“Dodo” was revamped and re-recorded as a standalone number during the Diamond Dogs sessions, intended to be a duet single with Lulu (and now part of the 1990 and 2004 Diamond Dogs CDs). Pegg believes the DD version was actually intended as a guide vocal for her, but there’s also the notion that Rykodisc simply removed Lulu’s possibly-recorded contribution from this version to avoid legal issues — based on the fact that a longer duet version actually exists with both performers present. That said, it seems like a demo rather than finished track, thanks to some distinctly lacklustre vocal performances. I remain unconvinced that if this single had ever been properly done released, it would have done about as well as previous Bowie/Lulu collaborations had done (i.e., not well), but “Dodo” on its own offers a very jaunty melody not a million miles from the alternate “Candidate,” and Bowie’s original take on the track is quite camp in tone, despite the rather dark lyrics.
The alternative “Candidate,” buoyed by some swinging Mike Garson piano and jaunty band action, actually finds the balance Bowie kept looking for between commercially-accessible music and Orwellian lyrics about messianic complexes, and would likely have been a hit single — had it made it onto the album. To think that it was buried in the vaults until this reissue in 1990 is almost criminal, particularly given the provocative and fascinating nature of the lyrics (“Inside every young pair of pants there’s a mountain,” just as an example).
The second remastering of the album was done at Abbey Road Studios in 1999 for an EMI/Virgin release with no bonus tracks). As your humble narrator doesn’t own this version, it’s outside the realm of this review to compare the second remastering to the first, though we’ve been told the 1999 one is “brighter” than the first.
The 30th Anniversary 2CD version (2004) nicely separates the original album and a mixed bag of related b-sides on a separate disc, the two bonus tracks already mentioned being among them. In addition, there is the 1973 studio versions of the “1984/Dodo” medley and the “Dodo” standa, a 1973 cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “Growin’ Up,” the wildly different 1974 “Rebel Rebel” US single version (with Geoff MacCormack on castanets and congas, a buried lead guitar line, and a tonne of other distractions and re-arranged pieces), a circa-2001 “Intimacy Mix” of the album version of “Candidate,” a 1980 “Best of K-Tel” edit (lopping over a minute off the album track!), and an interesting 2003 remake culled from the bonus tracks of Reality. If it were up to me, the two bonus tracks from the 1990 remaster, the 1973 studio recording of “1984/Dodo”, and that US single version of “Rebel” would be all that would be required to make what I would call a “definitive” version of the album.
The entire Diamond Dogs album was remastered yet again in 2016 as part of the Who Can I Be Now box set. The version there sounds terrific, but includes no bonus tracks per se, though there is an Australian radio edit of the “Diamond Dogs” single on another one of the discs in the set — a rarity never included before, but simply an edited version of the song. For those who want the best-sounding version of the original Diamond Dogs album, the box set one is the one you want (and that applies equally to the other albums covered in that set).
There was quite some internal debate about whether to feature this before Diamond Dogs or not, but ultimately the decision was taken to press on with both Digressions and Reviews in as close to chronological order as could be managed, so before we get to Bowie’s first (and only studio) album of 1974, we need to finish up 1973. While The Astronettes’ shelved album is not, strictly speaking, a Bowie record — in a lot of ways, it is. In addition to branching out creatively, David was stretching his wings in other ways, very cannily learning other aspects of the business (except for one important area, which we’ll discuss later).
By this point he’d already filled the year with producing All the Young Dudes for Mott the Hoople (having also written that hit single), and co-producing (with Ronson and Ken Scott) Lou Reed’s Transformer, as well as having mixed Iggy Pop’s Raw Power — all three of which are considered classic rock albums today, right alongside Aladdin Sane. He’d made and released a second album (albeit just cover songs) in Pin Ups, too, all to pass the time before his own next studio album. Looking back on the period from late 1972 to early 1974 and all that Bowie found time to accomplish — touring, writing, recording, and producing his own projects; producing and mixing other people’s stuff; and then there were various other side projects like this album and various other, smaller jobs we’ll cover in the Diamond Dogs entry — really, is it that surprising that he was doing cocaine at this point?
The original 1995 release
The Astronettes album, however, was just a little bit different (at least at this point in time): this is Bowie as svengali, the logical next stage in the development of his ego following all the success and acclaim everything he’d been doing for the last two years. Finally — eight years after he’d first entered the business — he was truly a rock ‘n’ roll star, and he was not going to miss a second of it this time. His earlier success with “Space Oddity” and the subsequent return to repeated failures that had marked his first five years had taught him that when you do manage to grab the brass ring, you hold on for all you’re worth and try your damnedest to never let go.
The 2009 version
It might seem odd to think of the Seventies as Bowie’s “second act,” but from his perspective at the time, Ziggy likely seemed a comeback record, and a chance to expand his empire and repertoire. Although we often think of his various rock personas as “reinventions” of himself, in fact he’d been doing that right the way along from the very beginning of his career — first a mod rocker, then a cabaret singer, then a hippie, then a rock god — and always having some bit of side-gig going on, whether it was mime performance or songwriting for others. The Astronettes started as backing singers for the “1980 Floor Show” project, then became an invented “band” for Bowie‘s love interest Ava Cherry, who later released the album herself in 1995 under the name The People From Bad Homes, a line Bowie saved and used later. The record is currently known as Ava Cherry: The Astronettes Sessions, most recently remastered in 2010.
The 2010 Remaster
Bowie produced the record, and wrote six of the 12 songs (5 of the 11 on the original release), and elements of these turned up in later works on Young Americans, Tonight, and Scary Monsters, which is the main reason the record is of interest to Bowiephiles. In addition to Cherry, some songs were sung by Jason Guess and Geoff MacCormack (the latter going by “Warren Peace” at the time). Musicians on the record include Bowie veterans Herbie Flowers, Mike Garson, and Aynsley Dunsbar, alongside others including Luis Ramirez and Mike Pritchard.
It is a difficult project to judge, since the intended running order is not known, there’s no clear indication that these are intended as the final versions, and stylistically it is all over the place. The whole thing was done in a month, and shelved just as quickly in order to do Diamond Dogs. Despite claims to the contrary on various listings of the record, Bowie does not sing anywhere in this aborted album, though he is (very briefly) heard speaking, and plays sax (and possibly some other instruments).
In some places, The People From Bad Homes is rather ahead of its time, whereas some numbers (like “Only Me”) are clearly the product of 1973. On the Bowie-written tracks, stabs at R&B, soul, and funk are mostly successfully carried off, and lessons learned from the songs will come up later in Young Americans are on full display, occasionally mixed in with other influences, like latin, blues, and straight-ahead jazz.
One does wonder how the late Sharon Jones (and the Dap-Kings) would handle a slow-burner like “Seven Days,” or what Nina Simone would have made of “Things to Do” — which borrows more than a bit from Santana, and provides the strongest evidence for “this never got to the final mixing stage.” You have to smile thinking about the look that would cross Bruce Springsteen’s face if he ever got around to hearing the Astronette’s version of his “Spirits in the Night.” I truly wish I could talk to my late friend, the musicologist and record collector extraordinaire Ron Kane, to get his view on the cover of Zappa’s “How Could I Be Such a Fool.”
It is especially difficult to judge “I am a Laser,” the lead track on the original release. Bowie later reworked this into “Scream Like a Baby” on Scary Monsters, with all-new lyrics and vastly superior production for the latter version: the original is more sexually-oriented, making references to urination and “golden showers.” The third track, the Beach Boys standard “God Only Knows,” features a string arrangement by Tony Visconti, and closely resembles the version Bowie himself recorded two decades later for Tonight. On this first take, though, Cherry’s singing (and Visconti’s arrangement, including a sax solo from Bowie) provide more soul than the latter version.
The light folkie-pop of Bowie’s “Having a Good Time” sounds like something The Association might have tried if they had been a little weirder, and a short studio conversation snippet at the very beginning is actually the only appearance of Bowie’s voice on the record, saying “I beg your sodding pardon?” It’s a little revisit to Bowie’s Tony Newley period, with a touch of Joe Meeks in the arrangement.
“The People From Bad Homes” (the song) offers the “people from good homes/bad homes” couplet used later in “Fashion,” but apart from that is a very rough draft that someone like Mari Wilson might have made something more out of. “Only Me” sounds like Bowie was going for Marvin Gaye, but here it sounds more like what Steve Miller was going for with his own 1973 album, *The Joker.* On the 2009 version, now called Ava Cherry: The Astronettes Sessions, there appears (finally) the sixth Bowie-written track — “I Am Divine,” which really shows off the “Philly Soul” sound David eventually nailed down for Young Americans, where a reworked version of this song turned into “Somebody Up There Likes Me.” Other songs on the album include Annette Peacock’s “Seven Days,” Roy Harper’s “Highway Blues,” and a take on the jazz standard “I’m in the Mood for Love.”
Like Bowie himself at the time, the product is unfocused: while Cherry takes the lead about half the time, MacCormack and Guest handle vocals (and blend badly on occasion) the rest of the time, and the numbers without the benefit of Visconti’s gifted touch sound underdeveloped and rough. Complicating matters, there is a bootleg version of the original 11 numbers that claims to be directly from the original sessions, and features rather different takes.
Cherry, who went on to have a modest career in music and modeling, was a staple background singer (along with a then-unknown Luther Vandross) on the next few Bowie albums, and did the same for Vandross when he achieved stardom. She’s generally in fine form on The People From Bad Homes/The Astronette Sessions, but seems best-used on the jazzier numbers, even though her own preference was for rock compared to soul/R&B. The Astronettes project is a fascinating insight into how far ahead Bowie was thinking in 1973, but as an album in its own right it doesn’t really work, though several of the numbers individually are successful enough.
Many people are under the impression that 1972, when Ziggy came out, was Bowie’s biggest year in the early 70s, but in fact it was ’73 — the Ziggy tour caught on in the US, and he managed to get out two further albums (Aladdin in April, and this one in December) — both of which went to #1 in the UK and did well elsewhere on the strength of Ziggy alongside their own charms. Pin Ups was, ironically, released on the very same day as an album of covers by Bryan Ferry (These Foolish Things) — his debut solo album. Ferry didn’t do quite as well commercially (merely reaching #5 in the UK charts), but received more critical praise (and, frankly, is the better album of the two). While Bowie stuck to covers from a very specific and influential period for him (the bands and sounds he most often tried to emulate in his pre-first album period, 1964–67), Ferry picked his personal favourites from all across his youth, from songs that predate him quite considerably (probably favoured by his parents) to his pre-teen and early teen years in the 1950s.
The original “face swap selfie”
We mention this not just because the two were such contemporaries, but because Ferry was pleased enough with the reception to do another covers album a year later (Another Time, Another Place, 1974), but Bowie — despite very much wanting to — did not. Pin Ups was, in fact, intended as the first installment of a two-part plan: it was intended to bring English songs specifically to a US audience that wouldn’t be that familiar with them, while the follow-up album (called, at least at one point, Bowie-ing Out) would have consisted of Bowie covers of US artists. A few of these selections were covered by Bowie much later (“God Only Knows,” “I’ve Been Waiting for You,” “I Took a Trip on a Gemini Spaceship,” and others). In 1973, though, Bowie’s hair was in full-on mullet mode, but as mentioned previously he appears to be the one male humanoid that made it work (ironically it became a popular hairstyle more than a decade later, among both men and women). The cover art with Twiggy was originally intended for Vogue, but they didn’t use it, so Bowie recycled it.
In addition to the two pretty things on the cover, Bowie also kicked off the album with his version of “Rosalyn,” a raucous rave-up R&B rocker based on the Bo Diddley sound originally written by the Pretty Things and issued as a single by them in 1964 (he also covered the band’s other notable single from that year, “Don’t Bring Me Down” later on this album), and referenced the band in at least two song titles in his career (“Oh You Pretty Things” and “The Pretty Things are Going to Hell”). Apparently he liked them, and it couldn’t be more obvious in his cover of “Rosalyn” — Bowie surprises by aping the Pretty Things’ lead singer Phil May so well that, to quote May, “[Bowie] even screamed in the same places I did.” The two versions are similar enough that Bowie fans would be forgiven for thinking that possibly May had guested the lead vocal on this one, with one of the few differences in the cover being Ronson’s meatier guitar work.
This segues directly into a cover of “Here Comes the Night,” a song of teenage angst and jealousy first recorded by future Bowie pal Lulu (it didn’t do well for her) and was later a #2 hit for Van Morrison and Them (though it was not written by Morrison) in 1964. Oddly, Bowie never committed anything written by Sir Van the Man to an album or b-side, though his band Hype did “Madame George,” and David incorporated Morrison’s “Gloria” into extended concert versions of “Jean Genie” alongside other song snippets, so there was clearly some regard there. I would speculate that Lulu may have suggested the number as a good choice for him.
Lulu’s version emphasised the sadness of humiliation and regret; Them’s version (with Jimmy Page as a session guy on lead guitar!) focused more on the anger and jealously. On Pin Ups, the song is done in more of a rock-musical style with a very theatrical, exaggerated vocal that sounds a lot like what I’d imagine Patti Smith or Tim Curry (again) might have done with it. Naturally, the Pin Ups version again has sterling guitar work, but also a strong saxophone presence missing from Lulu’s violin-centric, slower take, or the Rolling Stones-style interpretation Them recorded. Bowie clearly borrowed from both singles.
From there we go to a proper blues cover, a song written by Billy Boy Arnold (one of Bo Diddley’s sidemen) using a very borrowed Diddley beat. The song “I Wish You Would,” is only heard in its complete form on Arnold’s original; the Yardbirds’ version rearranges and generally fools around with the lyrics, and omits a verse, where the singer is supposed to reveal that the reason his woman done left him is because he was a drinker (as heard in the original 1955 single, above). Bowie’s cover, taken heavily from the Yardbirds single, also leaves that bit off. Curiously, Bowie and Ronson opted to replace nearly all of the signature harmonica line that was a defining characteristic of the 1955 song’s “blues-ness” — faithfully aped and augmented in the Yardbirds recording — with more guitar instead. If Clapton’s first band “whitewashed” the lyric, Bowie’s take on it whitewashed the music as well. Again, as with “Here Comes the Night,” he chose to go with rock rave-up type vocals that further cut the emotional heart out of the thing as well. Ronson outplays Clapton on this, but gets ever further away from the roots of the song.
This leads us into a brief return of David Bowie mk1, in the form of his cover of The Pink Floyd’s/Syd Barrett’s “See Emily Play,” very much the sort of music Bowie himself created in his first two albums. His take on it sounds like a fusion of the vocal style of his debut mixed with the backing band that created “The Man Who Sold the World.” Bowie backs himself up on Varispeed vocals to create a chorus of mental demons — he absolutely has a lot of empathy for the material and Syd, having had many mentally-ill relatives, the tragedy of his half-brother, his acquaintance with Barrett himself, and of course at this point in his life the madness of rock stardom. Garson again provides a lot of augmentation, while Ronson, Bolder, and Dunsbar create an arrangement significantly better than the original. The addition of strings at the end can, as O’Leary notes, be interpreted as the introduction of soothing medicine or a sign that the heroine of the song has completely withdrawn into her own troubled mind. It’s a great song made greater by Bowie, but it’s still rather jarring in the track mix, sandwiched as it is between the more typical “I Wish You Would” and the more typical rocker “Everything’s Alright.”
Speaking of, the only reason I can think of that this lightweight pub-rocker was included on the album is that drummer Aynsley Dunsbar also played on the original recording by the Mojos. This is the sort of song the early Beatles might have done in their Cavern Club/Hamburg days, and indeed Bowie’s version ends with him doing a multi-tracked “ooooh” finale that sounds lifted straight from “She Loves You.” Compared to two contemporary covers from 1965 — a very good one by the Liverpool 5 and an even livelier one from the Robin Hoods — Bowie’s version sounds rather by-the-numbers, though as usual the instrumentation is pretty solid.
Side One comes to an end with a strangely slowed-down cover the Who’s “I Can’t Explain.” Bowie openly ripped off The Who for a few of his early singles, in particular infusing his own “Can’t Help Thinking About Me” with all the fury the Who themselves could have mustered (and got called out on it by Townsend at their first meeting).
The odd choice to do “I Can’t Explain” as sort of a torch-song version that, but for Ronson’s presence, sounds like it could have been in Bowie’s cabaret act from six years earlier can only stem from his fundamental misinterpretation of the song. Bowie sings it like the chorus is a metaphor for an expression of lust in polite company, when in fact the song is clearly about a teen or pre-teens first inklings of sexual awakening, where they haven’t yet got the vocabulary for what they’re feeling. Despite having Dunsbar on board, the Pin Ups version strips down the drums, removes the teenage angst, and essentially neuters the song.
Side Two kicks off with “Friday On My Mind,” a hit for the Easybeats in 1966. The band perform the song admirably, but Bowie literally sounds like he can’t decide how to approach this as he’s singing it. Half the time, he’s doing it in his recently-favoured rave-up style (there’s no doubt in our mind that Bowie had taken in a performance of The Rocky Horror Show after it opened on the West End in June of ’73 with Tim Curry in the lead role), but for other parts — including some high notes he can’t quite reach — he goes the Tony Newley route from his early days. It’s very disconcerting when Bowie himself is by far the weakest element on a given track, but that’s the case here. That said, Bowie follows this up with by far the strongest of his performances on this album, “Sorrow.”
The track — originally written by Bob Feldman, Jerry Goldstein, and songwriting legend Richard Gottehrer — was first recorded by the McCoys (who used it for a b-side in ’65) and then the Merseys (who had a big hit with it a year later). Despite being a cover, it seems both like a natural Bowie number as well as one for which he has some obvious affection. As Bowie discographer Nicholas Pegg notes, the arrangement makes it sound very much like something he’d have written for his pal Lulu, and adds that an ironic reissue of Bowie’s own “The Laughing Gnome” is said to have caused RCA to hold back the “Sorrow” single for a while (the “Laughing Gnome” re-release actually hit #6 on the UK charts, such as the popularity for anything with Bowie’s name on it by this point). Bowie’s version went on to become one of his most successful singles ever in terms of chart staying power; it lasted 15 weeks in the UK Top 40, peaking at #3.
Back to the blues for the next number “Don’t Bring Me Down,” the other Pretty Things number, and the entire band turn in a solid performance, particularly Dunsbar (finally allowed to really shine on drums) and Bowie himself on harmonica. For everything Bowie and producer Ken Scott did wrong with “I Wish You Would,” they certainly nailed the blues down solidly on this track, mainly by closely copying the Pretty Things’ version (only turning down the mod stylings a tad, letting Dunsbar ply his trade, and clearly having access to a better recording studio). As with “Rosalyn,” it’s quite obvious Bowie really did like the Pretty Things, although this time around he lends the vocal a more mature style that he would make more use of as he, well, matured. I could see Bowie re-recording this in the same style 20 years later with no appreciable difference in the vocal stylings.
Listeners might be forgiven for feeling a bit of whiplash as the record veers wildly again, into “Shapes of Things,” the second Yardbirds cover on Pin Ups and their first self-penned single. The original had a nicely-mid-’60s youth rebellion feel to it (and clever use of overdriven guitar courtesy Jeff Beck), but Bowie and Ronson amp it up into a much more psychedelic arrangement that better suited the late ‘60s (but seemed just a touch retro in 1973), complete with a background string section. Much more Jefferson Airplane-meets-Moody-Blues than anything else on the album, with Ronson paying due tribute to Beck’s searing original solo. Again, this wouldn’t have been much out of place on The Man Who Sold the World.
The following track is a second slice of The Who, this time 180 degrees away from the lounge-y “I Can’t Explain” to a full-on, no-apologies imitation of the band outright on “Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere.” Bowie does his best Daltrey, and Dunsbar does his best Moon — while Ronson and Bolder mostly refrain from trying to imitate Townshend and Entwhistle directly, yet they still capture the vibe. Apart from some tell-tale stylings, Bowie and the band manage to pull off a strong impression of The Who at their best (again). The album concludes with a faithful but again harder-edged cover of “Where Have All the Good Times Gone,” which (unusually for this album) was a Kinks b-side rather than an a-side. It’s a bit of a “response” in sentiment to the youthful worries of “Shapes of Things,” where a more cynical narrator bemoans his youthful idealism, and Bowie shows off how much he likes the Kinks with another homage-cum-impression, this time Ray Davies.
The 1990 Rycodisc release of Pin Ups includes two notable bonus tracks: an early Bruce Springsteen composition, “Growin’ Up,” which features Rolling Stone Ron Wood on guitar (!) for the Bowie version, and the long-delayed inclusion of Brel’s “Port of Amsterdam,” originally left off Ziggy Stardust and now added to this album of covers. Bowie likely came to “Growin’ Up” through the original demo version, before Greetings From Asbury Park came out in late ’73, but even way back then the Boss’ style and voice were quite distinct, and Bowie sounds (in hindsight) like he’s covering a Springsteen (or Jim Steinman) song, letting his fascination with Americana ride free. The cover was actually recorded during the Diamond Dogs sessions, and was likely intended for the US-centric sequel to Pin Ups, and thus doesn’t really belong on this album: the song was also appended (more appropriately) to the 30th anniversary release of Diamond Dogs.
Clockwise: Bowie, Visconti, Springsteen, Garson
Bowie (a year or so later) covered Springsteen again with “It’s Hard to be a Saint in the City” again from Brooooce’s debut album around the time of Young Americans and Station to Station, but although Bowie and Springsteen met during those initial sessions, and the former clearly had an affinity for what the latter was doing, they never worked together. Bowie, after meeting Springsteen and gathering that The Boss wasn’t too impressed with the cover, never released his version, which was actually quite prescient with regards to where Springsteen would later end up, and the track finally turned up on the compilation Sound + Vision.
The “Port of Amsterdam” cover — both the original “first mix” and the Ryko Pin Ups “second mix” bonus track — follows Scott Walker’s 1967 English-language version pretty closely (there’s a pretty amazing video of Brel himself performing it live; see below), and brings all the power and poetry of Walker’s version to a simpler arrangement of just him (or possibly Ronson) on 12-string guitar. O’Leary notes that after deciding to leave it off Ziggy, Bowie apparently wrote “Rock n Roll Suicide” as a faux-Brel replacement. There’s another “clean” acoustic version of the song Bowie did, even more passionate in its performance, now on the Bowie at the Beeb CD. Bowie performed the song a half-dozen times times on the radio, but the first mix of the studio version ended up as a b-side for “Sorrow.”
Although it would have technically broken the theme of UK singles from the mid-60s, I think an appropriate bonus track (should they ever get round to doing another reissue of Pin Ups) would be the “White Light White Heat” cover Bowie originally started, but never completed, during those sessions. Mick Ronson later sought, and got, permission from Bowie to use the tracks for his own cover of the song on his album Play Don’t Worry. Bowie covered the song about a zillion times in concert, however, and there are something like a half-dozen versions recorded for the BBC floating around. This one (below) is probably my favourite of them, as you can hear Bowie aping Lou for all he’s worth. Mr. Reed himself joined Bowie in some live versions, including one as early as 1972, and most memorably for David’s 50th birthday concert.
Regarding Pin Ups as a complete work: while there are definitely occasions on Pin Ups where Bowie covered songs well, there are almost as many where he appears to have missed the point of the song entirely. Though Bowie claimed in interviews that most of the songs chosen for Pin Ups were singles or albums he had at home from his early days, none of these bands (bar The Who) seem to have been big influences on him.
While he might have enjoyed the songs (either seeing them performed live back in the day, as he would claim, or from the records), it can’t be a coincidence that almost none of these songs ever reached US radio listeners, making this “contractual obligation” album seem like just a new Bowie album to many American fans, or to younger UK fans. Pin Ups is an collection of focused (and occasionally un-focused) nostalgia at a time when that was really coming into vogue: in addition to Bryan Ferry putting out the same sort of album at the same time, it was around this time that the simpler mid-50s and early-60s rock songs, now looking dated by comparison with the contemporary 70s, became nostalgic “oldies” to those who grew up on that stuff as teens themselves.
A lot of the songs Bowie chose for the record are good, though a surprising number offer rather empty, throwaway lyrics; the simplistic “Rosalyn,” the abridged “I Wish You Would,” the pointless “Everything’s Alright” — odd choices by an artist known for his multi-layered and often-complex verses, and affinity for others who specialized in allegorical and symbolic lyrics. There’s a troubling feeling, however, that Bowie didn’t really put his full effort into, let’s say, half of the material. It’s quite possible the influence of “The Rocky Horror Show” was playing a role here, but much of the first side sounds like theatrical takes on the songs rather than heartfelt covers (his a-game is much more present on the second side).
For those unfamiliar with the originals, Pin Ups is an uneven but fun (and now, rather underrated) album featuring a variety of styles performed by an incredibly solid band — but I have to say I got more enjoyment out of re-listening to the various original releases, even when Bowie’s version was arguably better. While far from his worst record thus far, Pin Ups does at times feel like a “contractual obligation” record lacking in focus and effort, only periodically interspersed with songs or bands that he actually did hold in high regard. The album did very well — better than Ziggy in some ways — but those awaiting the next chapter in Bowie’s rapid development would have to wait one more year: Pin Ups is more of an entertaining intermission.
It’s a funny follow-up from a hit album, this: stylistically all over the place, but with enough of what people liked about Ziggy that they stayed with it. Bowie wasn’t kidding around when he killed off Ziggy: there’s no overriding concept, no clear “character” (though there is plenty of the drug-and-sex excess of the end-times-rock-star to be found, so it comes off as more of a sort-of continuation of Ziggy; Adam Ant would borrow this look and expand on it a mere seven years later), and while the haircut remains the same, the song does not (quite). Speaking of the haircut, it’s moving steadily into “mullet” territory, though amazingly Bowie just about manages to carry that off.
Bowie’s skill at aping others also rears its head again: having done credible pastiches of Lou Reed and Marc Bolan (among others) on the last album, Aladdin Sane kicks off with an “homage” to the Rolling Stones, “Watch That Man.” It’s a straight-up rave-up designed rather cynically to catch the ear of both radios station programmers (back when humans did that job) as well as fans who climbed on board with Ziggy — not to mention a great way to start off the album.
There are echoes back to “Suffragette City,” and another pointer towards his future backup-singer-heavy “white soul” period. It’s no accident that Bowie is (and this happened only rarely) buried in the mix on this song compared to Ronson’s guitars, Bolder’s bass, Woodmansey’s drums, Bowie’s own sax, and even the backup singers on occasion — reflecting perfectly the style of the Stones at this point in their career. It’s a great little rocker, and good enough that it would have been in “The Rocky Horror Show” if there were any justice in this fallen world. Certainly at least a Tim Curry cover version during Curry’s brief recording career would have been a fine idea.
This is followed by a straight-up psychic anticipation of future Steely Dan in the form of the title track, “Aladdin Sane.” It’s no accident that pop music raconteur Joe Jackson routinely covers both Steely Dan and Bowie on the road: perhaps Bowie had heard Becker and Fagan’s 1972 debut Can’t Buy a Thrill — and drew some ideas from the more piano-dominant songs (as did Elton John, no doubt). Where this song really shines, though, is new pianist Mike Garson’s utterly insane solo; surely one of the most anarchic and brilliant ever committed to vinyl, the highlights of his incredibly witty playing throughout the album. The wisdom of this curveball immediately following “Watch That Man” is questionable, but even early Bowie fans must have known that his forte was his unpredictability as much as his fluid sexuality.
I can’t claim to know what Bowie’s actual lyric calls for on the line, but I’ve always believed it was “Paris or maybe Hull,” since that’s funnier than the (probably correct and more widely posted) “Paris or maybe Hell,” as clearly heard in the video above. The song is very interesting, because really it’s quite a bit different than anything Bowie has committed to vinyl up to this point, and as mentioned I think Fagan and Becker were influenced by it in their own development, as it is brilliant jazz-theatre-rock (probably in that order). It’s remarkable to think that this could easily have been (only modestly) re-arranged and fit on Blackstar, 43 years after the fact.
The third track is often hailed as Aladdin Sane’s highlight — and indeed it was one of Bowie’s biggest hits in the UK, rising to #3; it remained unissued as a single in the US, however (RCA oddly choosing “Time” instead), and as a result did not appear on any of Bowie’s greatest-hits compilations until the 1990s. Although this reviewer prefers “Cracked Actor” as his own favourite track, that song’s explicit balls-out lyric made it unsuitable for commercial release. Thus, it was Bowie’s pastiche/update to the 1950s songs of his youth, “Drive-In Saturday” — which still celebrates sex, but far more subtly through the device of a SF narrative where people have forgotten how to have it — made for a more suitable choice.
The song itself — a fusion of 50s and Sci-Fi featuring some bloopy synth cameos that might remind some people more than a little of the then-new Roxy Music — kicks off a series of songs in which Bowie reverts back to his old habit of writing about half to two-thirds of the normally-required lyrics, and just letting the band and various filler yips and exclamations do the rest of the work. Still, it is more than sufficient to fire the imagination, particularly with this incredible band and Ken Scott’s earnest production work. It can be argued that between artists such as Bowie, Roxy, Elton John, Alice Cooper, and others at the time, rock music — as it’s own form, more distinct from either its blues roots or its progressive/quasi-classical indulgences — never had a better innings than it did in the early 70s.
You little Wonder, little Wonder you
“Drive In Saturday” is followed with a return to the sort of rock the Ziggy fans were probably looking for, “Panic in Detroit.” This would not have been out of place on The Man Who Sold the World, and this is unsurprising given that it was originally written during the Spiders’ first tour of America, where Bowie saw with his own eyes some of the decadent dystopian vistas he’d been writing about fictionally for years. It’s difficult to understate the impact Bowie’s first run through Nixonland (and it’s yawning chasms between urban and sub-urban lifestyles and incomes) had been on the young artist: the fascination he had for this dichotomy never faded, and so sustained his songwriting that he was still writing about it towards the end of his life, having become a permanent resident of the US and specifically living in the former epicenter of America’s inequalities, New York City. Ironically, over the past few years, Detroit itself has come to portray that role. The song was also said to have been influenced by Bowie’s discovery that a former classmate from Bromley had become a South American drug dealer. Danger and glamour — two things America and Bowie in particular seem to never get enough of.
“Cracked Actor,” starts off for all the world like a Ziggy song (and is considerably better that some of the substituted songs on that album), and continues the theme of decadence and degradation, ostensibly about a faded film star now reduced to hiring young prostitutes of various sexes for a high based off his former fame. Bowie saw a lot of this in LA, and the song is unusually explicit in being about that particular town. As O’Leary notes, this is yet another half-finished song in Bowie’s repertoire, relying on instrumental vamping and chorus repetition to stretch it out to about double the length of the lyric. It’s is interesting in its use of hard, short, words in its chorus (notably “suck,” but also “crack” and “smack”), and probably one of the most debauched of his official singles. Ironically, the title was later used for a documentary about how LA later corroded Bowie himself just a couple of years later; illustrating the lesson that if you get too close to the flame, you get burned.
The album then lurches all the way back to early Bowie cabaret style for the opener of Side Two and the intro to “Time,” though the lyrics quickly return to the sexual obsessions and the band eventually comes in to steer the song away from self-parody and back into the tributary of anthemic rock ballad. The lyric is, frankly, dumb and messy (albeit strong on visual imagery), and the “chorus,” such as it is, is quite unconventional in structure. Despite this, it is quite catchy — perhaps due to the singalong nature of the repeated verses, augmented by some powerful trading-off between Ronson’s guitar runs and Garson’s variety of piano tricks and counterpoints. Despite being something of a mess, it is at least a *hot* mess. One could easily see Queen covering this (and quite possibly doing a better job, though they would have had nobody who could match Garson’s contribution).
The really brilliant bit is Bowie’s sudden and somewhat seductive heavy breathing during an unexpected break in the second verse; this and some of the hidden connections in the lyrics, along with the anthemic chorus of “We should be on by now,” lift what would have been a pretentious tone-poem into a rock-n-roll-star triumph, nonwithstanding the limp and mullet-besotten “1980 Floor Show” version, which must be seen to be believed. So here, have a look:
Thus, we arrive at the misplaced-but-finally-appearing-on-an-album “The Prettiest Star,” done in a distinctly corrupted 50s arrangement that works better than the original single (but lacks Marc Bolan on electric lead guitar, as the earlier version has). The first release of the song, from early 1970, flopped as a follow-up to “Space Oddity” quite spectacularly — it sold fewer than 800 copies (originally backed with “Conversation Piece,” a Space Oddity holdover). Possibly Bowie thought the remade version would get a second shot at single status, or perhaps (as some believe) it was another attempt to reconcile with the song’s true subject, Bolan himself.
NOT his best hair day …
Whether Bowie really wrote the song about Angela or Marc, there was clearly something more than just the whitewashing excuse of “creative rivals” going on there — “Lady Stardust” was originally titled “Song for Marc,” and Bolan was known for having a larger-than-life ego/diva complex which Bowie, for all his excesses and periodic cold calculations, lacked. There was certainly a fascination with Bolan, at the very least, on David’s part, and I can’t help but think there was a bit more to it with these two than has ever really been let on — though exactly what that entails is, even to my mind, ill-defined.
At the start of this review, I mentioned how much “Watch That Man” was made in the mold of The Rolling Stones of the day, and as if to prove the point that he can do the Stones better than the Stones can, the next track — “Let’s Spend the Night Together” — is a straight-up (or gay-up, if you believe some interpreters) version of Keith Richard’s suggestive single. Bowie’s take, which is faster and delivered more confidently than Jagger’s original and more hopeful version, was considered so well-done that the Stones themselves took to performing it in the Bowie style on future tours. On Aladdin Sane, it comes off more as a (well-chosen) filler track, following a remake of “Prettiest Star,” as though Bowie had run out of material (when in fact he hadn’t — as with Ziggy, Bowie discarded some original pieces he felt didn’t fit and replaced them with these fill-ins).
Still, almost as though asking for direct comparison, Bowie runs back to his faux-VU style to top his Stones cover with one of his own, and one of the best blues-rockers he ever did, “Jean Genie.” The whole band really comes together on this one, with bassist Bolder acknowledging the song’s origins as a Bo Diddley riff (from “I’m a Man”) by simply playing the original’s bass line. Ronson and Woodmansley keep close to the riff, allowing Bowie’s Reed-esque rhyming rap free range (and an interesting use of emphasis, with Bowie tending to lean on the penultimate syllable in each line rather than the last one).
The song was, ironically, one of the first to be written for the album, and was acknowledged by Bowie to be about a lightly-factionalized version of Iggy Pop. Cyrinda Foxe, a sometime-girlfriend of Bowie’s he apparently saw a lot of on the *Ziggy* 1972– 73 US tour, can be seen as the dancer in Mick Rock’s promo film for the song, and Bowie is said to have written the lyrics in that style largely to entertain her as he was building up the song from the Diddley riff, inspired by a jam session with his band that happened on the bus heading to yet another city in the vast expanse of America.
The album concludes with “Lady Grinning Soul,” another change-up that switches into ballad mode. Garson’s piano brilliance returns with a vengeance, and Bowie’s vocal and the arrangement strongly suggest a movie’s closing title, or even a James Bond theme (as O’Leary correctly notes). The subject of the song is said to be the same subject as that of the Stones’s “Brown Sugar” — singer Claudia Lennear — who must have been an extraordinary woman indeed to foster such great songs about her. O’Leary also notes that this song was the last written and recorded for the album, and replaced another number about a woman not Bowie’s wife, “John, I’m Only Dancing.” Given that Bowie was fooling around with Cyrinda Foxe — and apparently others — on his American tour, if this album has a theme, it would be adultery and Stones homage, sprinkled with Glam and Americana in liberal doses.
For reasons never to be explained, Bowie loved doing this gesture. As did every eight-year-old afterwards.
Thanks to Ronson and Garson, along with the clever use of harmonica and the wholesale homages to both the Stones and the source of many of their own songs (Bo Diddley), the whole thing works very well. Many have seen Aladdin Sane as a lesser album than the (very slightly) more unified work of Ziggy, by in fact it is also a terrific and versatile rock record, varying up the glam-rock tempos while including enough lyrical sex-imagery and salacious riffage to keep the hard-rockers satisfied. Although “Aladdin” could (and was) seen as a different character to Ziggy, Bowie himself saw it more a development of the “postmodern rock star” Ziggy was designed to be. He once referred to the album simply as “Ziggy in America.”
It might be fair to say that it is Bowie’s most superficial record (during this period of his career, at least) — concerned as it almost exclusively is with sex — but it includes some of his best songs from this period as well, and is at least as essential as Ziggy in our view. The album art, featuring Bowie’s most iconic portrait (particularly since his death) was described by Mick Rock as “The Mona Lisa of album covers,” and frankly the shoe fits. The lightning-bolt makeup has inspired countless others, even reaching all the way into the (much smaller) version seen on Harry Potter’s forehead (oh yes Ms. Rowling, we see you back there). Although seen in the UK music press as somewhat weaker and shallower than Ziggy, Aladdin nevertheless went to the top of the charts in the UK, and reached number 17 in the US — Bowie’s best outing to date — and eventually sold some 4.6 million copies, making it one of his best sellers ever.
For this review, we used the 1999 EMI/Virgin version of the album, remastered by Peter Mew but keeping close to Ken Scott’s original production (just updated for modern systems more than anything else). If you’re into contemporaneous bonus tracks, the 2003 EMI/Virgin “30th Anniversary” release is the one you want, as it has the 1999 version but also includes an entire second disc of single versions (including the non-LP “John,” and a mono mix of “All the Young Dudes”), along with four live tracks from Boston Music Hall and one track from the Santa Monica gig later that same month, as well as one previously-unreleased live track from a Cleveland show that happened a month later. There is also a 40th anniversary release of the album proper (no bonus tracks), featuring a new remaster from AIR studios, but we’ve not had a chance to compare it to our 1999 version.
This is where almost all the 1970s-era Bowie fans really got on the bus, including me. Though Hunky Dory rightfully has a phalanx of proponents, the twists and turns, experiments (mostly unsuccessful), and constant reinvention of Bowie’s career up to this point ensured that any nascent fans were unsatisfied most of the time: he was easy on the eyes, but didn’t fit into any boxes for very long. David was talented, everyone saw that, but he was unpalatably unpredictable. You can get away with that if you’re already a reliably-successful artist; the problem was, he wasn’t.
There have been a number of people credited for this major leap in both Bowie’s cohesion as a performer and songwriter; Iggy Pop, Marc Bolan, Lou Reed, Andy Warhol, and (notably) the influence of both the Legendary Stardust Cowboy and Vince Taylor. As usual, throw in what Bowie had recently been reading (especially Nietzsche and Crowley) and what he was reading or seeing just then (notably A Clockwork Orange and Quatermass, but also 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Who’s Tommy,and even Warhol’s Pork show), and his visits to the gay nightclub Sombrero with friend Freddie Buretti, Elton John (according to Elton) and others, then mix well. Gay and bisexual culture is quite prominent throughout Ziggy, and although “subtle” is not a word commonly associated with this album, the references largely (but not completely) fly under the radar for listeners who were already staunchly heterosexual.
The one name that rarely gets sufficient credit for both Hunky Dory and Ziggy Stardust is Angela Bowie. As the Arnold Corns demos showcase, the two albums were written nearly together, and were in fact recorded back-to-back. In addition to providing Bowie with a “cocoon” writing environment at Haddon Hall (complete with the piano that made such a difference to his composing), she was likely the one who suggested chopping off and dying the long tresses of hair to create a new look (Angie’s hairdresser later refined that early Ziggy look), introduced him to so many people who would influence his work and look (like the London cast of Warhol’s Pork), and generally kept Bowie focused.
This role often gets overlooked, but it was just as important as many of the other elements that helped this breakthrough album come together. For a wife and mother, Angie’s seriously unconventional lifestyle kept Bowie’s inspirations fresh — and likely played a key role in his more-shocking approach to androgyny for Ziggy, as well as (perhaps) addressing that part of his past where he may (or may not) have been more of a “pracitising” bisexual than he would ever be after this album. She was a “kook,” to be sure (this author briefly met Angie in the distant past — and was immediately struck by her, um, free spirit), but she’s also under-credited generally for contributions to both his development as an artist and this particular period of his career. As has already become obvious, Bowie rarely did anything completely on his own, and that was by design.
Though Bowie still wasn’t yet as consistently strong a lyricist as he would become, his ideas were good, his melodies were strong, and the production was again exceptional. Ziggy covers a lot of the ground (thematically) as was the case with the previous two albums, but hits a commercial half-way point (especially musically) between the heavier Man and the lighter Hunky Dory that turned out to be pure dynamite, complimented with a heaping helping of androgyny, a loose “concept” coupled with the first of his “characters,” and splashed with some appropriately scandalous press interviews (including, apparently, the one that drove a wedge between him and Elton, sadly never to be repaired).
To most, this is a landmark rock album — to some, it was a life-changing head-spinner that re-defined sexuality and indeed even rock music at a crucial point in their lives. Whether intentionally or not, Bowie (augmented with The Man Who Sold the World’s UK cover) found a look that attracted both men and women, and blurred those previously-rigid gender and sexual-identity lines towards the butch (whereas the “man dress” had blurred it towards the “nelly”), making it an instant identifier with anyone in their youth who didn’t feel like they quite cut it in the traditional gender roles, and went looking for a “third way.” If Bowie was already something of a gay icon by this point, Ziggy picked up a fair number of lesbians and “bois” with the new look.
It’s hard to underplay what an impact this idea had on people, but one should remember that this was the era in which people dismissed you if you told them Liberace was gay (to quote Harvey Fierstein). Being what we would now call “gender-fluid” and promoting a vision of “omni” sexuality with a blurring of “beauty” differences was a completely new outlook, at least in the mainstream, and it inspired an entire generation to reconsider where they thought they were sexually, or (if they already knew they were a member of the deviant class) to become more open about it.
A big part of why this enlightenment was so successful was the confidence Bowie exuded in selling both the music and the image. This wasn’t one shocking photo of a man in a dress (reassuringly back to pants by the back cover): this was your wild new boytoy your parents would hate and who would lead you down into the secret clubs and basements full of forbidden pleasures. The cover, the band, the publicity stills, the music: even if you ultimately went back to the staid existence of suburban norms, you had seen things (and perhaps done things) you couldn’t un-see or undo. This album made a lot of “normal” kids into very different people. Perhaps it’s a lot to put on Bowie’s shoulders; he was hardly alone in pushing a somewhat androgynous image in that period, but Ziggy just took it all too far — but boy, could he play guitar.
“Sweet Head” (above) was a perfect example of this: although it was ultimately kicked off the album (presumably by the record company if not Bowie himself), it’s a glittering example of Ziggy’s worldview; a killer tune with some great playing (though the lyric is much too explicit and. nowadays, rather too politically incorrect) and indulgence-obsessed sentiments. It’s a raw rocker that really puts it all out there — and though it became an abandoned and forgotten song until Ryko added it to the 1990 reissue, it’s a pretty clear statement of where Ziggy’s (and let’s be frank, Bowie’s), er, head was at.
Speaking of which, some have argued that another cut track, “Velvet Goldmine” — another song rather explicitly about oral sex — was cut along with “Sweet Head” because they are flip sides of the same coin: paens to given oral sex to a man with the former, to a woman with the latter. The lyric is artistic (read: ambiguous) enough that this interpretation may be dead wrong, but both songs were probably judged too explicit. If “Sweet Head” was an outstanding showcase of the Ziggy sound, “Velvet” harked back to more of a Hunky Dory sound, and that also might have led to its removal from the slate that made it onto the album. Unlike “Head,” though, “Velvet” did actually make it to a single — a b-side on the 1975 reissue of the “Space Oddity” single.
That sort of sexual and performing confidence was the linchpin that made this album and the entire Ziggy concept such a success, and influential legend. Bowie undoubtedly knew — long before this album hit the stores — that he had the best band in the land, strong songs, and a look that would create sensation and headlines. This was his best shot at being a star (a point made repeatedly in the album itself), and had it flopped I suspect Bowie’s music career might have faded away at that point.
The Spiders were once confused by a BBC executive who ran across them in the broadcaster’s canteen as likely to be the “monster of the week” for Doctor Who — and I’d bet money that these were the outfits they were wearing when that incident occurred.
Bowie’s manager, Tony DeFries, was credited with telling Bowie that if he wanted to be a rock star, the secret was to act like and be seen as being one already. This is a rather clever take on the old writer’s key to success “write what you know,” or perhaps “do what you love [like you’re already making the big bucks for it] and the money will follow.” It is likely the genesis point for this album, which was written in large part during Bowie’s tour of the larger-than-life USA promoting The Man Who Sold the World: Bowie invents a “fake rock star” he can hide behind (possibly as “insurance” if the album was yet another flop) in order to put DeFries’ theory about success to the test. He had little to lose, given his track record to that date. Luckily for us all, the trick worked (for Bowie, more than once it must be said).
He again takes co-producing credit with Ken Scott (who also served as recording and mixing engineer on the record), and the band was made up of Ronson, Woodmansey, and Bolder (who took on more duties this time round, as Rick Wakeman was only used on one song — having joined Yes in the interim). George Underwood, the man who was responsible for Bowie’s childhood eye injury (which turned out to be responsible for a good portion of Bowie’s otherworldly visage), did the cover as another mix of old-fashioned hand-coloured imagery with a touch of A Clockwork Orange about it.
The “concept” behind this “concept album” (note to future musicians: just admit you’re writing a musical from now on, yeah?) revisits Bowie’s seemingly-endless love affair with doom and despair, but channels that dark energy into a catchy, somewhat gospel-inspired musical direction. Essentially, Ziggy is meant to be an omnisexual rock star who gets contacted by an unseen alien “starman” who arrives on Earth, and in the Earth’s end times Ziggy uses its advice to become a messianic figure, delivering the aliens’ message of love and hope (saviour complex much, Bowie?), only to find that the kids currently have everything they want — and so they’re kind of numb to the finality of it all (unlike the adults, who just lose their minds).
Ziggy’s penchant for excess (ironically to be further acted out by Bowie himself across the next decade) mirrors the collapse of society in the conventional sense. Eventually, the fans and indulgences kill him, but Ziggy is resurrected and used by the aliens (called “the infinites” and described as “black hole jumpers” by Bowie, very much referencing the work of William S. Burroughs) to give them a physical presence. At least, that’s what David has said is the “story” of the album, though there isn’t really that much evidence for all that in the record itself —and even less that any sort of coherent storyline was concocted before the album was released.
Looked at this way, fans will recognise reworkings of most of his darker concepts from previous albums (going all the way back to at least the second album, if not the first) into more alluring formulas by tossing in more sex appeal and dead sharp glam-rock arrangements. The album offers songs to set the narrative (“Five Years,” “Starman”), examples of songs Ziggy performed (“Moonage Daydream”, “It Ain’t Easy,” “Hang On to Yourself,” “Suffragette City”), and songs about Ziggy (“Ziggy Stardust,” “Star,” and “Lady Stardust,” though some of these are pretty clearly patterned on Marc Bolan more than Bowie.
Unsurprisingly, some of the best songs on the album come from the “rough drafts” recorded during the Arnold Corns and pre-Hunky sessions, having had some time to stew. Bowie did indeed want to stage Ziggy as a television special or musical, and clearly intended the story to have an ending (thus substituting Jacques Brel’s “Amsterdam” for the later “Rock n Roll Suicide”). Had this idea come to fruition, it is likely that songs such as “All the Young Dudes,” “Velvet Goldmine,” “Sweet Head,” and the later “Rebel Rebel” and “Rock n Roll with Me” (all clearly written with this album’s motif in mind, and most of which would likely have been included if the longer playing time of the CD format had been around at the time) would have been included to fill it out. Chuck Berry’s “Around and Around” and Jacques Brel’s “Amsterdam” would likely also have been used at least as b-sides, as they were at one point or another slated for the album. They all ended up as such, or bonus tracks (or both) in later reissues.
Don’t even try to tell me a young John Lydon or Malcolm McLaren didn’t see this photo and think to themsevles “aha!”
This is unquestionably Bowie’s strongest work to date, and Ronson’s arrangements and piano playing again share much of the credit for the success. Although a bit “first draft”-ish in its lyrics, “Five Years” both sets up the story and paints a number of vivid pictures, just as “Life on Mars” had on Hunky Dory. As often happened on Bowie records, “Soul Love” was a pointer to his next big direction, with some clear R&B influence mixed into the song.
The sole cover song that made it onto the album, Ron Davies’ “It Ain’t Easy,” is an odd choice; it would have fit in better on the The Man Who Sold the World, album as a sort of sequel to “Memory of a Free Festival.” Before we get all that, though, we really should start with the album opener, which is so memorably and startlingly effective at setting the scene: “Five Years” is probably one of the all-time great “story” songs in the history of rock. The “story” of this album starts with the news that Earth’s ecosystem will collapse in five years, and Bowie-Ziggy documents both his own reactions to the news and those of the others. In the song, people pretty much lose their minds and try to make amends or act out their darkest impulses. While the lyrics are very much the observant Bowie’s own visions, the core idea of this came from a poem Bowie used to recite in his cabaret act; passengers on a bush learn that the end is nigh, and immediately plunge into instantaneous relationships, for there is nothing else they can do.
What’s really new with this particularly remarkable song is the blatant use of doo wop-style chording, American slang (“TV” rather than “Telly”) and other techniques to support the apocalyptic lyric. The arrangement is as spectacular as (and borrowed from) “Life on Mars?”, with Ronson showing off his no-Wakeman-but-damn-fine piano and orchestral skills alongside the guitar work, and Bowie augmenting the “reality” of the song with semi-spoken vocals for the verses undoubtedly influenced by Lou Reed, which then shifts to a more powerful sung chorus following the softer opening. The technique lends believability to the storyline at the beginning, and cleverly includes the line that the “newsguy’s” face was so wet with tears “that I knew he wasn’t lying.”
There are a few moments where the lyric hasn’t aged well (references to “the black” and “the queer,” the observation of a woman attempting to kill “tiny children” after losing her mind), but they remain effective at painting a picture of the myriad reactions to such news (the same news, incidentally, that all the young dudes were carrying — is your mind blown because when I figured that out, mine certainly was). Bowie’s description of Ziggy having to “sing the news” because rock as entertainment was dead — a reference, perhaps, to the return to the “folk” era of political and protest songs that had only recently (in 1972) fallen completely out of fashion (ironically due in part to the rise of entertaining-but-hedonistic “glam rock”) — was never more clearly illustrated as it is here.
“Five Years,” as much as or more than any other song on the album, hits Bowie’s goal of “song as painting.” Unsurprisingly, perhaps, painting became a strong interest of his in later years, and indeed it is perhaps just as well that music videos weren’t in fashion when this came out — listeners’ imaginations were fired by the lyrical imagery throughout this album in a way that any actual visualizations would have failed miserably to capture.
“Soul Love” is, as mentioned, a clear path to Bowie’s later interest in soul and R&B that would eventually lead to Young Americans, but of course if you’ve ever played sax for any length of time you probably chose the instrument in part because of interest in the black roots of rock, blues, R&B, or at least ska music. More importantly, the song serves as a kind of zoom-in/close-up of the world-ending despair offered in “Five Years,” which is probably why it segues into it rather quietly — a change of perspective on much the same scene.
In the song, a mother grieves for a dead soldier of a son, two lovers are besotted with new love, and a priest blindly believes an invisible and all-knowing power cares for him. In this now-ending world, though, all of these are even more exposed as delusions than they already were. The mother’s son “died to save the slogan,” while the lovers’ “idiot love will cause the fusion,” and the priest is at least happy, but “blind” to reality. This is the kind of morose stuff Man Who Sold the World was full of, but this time wrapped in a beautiful R&B melody, albeit a bit undercut by Bowie’s wailing but merely serviceable sax playing. This Ziggy fellow certainly seems to be done with the concept of love, and Bowie himself in an interview in 1976 disparaged love as a “draining” thing, referencing (10 years after the fact, and while he was still married to Angie) the heartache he had experienced losing Hermione Farthingale. Although recorded innumerable times by other artists later, here’s my present favourite cover version:
As with “Five Years,” “Soul Love” likewise segues into the next song, “Moonage Daydream,” again to connect the three numbers that are sung by pre-alien contact rock star Ziggy. This song — if you’re trying to make a somewhat-coherent storyline out of this thing (which is more than Bowie did with it) — is what Ziggy does for a living: fake rock songs from a fake rock performer, only now he’s been contacted by an alien being. The album version is fantastic by comparison with the rather limp “Arnold Corns” version, thanks mostly to Ronson (both on guitar and orchestral arrangements), along with Trevor Bolder’s clever bass and of course Scott’s production. The opening gambit (which screams “entrance music”) was probably the most electrifying song opening that came out that year, and really kicks off the “rock” portion of the “glam rock” manifesto here by finally (finally!) amping up the electric guitars to be the dominant sound for the first time thus far on the album.
Like “Five Years,” this song oddly enough was inspired by the music of the 1950s young Master Jones heard in his youth. The opening line of “I’m an alligator” was said by Bowie’s band mates to have come by way of Bill Haley’s “See You Later, Alligator,” while the piccolo-and-baritone-sax solo in the middle was inspired by a b-side song (“Sure Know a Lot About Love”) by The Hollywood Argyles. As with many great rock songs, the lyrics don’t make any sort of conventional sense, but certainly sound great; since I first heard the song, I’ve always been amused by the lyric “the church of man-love is such a holy place to be,” though in truth Bowie is almost certainly reverting to a UK-ism there, talking to the listener and saying that “The Church of Man, luv, it’s such a holy place to be.” Given his alleged escapades during this time and earlier, you can read it either way; perhaps that is what Bowie really intended.
This brings us to “Starman,” which really establishes the alien part of the “plot” of the album. Bowie seems to be using the concept of an alien with a universal message of love and happiness as a device to (continue to) work out his feelings about religion. On previous albums, he has explored his conflicted feelings plenty, but — while expressing plenty of spirituality — never quite seemed comfortable with embracing any of the established structures (“Saviour Machine” being only the most obvious example). Bowie was hardly the first to explore the idea that our ideas of religion spring from extra-terrestrial sources (the book Chariots of the Gods came out just a few years before, and was a mainstream hit), but the use of this metaphor allows Ziggy to promulgate values and beliefs often adopted by religions, without actually being seen as “religious.” In the lyric, the “Starman” is apparently only understood and embraced by the youth, compared to the fear and misunderstanding of the parents (“Don’t tell your poppa or he’ll get us locked up in fright”), mirroring the reaction authorities had to Jesus in the Bible.
As O’Leary notes, the image of Ziggy Stardust as a great hard-rocking album is at odds with the singalong pop catchiness of most of its numbers, including the more anthemic melody of “Starman” (and “Soul Love,” “Lady Stardust,” and others). O’Leary also slyly draws a parallel from Ziggy and the “stranded” alien to the concurrent Jon Pertwee years of Doctor Who, where the god-like and enlightended Time Lord was exiled to Earth for a period, and mostly worked to bring peace between humanity and various invading threats about which the general public could do nothing. Bowie was a big Doctor Who fan his whole life, according to Pegg, and thus it is most amusing that one can (with only a little finessing) draw comparisons between the constant regeneration (and periodic genre shifts) of the venerable UK TV show and his own career — right down to both of them seeing a return to form in the late 90s after an extended decay, ahead of a full-fledged revival in the early 21st century.
As with “Life on Mars?”, the chorus in “Starman” also relies on a vocal leap (take straight from “Over the Rainbow”), up a full octave. The outro is, um, “inspired” by more Bolan, and thanks to the above memorable miming of it on Top of the Pops ahead of the album’s release (note how he looks dead-on to the camera with a come-hither gesture on the line “I had to phone someone / so I picked on you-oo-oo”), the single made it into the top 10. Really, this should have been the end of Side One on the original album, but instead we’re treated to a straight-up rock song, performed exactly to specifications, which has no discernible connection to the concept of the overall album. Given the wealth of alternative options that would have both tied in better and given Bowie royalties for having written them, why “It Ain’t Easy” is on there at all is a puzzler. There’s nothing wrong with it, certainly, but it is a far more “basic” rock song (albeit memorable and oft-covered) that one can only speculate was intended as a palette-cleanser before Side Two gets cued up.
A rare pre-1976 photo of Bowie and Bolan together, likely circa 1974,with a couple of fans. Bowie looks thrilled, doesn’t he?
The second side kicks off with another song every bit as lovely and soulful as “Soul Love,” the aforementioned tribute to Marc Bolan, “Lady Stardust.” Bowie and Ronson invent a few things on this record, but this is where the gender-bending really kicks in. In addition to referring to Lady Stardust as “he” throughout, the lyric clearly has “Ziggy” strongly attracted to Bolan (“I smiled sadly, for a love I could not obey”). Bolan and Bowie had a mercurial relationship, appearing to be quite close at times, and estranged rivals at other points. I don’t pretend to know the highs and lows of their relationship, but I’ll note that Bowie had something of a similar relationship to Mick Jagger, though in the other direction — he would (with affection) diss the Stones early on, but got friendlier with Jagger (very friendly, allegedly) later, culminating in a collaboration decades later.
“Star,” which was originally demoed as “Rock n’ Roll Star,” is for me one of the most interesting tracks on the album. The piano banging opening reminds me of Brian Eno’s “The Paw Paw Negro Blowtorch” and John Cale’s early piano work, the backing vocals remind of the Beatles’ “Lovely Rita,” and the parting shot of “just watch me now” is also taken from the Velvets. It’s such a perfect example of glam rock that it wouldn’t have been even slightly out of place in The Rocky Horror Show. The song was actually written even before Hunky Dory was recorded, lending credence to Bowie’s later claim that Hunky was in fact a contractually-required album rather than the bold and much-loved artistic statement we have all thought it was all these years. It is both wonderfully catchy and, frankly, more autobiographical (“I could do with the money”) than he might have admitted at the time. It was certainly more prescient than he could have imagined. Bowie actually offered the song (in an earlier form) to another band, the Chameleons, who recorded their own demo:
The song mirrors Ziggy’s aspirations, or maybe how Bowie saw himself at that moment: successful as an artist, but not yet really a star. For all his talk about his work and his art, it is his naked ambition that shines most brightly (alongside his amazing looks and obvious talent) across the singles and records up to this point, and in hindsight it seems clear that his taste of commercial success with “Major Tom” was the fuel that drove him forward to this point. He wouldn’t know how well the album did (or what a powerful influence it would be) until after it was released, but from this point onwards we are no longer dealing with David Jones, the Bromley bloke struggling to be a financially-successful artist; we’re dealing with Bowie the rock star from here on out, and that made quite a difference — particularly for the next five years of his career.
Even here, at his most commercial, however, Bowie’s essential weirdness peeks out from under the covers. In the song, he compares his desire unfavourably to that of a soldier fighting in “the troubles” in Northern Ireland, and also to some friends who is out to save the nation (or the world), but the song remains the anthem of anyone who ever posed in a mirror with a hairbrush for a mic. The next track, “Hang on to Yourself,” completes this second trilogy of songs on the album: “Lady Stardust” is how Ziggy is seen (or wants to be seen) by his audiences; “Star” is both his worry that people “will see the faker” and his goal; “Hang on to Yourself” is a song Ziggy performs. “Hang on” was another song that was written and demoed early; indeed it was conceived and recorded while Bowie was on his first big US tour, where he met Gene Vincent (who may or may not have been present at the recording, depending on who is telling the story).
Ironically it is this song, and not the eponymous “Ziggy Stardust” track, that serves as the start point for this album. This was, according to interviews, Bowie’s first attempt to write a song for his “fake rock star” concept which he was developing. America, the very land of “fake it till you make it” and artifice as reality, no doubt provided plenty of grist for Bowie’s imagination mill. In addition to a demo recorded in the US, it was also part of the Arnold Corns project, and came out quite differently, as you can hear here:
And with that, we finally get to the meat of the album: Ziggy’s requiem. Wait, isn’t that in “Rock n Roll Suicide,” you ask? Nope, it’s here in the title track. If we follow Bowie’s (loose and articulated only after the album was recorded) “storyline,” the aliens and the kids who selected Ziggy as their spokesperson now decide to kill him off, only later (in “Rock n Roll Suicide”) to be reanimated in order for them to deliver their message to humanity directly. Or that was all bollocks, and Bowie deliberately announced his “death” at the last Ziggy show as a way of making the song a self-fulfilling prophecy, or perhaps — sensing what an enthusiastic cult he had created as he toured the album — killing the character off out of fear of becoming exactly what he was singing about.
In the meantime, we get this biographical song of Ziggy at the height of his powers, possibly recounted by one of band members themselves (“Weird and Gilly” are said to be nicknames Bowie had for Bolder and Woodmansley, respectively, though others claim “Gilly” was one of Bowie’s schoolmates who had attitude). Ronson beautifully builds on Bowie’s demo to give Bowie’s acoustic playing a rock edge and greater credibility to the Ziggy character. They lyric mixes great insight into the life of rock-n-rollers (“just a beer light to guide us”) and some — well, let’s be frank, substandard lyrics (“the kids were just crass, he was the nazz”). As a word painting, though, the success of the song is unmistakable — for all those that never got to see Ziggy-Bowie in concert on that tour, the imagery of the lyrics (supported by the endless stream of “outrageous” photos of Bowie in costume as Ziggy and his electric haircut and colour) fired the imagination and filled in the details.
To cement the deal, we get one more straight-up rock-n-roller song to remember Ziggy by, “Suffragette City.” a very 50’s-inspired rave-up that, had Bowie not been a mediocre player, would have had Clarence Clemons-level sax fronting the mix. The lyric is again deliberately androgynous: the singer desperately wants his bedmate/boyfriend to clear out the flat for a while so he can bring over a girl to have sex with. Ronson and Bowie, who O’Leary notes saw A Clockwork Orange shortly after release, were apparently quite inspired by it — and that amps up the arrangement as well as puts the lyrics in context with Alex’s sex scene in the movie (you’ll note the use of the term “droogie” as he tells Henry “don’t crash here, there’s only room for one and here she comes/here she comes”). Any young fellow who’s ever been anxious to get some “alone time” with a “new friend” will see this as their anthem, despite the light reference to homosexuality.
The album proper concludes with the requisite resurrection/redemption song, originally slated to be Jacques Brel’s “Amsterdam” but replaced in favour of “Rock n Roll Suicide,” a sort of hybrid number: it starts off as a Brel-like ballad (Specifically “Jef,” which includes the words “you’re not alone” in its lyric), then builds up (again employing the trick he used in both “Life on Mars?” and this album’s “Five Years”)to a chanson belter in the style of Edith Piaf, and finishes with a theatrical version of a deranged James Brown finalé, with a Beatles-esque last stabbing note on violas as the cherry on the cake. It was, according to reports, Angie’s idea to have a concluding number with a big finish that would double as the show closer on stage, and of course it worked tremendously well. In his 1966 cabaret act, Bowie used to end with the Rogers/Hammerstein number “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” and he was surely thinking of it as he wrote the ending for this song. As the end of an emotional journey, the song is devastating — and was made more so when Bowie announced at the last Ziggy show that it was the last concert he (Ziggy, not Bowie) would ever do. The audience was in shock with disbelief. Always leave ’em wanting more.
Although Bowie would go on to further explore theatricality in rock concerts, from an emotional standpoint I don’t think he ever got closer to the goal than this: subsequent tours and even another couple of “concept” albums (what became Diamond Dogs and much later on, 1. Outside) never again completely enveloped an audience as much as the story of a man who became an alien and rock god, even as disjointed and unclear as the “story” is presented on the record. The trick, though, was that the concept was underwritten and under-explained enough that fans filled in the details themselves, making the final impact nearly as great as Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds radio play.
When it comes to a recommended version of the album, there is no single CD version I can suggest, as the best option really depends on how completist you want to be about this album. For the purposes of this review, I selected the 1990 Rykodisc reissue, remastered by Dr. Toby Mountain from the original tapes. It sounds a bit over-bright but good, and has what is now considered a modest number of bonus tracks, including the contextually important “Velvet Goldmine” and an outtake version of “Sweet Head” from the Ziggy sessions, as well as the demos of “Lady Stardust” and “Ziggy Stardust.” Annoyingly, it also throws in an unwarranted 1979 remix of the “John, I’m Only Dancing” single. The more recent 40th anniversary reissue (from EMI/Virgin) finally corrects the horrors of the 2002 30th anniversary reissue with a fresh (well, 2012 – heh, “Five Years” ago!) remastering, but the single-CD version contains strictly the original album with no bonus tracks (so that’s the best one if you just want the original album, straight up).
The 2002 EMI/Virgin 30th anniversary version had the potential to be really great, as it had a second CD with a tonne of relevant bonus tracks (including the two cover songs that were recorded for the album but tossed very late in the day, “Port of Amsterdam” and Chuck Berry’s “Round and Round”), but it reversed the original left/right channels (what?) and edits out the segues between some of the songs (what what what?!). The sound is also quite a bit muddier than the original release, but it packs in many bonus tracks of interest, such as the two Ziggy songs from the Arnold Corns project that were later re-recorded for Ziggy (“Moonage Daydream” and “Hang On to Yourself”), along with the original “John, I’m Only Dancing” non-LP single, a 1971 re-recording of “Holy Holy,” a “new mix” of “Moonage Daydream,” and an alternate version of “The Supermen,” – the latter of which is also on the Ryko version of Hunky Dory.
For the truly “compleat” 1971–72 version (beyond just the original album), you’d need to get the Ryko and the 30th Anniversary EMI/Virgin version and cobble together your own CD, ending up with two versions of “Sweet Head” but leaving off the alternate “The Supermen” (since that rightly belongs with Hunky Dory) and the 1979 remix of “John.” The 40th Anniversary version is by far the best-sounding, but the bonus stuff includes only Ken Scott’s 2003 remixes of album tracks. Someday, a definitive edition will be released, I am sure, but until then getting all the right material together in one place is a DIY affair.
In another turnabout in the Bowie saga that rivals the jump from derivative but talented rock-n-roller in his earliest recordings to the Anthony Newley-gone-weird MOR fodder of his first real album, Hunky Dory (his first album for RCA) arrived just eight months after The Man Who Sold the World (his last album for Mercury), and represented yet another reinvention as the young artist slowly crept closer to the winning combination. For those of us who have been carefully following Bowie, this album also signals the successful completion of the Home Perm Grow-Out phase.
Having just put out a record with a completely new band that surprisingly dipped more than a toe into heavy metal, hard rock, and glam earlier in the year, Hunky Dory seems to be something of a throwback to gentler mainstream rock, with more than a few nods back to his hippie/folkie background. On the surface, the softer arrangements and highlighted piano leads might seem like a retreat from the bold (and occasionally exotic) Man Who Sold the World, but deeper listening shows evidence of lots of lessons learned from the foray into heavy guitar rock.
Bowie, much more the leader on this record than the previous one, was exploring ground not wholly dissimilar to what Elton John was doing at the time (Mick Ronson, in fact, played guitar on the original version of “Madman Across the Water,” later included as part of the October 1970 album Tumbleweed Connection — and while we’re at it, early Bowie bassist Herbie Flowers played bass on that album as well). It turns out, in the oddest of coincidences, that John and Bowie knew each other as teenagers (when they were David Jones and Reg Dwight) and often talked about music in their youth. It’s mysterious that they didn’t ever work together later, but clearly they kept track of each other’s careers.
Both Bowie and John were being ridiculously prolific at the time — between late 1970 and late 1971, Bowie had issued both The Man Who Sold the World and Hunky Dory, as well as undertaken his first US tour; John had put out Tumbleweed Connection (a “old west drama“ concept album), the album Friends (a soundtrack for an obscure film), a live album (17-11-70, documenting his first US tour), and Madman Across the Water. If you don’t count getting married and having a kid, as Bowie did, then John clearly wins the productivity contest.
For this album, Bowie kept Ronson but lost (most likely due to the unprofessional attitude Bowie showed during TMWSTW) bass player and producer Tony Visconti; he was replaced with Ken Scott and Trevor Bolder, respectively. As the Arnold Corns sessions in between the last album and this one showed, Bowie was stewing on the glam-rock personae and a band to match that he would eventually present to the world as Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. In the meantime, however, he had started composing on piano rather than guitar, which substantially changed his then-newest songs back to a more melodic-centred sound; this is what that dominates Hunky Dory in terms of music, even as many of the lyrics kept the dark edge that was more highlighted in the previous album.
A colour photo of the outfit worn on Hunky’s back cover
To highlight his return to being fully in control of the record, Bowie is credited on the album as a sort of assistant producer (more like back-seat driver for Scott, for whom this was his first time in the producer chair), as well as the “simpler” piano parts; he recruited Rick Wakeman (who had played on the Space Oddity album, but was now a member of the Strawbs) for the heavy piano lifting. Speaking of, the new sounds are startling and notable right from the opening notes: Wakeman has said that Bowie had him lay down his piano parts first “with as many notes as you like,” and then instructed the band to play around Wakeman’s work.
This is certainly obvious in “Changes,” which starts out for all the world like a pop-jazz number for the first 10 seconds before Bowie calls in the beat and (his own) sax. The song is very unconventional in structure (as often seen in jazz), and includes both uneven sections of flowery piano during the verses, and a vocal that follows the melody in the chorus. All that, plus shifting time signatures like jazz, and an outro that would be perfectly at home in a Sade song. Bowie’s influence on Joe Jackson is very clear in this number, and Jackson returned the favour years later with a different but very good cover of Bowie’s “Heroes.”
Sax appeal aside, compared to the Black Sabbath-esque opening of the previous album, you really couldn’t offer buyers of that record anything more different than “Changes.” One wonders how Bowie’s nascent fan base took it at the time; this and “Oh You Pretty Things” are the complete other end of the scale from “The Width of a Circle.” Speaking of “Pretty Things,” Bob Grace of Chrysalis (who had arranged the Arnold Corns sessions and generally acted as another of Bowie’s managers for a time) loved the demo version so much he promptly sold it to a young Peter Nobody (sorry, Noone), who had a hit with it the summer before Hunky Dory was released (even though his version was dire). Doh.
“Oh You Pretty Things” is a wonderful mix of a rather dark lyrics with a cheerful music-hall romp, but more importantly it’s yet another take on the Nietzschean concept of “the Supermen,” only this time told from a completely new perspective: someone who is in the process of spawning a child. The future Duncan Jones, it turns out, is the “Homo Superior” that is going to subsume Bowie’s existence for a decade or two and then, with luck, go on to still greater heights (as all parents expect of their children), at least according to Chris O’Leary of the “Pushing Ahead of the Dame” blog.
The Complete David Bowie author Nicholas Pegg, meanwhile, points to this factor alongside Bowie’s reading list as the prime inspirations: sure there’s Also Spake Zarathrusta, but the lyrics also betray a knowledge of Bulwer-Lytton’s The Coming Race and Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End, plus a rather jaunty yet domesticated piano. When the rest of the band finally kicks in on the chorus, it’s very much a “Elton John Meets the Kinks” moment to these ears. I would have been much amused if John had ever covered this song, using his youthful tenor voice to sing “gotta make way for the homo superior.”
The first hint of the guitar really being allowed to stand up in the mix comes in the third cut, “Eight Line Poem,” and Ronson doesn’t really get to go to town until “Song for Bob Dylan.” That said, you can hear it earlier — although the album is dominated by piano and strings (generally arranged by Ronson, who had a natural gift for it), the chorus of “Life on Mars” finally brings the guitars in for dramatic and brilliant effect as much as with the orchestral backing. From “Dylan” onwards, the album shows off various ways to mix the heavier sounds found on Man with Ronson’s more classical training, creating more versatile sounds with more colour and fill in supporting Bowie’s acoustic, taking a turn here and there as lead, with Ronson generally acting as a strong supporting player rather than the overwhelming presence his playing was on Man.
Rejected potential cover photo
“Eight Line Poem” is, as O’Leary described it, a “trio for voice, piano, and guitar.” It’s a lovely piece that starts on the same chord as the end of “Oh You Pretty Things,” a deft touch for what is a fairly meandering but lovely bit of introspection. Soon, we’ll stop getting songs like this, that are so nakedly personal, but for now we can enjoy what amounts to an interlude before the cinematic masterpiece of “Life on Mars.” If composing primarily on piano for the first time recharged and expanded Bowie’s previous songwriting gifts, I think it is fair to say that these new more sophisticated pieces and Rick Wakeman’s playing make for the unquestionably best work Bowie had done as an artist to this point, and for me this album is the one in which he broke out from being an “entertainer” or “singer-songwriter” into being a great artist … and he knew this at the time, according to Angie Bowie.
While most of the credit goes to Bowie of course, Ronson’s absolutely superb arranging, particularly on “Life on Mars,” deserves a lot of credit, and this is “the one” where the band’s ingredients totally gel. The most amazing part of this song isn’t the stunning orchestral arrangements, the cinematic piano, or even Bowie’s remarkable lyric: it’s the fact that this song started off life as Bowie’s English lyric for the song “Comme d’Habitude” by Claude François, which had been in hit in France back in Bowie’s “tin pan alley” early days. His submitted lyric was titled “Even a Fool Learns to Love” and was rejected. Paul Anka eventually wrote a different lyric, and the song became a hit again for Frank Sinatra as “My Way.” Bowie never forgot the song, though, and rewrote it with sufficient differences to become “Life on Mars.” That’s the meaning behind the scrawled “Inspired by Frankie” next to the song title on the album’s back cover.
Continuing my Elton comparisons for a moment longer, to the best of my knowledge John never covered “Life on Mars,” and that’s a great pity; this song seems well-suited to him and reminiscent of what John would later accomplish on his own a short time later. While the two were very different artists, the different angle piano composing gave Bowie (and Lennon, for that matter) was second nature to John, and thus the two in this particular period of their careers wrote personal, beautifully-crafted piano songs that could conceivably have been performed by the other to much the same effect.
On this song, at least, even a dedicated fan would forget that Tony Visconti wasn’t there (sorry, Tony), given how well Ronson and Bolder plug those gaps. There’s also an interesting bit of trivia about the piano used on this album: it’s the same one used for “Hey Jude” by the Beatles, Harry Nilsson, and … Elton John’s early albums (this exact same piano would also later be used for Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” as well — this studio piano was having a better career than Bowie at this point!). The lyric is also dashed clever: the first part talks mostly about the “mousey” outsider heroine, but then shifts to what’s on the screen that is captivating her, then pivots to the screen looking out at her.
In interviews, Bowie claimed that he basically wrote it in a day. He subsequently created a number of great live versions of the song over the course of his career, but my personal favourite non-album version is the one he did with Arcade Fire in 2005, in what turned out to be his last performance of the song. The piano part in particular is a worthy successor to Wakeman’s original, but Bowie himself is also in surprisingly strong voice, even chuckling while singing it at one point. Even as a partial rip-off of “Comme d’Habitude,” it’s a stone cold masterpiece — and so well-performed that nobody (even Bowie himself) has really been able to top it. Smartly, he doesn’t try (at least on this album).
The next song, “Kooks,” is written about Bowie’s new baby son — but it is a total throwback to his first two albums stylistically, likely composed on guitar and featuring the bands’ best impression of Love You Till Tuesday-era Feathers. If it wasn’t for the tell-tale piano, you’d swear it was a recovered out-take from the Deram era, complete with a spot of trumpet and a tea-time melody that emphasizes sweet paternal (and martial) love versus the observational intellectualism that has dominated the album to this point.
“Kooks” also kicks off a string of more-guitar-dominant numbers, including the last song on the original side one, “Quicksand,” which indeed does seem like an acoustically-arranged version of a song that would have been electrified (and sung more forcefully) if it had been part of The Man Who Sold the World. Still, Bowie remains in the ballad-y “sweet” mode here (completely with multiple layered acoustic guitars) so as not to be too alarming, even as he shifts gears to the dark side and directly references Alastair Crowley , Himler, Garbo, Nietzsche, and the Buddhist concept of the Bardo (an in-between place between death and rebirth). Heck, the song explicitly includes metaphors to drowning powerlessly in quicksand, and the line “knowledge comes with death’s release.” Did Bowie invent emo? I think he might have!
The arrangement of the song is so gorgeous that casual listeners might only be dimly aware of how relentlessly fatalistic it is, how much Nazi imagery is in it, or its beseeching the listener “don’t believe in yourself” — and if you think the song is a bit dark, you should hear the demo; It’s an even more stark collection of Bowie’s often-disturbing black thoughts (as with “Please Mr Gravedigger”) rather than the orchestrated, softer production for the album. There is a surprisingly touching duet version (with Robert Smith of The Cure) recorded as part of Bowie’s 50th birthday celebration, and another live version sung with Gail Ann Dorsey (with video clips showing off his clear affection for her across the years they toured together).
Side Two kicks off the first cover song on a Bowie album (well, not counting the rewrite of “Comme d’Habitude”), a number called “Fill Your Heart” written by, of all people, Paul “Rainbow Connection” Williams and comic Biff Rose. The song is so straight-up old-fashioned — and lame — that its inclusion after “Quicksand” seems amusingly perverse, especially as the arrangement and singing are sweet-shop-treacle saccharine. Despite it’s placement in the lead-off spot for the flipside, it was in fact a last-minute substitution, replacing “Bombers” and to borrow a great line from O’Leary, the chipper little cover “goes far beyond the realm of squares, really: it seems best suited to appeal to delusional old people, toddlers and good-tempered dogs.”
Bowie’s final sax squonk on the number segues into some digital noodling and studio backchat tomfoolery before a hearty laugh and the launch of the acoustic guitar that kicks off “Andy Warhol,” along with some oddly-recorded percussion (seems like Bowie and band are busking just outside the men’s room where a couple of Morris dancers are practicing, or something). As others have said, the second side of the LP is mostly a series of tributes; the Williams cover, then original songs about Warhol and Bob Dylan, followed by a pastiche of Lou Reed/Velvet Underground (“Queen Bitch”), before finishing up with a song some have claimed is a “diss” song aimed at John Lennon (and Paul McCartney). I don’t subscribe to this theory, but it does allow the otherwise-out-of-place song to “fit in” with the loose “tribute” theme of the second half of the album.
The lyric for “Warhol” is sublime and cutting; the man himself reportedly disliked it a great deal, but that’s only because the observation Bowie had hit the nail on the head. Bowie himself was a fan of the artist, and had hung out with many of Warhol’s gang when they were doing the Pork show in London (Angela was apparently a big fan). Oddly, Bowie and Warhol never really developed a friendship, though they cordially met several times and Bowie did a “screen test” for Warhol. Bowie later portrayed Andy (again with uncanny accuracy, killer vocal impression, and one of Andy’s actual wigs) in the film Basquiat. Funnily enough, Bowie apparently wrote the song intended for his friend Dana Gillespie to sing (which she did, though it wasn’t released until three years later on a hit album).
“Song for Bob Dylan” may be one of the oddest tracks on this album chock-full of odd moments: Bowie starts off by trying to imitate Dylan (not badly, we should add, and there’s a spot of Elvis imitation thrown in later). The way the song unfolds also seeks to mimic a Dylan song, but ends up becoming one of several songs written about Dylan’s strange absence from the scene in late 60s and early 70s (others include “To Bobby” from Joan Baez, and “Hey Bobby” by Country Joe and Fish), calling for Dylan to return; Bowie’s plea asks for “a couple of songs from your old scrapbook.” What makes it so odd is the lack of overt Dylan influence on anything Bowie had done up to this point (or after, for that matter), and the lingering feeling that Bowie is actually taking the piss out of Dylan, or more specifically the hero-worship he engendered and aggravated with his long absence. David noted in a later interview that, in part, Dylan’s exit from the scene he helped create caused a leadership void among the hippie culture that helped inspire this “tribute.”
So then — finally! — there’s the glam and yet another vocal impression to go with it in “Queen Bitch.” As with “Song for Bob Dylan” and the vocal impression correcting the pronunciation of Warhol’s last name that starts off that song, Bowie doesn’t try to stay consistent with it for long, but for a fleeting moment you’re not sure if Lou didn’t drop into the studio. “Queen Bitch” is certainly one of the best VU songs they never wrote or recorded (a bit like how Weird Al Yankovic’s “Dare to be Stupid” surpassed mere parody and became of the greatest non-Devo Devo songs ever, as Mark Mothersbaugh later admitted). Indeed, years later when Reed actually sang the number with Bowie on stage (again part of the 50th birthday concert), there were moments where he looked (alternately) amused by the homage and — occasionally — a bit concerned that maybe he should be suing Bowie, not singing it with him. David in that performance was clearly having the time of his life; his joy is utterly radiant in the performance (and he politely dropped the Reed imitation that time), in contrast to Reed’s laconic performance (he only sang with Bowie on the second half of the number).
The last regular album track is “The Bewlay Brothers,” another one of Bowie’s occasional “deliberately inpenetrable” songs where the lyrics are all right there, clearly written and sung, but still don’t add up to anything that listeners can quite get a handle on, other than the occasional chorus. We know that “Bewlay” was a type of pipe Bowie once (briefly) smoked (sold by a chain of stores called “The Bewlay Brothers”), and that he (and likely his half-brother Terry) attended an arts centre as kids in a village called Beauliere the locals pronounced as “Boo-lee.”
We also know that most critics think the song is another tribute/identification with his mentally-ill half-brother (something Bowie occasionally said himself as well), and that a number of the lyrics seem to conform to schitzophrenic “clang” — a stringing together of words related in obtuse ways, such as rhyming or starting with the same first letter. If “Quicksand” could be read as a worrying decent into madness, “Bewlay” seems to be where the elevator stops and the passengers get off; the first circle of hell (albeit the catchiest circle). There also appear to be some homosexual references throughout, including instances of American gay code and “polare,” but again that doesn’t seem to be what the song is “about,” and could just be Bowie noticing the similarity between some of Terry’s disturbed utterances and other types of “code” people speak.
Bowie claims it was entirely composed and recorded after the producer and band went home one night, and although other instruments were added later, it does give the impression of a late-night drug session where the stream-of-consciousness lyrics and stylized performance (including the use of Bowie’s vari-speed manipulated background vocals of crying madmen in the coda) were born. Personally, I think it is a combination of drug influence and all of the above, including Bowie’s own ability to spook himself with dark thoughts (again). It isn’t “about” any one thing, but a mosaic of several topics that were, at the time, on the top of his mind: from religion to sex, from Terry to his own worries about his own mental health (all topics he would come back to again and again). As mentioned, some think the song is about the Beatles, and specifically about Lennon’s increasingly obtuse lyrics and drug-influenced songwriting (Bowie and Lennon went on to become firm friends later, so this interpretation, if true, would be a bit awkward — like Warhol’s reaction to “Andy Warhol”).
Listeners have tried interpreting it for decades, and this blog is not going to be the one to crack the mystery, except to say this: the only really clear thing about this number is that Bowie intended to be mysterious and inscrutable, and after the song’s release he very deliberately refused to nail its meaning down, fueling more speculation. Hopefully, he can tell us all about it in the next Bardo.
The best version of the album remains the 1990 EMI reissue, which restores the overly-cloying and oddly-exaggerated “Bombers” (apparently meant to be something of a … let’s say tribute … to Neil Young), the song was originally planned to open side two of the album, but dropped in favor of “Fill Your Heart.” In hindsight, it was best that it be left off, as it didn’t really fit the album: the music-hall style performance reminds one of something from the Love You Till Tuesday period, but with more mood-altering substances).
There’s also a very different version of last album’s “The Supermen” recorded during the Ziggy Stardust sessions that I personally like much better; it’s the style Bowie used for the song in most live performances. The demo version of “Quicksand” is also included, along with a very similar (almost indistinguishable but for added stereo effects and reverb) alternate mix of “The Bewlay Brothers.” Like the album that came before it, Hunky Dory is quite the mixed bag; there are some utterly amazing bits in there, and a few missteps, downers, and oddball moments — Bowie never lets us forget he’s got a weird streak, and I’m not talking about the Aladdin Sane lightning bolt that Harry Potter later adopted as a birthmark.
The one thing most of the songs have in common with each other is that they are uniquely Bowie, but that they really take flight in the hands of gifted arrangers and producers: Bowie, great as he is, has fully come to understand that he relies heavily on a good team to realise his vision. This and The Man Who Sold the World really set a stage for the shifting personas and the multiple ch-ch-ch-ch-changes that were to unfold in the years ahead. The darker moments on this record also hint at the roots of Bowie’s “Aladdin Sane” identity, just as all the tributes and impersonations are evidence of his interest in characters. Between the Arnold Corns sessions, Man and Hunky, what is clearest to see is that Bowie is putting his new team and his upgraded talent through the paces, and his vision for rock-n-roll performance art and a career built on acting as well as singing is starting to coming together.
This is — sort of — where I first got on the Bowie bus. I’d heard “Space Oddity” on the radio, but I did not associate it with anything — I was young enough that I didn’t notice band names too much, apart from the Beatles most likely — and just judged songs I heard by whether I liked them, on a case-by-case basis.
But I had started tentatively buying some singles by this point, and looking at albums. That’s how this one got me — that cover. The US version had a completely different “cartoon” cover that would never have caught my attention, but I had the (good? bad?) fortune to see the provocative UK cover featuring Bowie in the “man dress.” It’s hard to express fully what a completely mind-blowing (and erotic) concept this was for a reasonably sheltered young lad to see — the blurring of gender concepts that, at the time of my upbringing, were bright clear lines never to be crossed.
It was both the utter audacity of a man looking like a girl (what with the long hair and the dress, etc) and the fact that he looked fantastic in it that just criss-crossed all kinds of new neural connections in my brain, but although I could barely stop staring at it I made sure my parents didn’t see it (even then I knew I had wandered “out of bounds” of my supervised environment). It would be many years before I got to buy a copy, but that cover made a huge impression on me and how I looked at gender roles — and ensured that his next one, Hunky Dory, would be my first Bowie album. It cracked open a door that Ziggy Stardust would later kick wide open, and ironically that impact is beautifully re-enacted by Bowie and Tilda Swindon (with Andreja Pejić and Saskia de Brauw as their doppelgängers) in the video for “The Stars Are Out Tonight” some 45 years later.
Rejected UK cover
So, mid-1970 and much of early 1971 was a period in which big new influences came (and in one case, went) into Bowie’s life. For the period leading up to the album, the most important of these people were (in ascending order) Tony Visconti, who figured out how to record him; Mick Ronson, who gave him a new sound; Bowie’s new manager Tony DeFries, who got him better deals; and of course the most important of the bunch in this time-frame, Angela Barrett, his new girlfriend (quickly fiancé and then wife). There’s another much more shadowy figure that also played a big role, since he was the person who brought Barrett and Bowie together — a music executive named Calvin Mark Lee of Mercury Records. It is said (by Bowie himself) that he met Angela (later Angie) because they were both, um, “dating” Lee.
It’s difficult to track down any definitive evidence of Bowie’s own self-proclaimed bisexuality, but this reviewer has no trouble believing that — in his early years at least — he was. Lindsey Kemp has said he had a relationship with Bowie, Angie says David and Mick Jagger fooled around, Angie and David were both friends with gay designer Freddie Buretti (who lived with him and Angie at Haddon Hall for a while), they hung out with loads of other gay people, and Angie was another self-proclaimed bisexual. Despite any homosexual acts being prosecutable in the UK at the time, and despite Bowie’s later seeming exclusivity with women, there’s a handful of people who say Bowie was at least willing to experiment. It is undeniable that he found gay culture at the very least fashionable and fun — there’s a fair amount of polare and other gay slang littered amongst his early-70s work, and then there’s that dress and the long hair and the beginning of the gender blurring.
That said, Angie had gone from helping David with the Beckinham Arts Lab “free festival” by cooking hamburgers for sale in a wheelbarrow in early 1970 to marrying him and giving birth to his son, Duncan Zowie Haywood Jones, in mid-1971 (she’d actually started off as a personal assistant/road manager, roles she continued after they fell in love). Still, the subversive influence that Bowie courted with his confessions of bisexuality (during the Ziggy period in particular), coming on the heels of his toying with gender stereotypes (ranging from his campaign for long-haired men as a boy to this album cover and his later androgynous years) had a lasting impact on the impressionable youth of the day, as seen by the rise of glam rock and its (for a brief time) total invasion of the previously uber-macho world of rock. Men and boys who would have rather died than be thought as “effeminate” were wearing Lycra (Spandex), makeup, and glitter by the time the mid-70s rolled around.
Although many would point to the next album, the regressively softer Hunky Dory, as the moment when Bowie really found his full footing (and indeed, there are many who list it as one of, if not the, favourite album of his), The Man Who Sold the World is the record where all the elements began to fall into place. It seems odd that “settling down” with Angie, having a kid, and owning a home (albeit more of a commune; his bandmates, friends, and even his half-brother Terry would live there for periods of time) would presage his exploration of gender and sexuality roles, and foreshadow arguably his most famous period of strong songwriting and performance, but for Bowie nothing was ever what it seemed on the surface; even domesticity.
The first song on TMWSTW has an unusual public pedigree: for listeners who went from the previous album to this one, “The Width of a Circle” simply sounds like a bizarrely deep excursion into heavy metal, with a tripped-out wandering lyric that covers Nietzsche, Khalil Gibran, and Alastair Crowley/HP Lovecraftian tones with one of Bowie’s early acknowledgements of bisexuality (in this song, particularly, gay sex with demons). But there is some documentation of the evolution of this number.
Before the album came out, Bowie and Ronson performed a version of the song for BBC Radio, as found on the outstanding Bowie at the Beeb compilation album. Ronson, who had assisted with the reworked and more rocked-out single version of “Memory of a Free Festival,” had re-acquainted himself with Bowie (who was in search of a new lead guitarist … and a more rock-oriented direction) only two days before the Beeb performance, according to Chris O’Leary.
This version of “The Width of a Circle” was the “original” one Bowie likely wrote in 1969 while working on the last album, and bears more of a similarity to that record. While Ronson is an unmistakable presence on the BBC version, it’s nowhere near as metalled-out as the eventual album cut, with Bowie’s singing and lyric still taking center stage at this point, and the song running less than five minutes. At the end of the performance, the announcer asks if Bowie is going to take this newly-assembled band on the road, and in turn David asks “Michael” (Mick) pretty much if he wants to stay on and do that. Bowie jokes that “looking at this lot, no” but then says “yes” he likely will. Bowie even mentions on-air that “Michael” has just come to him from a referral from the drummer (John Carmichael of the Rats, who knew Ronson from that Hull-based band).
As others have said, Ronson sounds like he is still grappling with the number, and to be fair, it’s a compositional mess in the “tradition” of “Unwashed,” “Wild-Eyed Boy” and “Memory of a Free Festival” — part structured, part jam, with highly allegorical and inpenetrable lyrics, Bowie’s very public rebelling against the kind of structured songs he’d been pressured to write and which hadn’t worked out for him.
The official album version became even more so, following Bowie’s desire that this album be much more of a “hard rock” sound than his previous efforts, for which of course Ronson was the perfect choice. Visconti and Ronson essentially wrote new second act for the song and had Bowie provide additional lyrics not heard at all in the BBC version. The guitar and bass parts, having started out much more heavy metal, get a bit more “rolling” than rocking in the last half of the expanded 10-minute number, in contrast to Bowie’s new and far darker homoerotic Crowley-meets-Black Sabbath fantasy lyrics.
On tour, the song would get stretched out even further (up to 15 minutes) to act as a hard-rock jam that allowed Bowie to change costumes and perform an accompanying mime bit. Yes, really. It’s important to remember where the music scene was in 1970: bands like Yes and King Crimson were doing some of their most important work, and song lengths were swinging as far away from the no-more-than-three-minutes idiom as possible. The wide proliferation of casual drug use was, no doubt, the fuel that allowed musicians to reach for such hypnotic and shamanic (at best) or over-indulgent (more typically) heights, and for audiences to accept them.
This “long jam” style in Bowie’s hands, though, was fodder for his first runs at introducing more theatricality into the concerts, which would of course play a vital role in the near future — and which had a lasting and profound impact on not just progressive bands like Genesis (under original frontman Peter Gabriel), as well as many other bands and their audiences. This was the period where “showmanship” started to become an important factor alongside musicianship. Bowie and Ronson (and Marc Bolan) may have invented glam rock, but at this point they were still cooking it up in the lab.
“All the Madmen,” though, was straight-up Black Sabbath, and for good reason: like Ozzy, Bowie figured it was his fate to eventually go mad. The soft-rock opening (featuring some recorder by Tony Visconti) that wouldn’t have been too out-of-place on his Deram album gives way to Ronson’s electric guitar fireworks before returning (briefly) to the eye of the musical storm with a short spoken-word bit before returning to its catchy chorus, while Bowie sings about how much he’d prefer to remain at the asylum, as he’s more comfortable there (in some interviews, he indicated that the song is very much about his half-brother Terry Burns, who suffered from schizophrenia).
“Black Country Rock” is a different beast, but it’s still an imitation of others: in this case, pretty directly riffing off Bolan and T. Rex, who would very shortly become glam stars themselves. Bowie, who has always had a gift for mimicry, both pays homage and to some extent sends up Bolan with an uncannily-accurate copy of his style and phrasing. The song remains a primer for riff-ridden guitar rock, and one could easily see it covered by any number of “southern rock” bands such as the Allman Brothers — the fact that Bowie only wrote one verse (and then repeats it) for the thing lends that comparison some credibility.
Then, suddenly, we’re totally back to the first album again with “After All,” yet another song about children with a dark underbelly and a doomed fate awaiting them (reminding us of Charles Addams’s work, and predating A Series of Unfortunate Events by 30 years) that recalls “There is a Happy Land” from his debut, and echoes the darker sides of the non-LP “When I’m Five,” only this time with a dollop of sea shanty mixed in. This song could, in fact, have fit in easily with the recent Netflix adaptation of Handler’s “The Wide Window.” That darkness carries on with the clownish yet violent opening vocal for “Running Gun Blues,” which seems to draw from the Vietnam conflict for its theme of an ex-soldier turned wannabe mass murderer.
Much of TMWSTW seems to cover depressing ground as much as Space Oddity did, but in large part thanks to his new collaborators, Bowie has by now figured out how to drape sour songs with exciting riffs, pyrotechnic arrangements, and dramatic vocals so as to make the darkness alluring. Thus, naturally, his up-to-this-point favourite theme of the Messiah figure gone horribly wrong is revisited with this new treatment, resulting in the best of his many attempts to capture this neo-Huxleyesque vision of the future, the song “Saviour Machine.” Nearly a decade ahead of Douglas Adams (but four years after Doctor Who tackled the topic, though they would again numerous times later), Bowie invents the greatest computer in the world and of course it becomes the center of a new, subservient religion, to its chagrin and protest.
It’s another weird exercise in musicality, and again nods to “heavy metal” in lots of ways — quite apart from its doomsday/no-god-to-save-us scenario, the song features extended guitar breaks, shifting time signatures, and a particularly careering vocal. As noted by O’Leary in his “Pushing Ahead of the Dame” blog, the first and third of the solos oddly lift their chorus from Bowie’s own non-LP song “Ching A Ling,” as un-metal a song as there ever could be. Of his many attempts at a dystopian futurescape (which in fact was a common theme in UK science fiction in the 60s and 70s — that eventually the world would be wholly dependent on some kind of supercomputer or super-network of computers to run everything, and that it would go horribly wrong), this was his best effort to date, though Bowie would of course top it years later with the longer-form works Diamond Dogs and 1. Outside.
O’Leary (quoting Pegg and Visconti, among others) notes that one of the reasons this album has such a distinct new sound is that Bowie was almost a guest artist on his own record: newly married to Angie, “he left Visconti and Ronson to arrange the sessions, play most of the instruments, edit and overdub the tracks … Only at the end, mainly during the mixing stage, did Bowie show up (sometimes having just scrawled out a final lyric) to record his vocals,” it is claimed (an account only weakly disputed by David himself). This seems very evident on at least “She Shook Me Cold,” which sounds very much like Mick Ronson doing his best Cream impersonation, with a sprinkling of Hendrix thrown in. Very much out of character for Bowie, his lyric is not far above your typical grunt-rock “love song” centering around sexual conquest, including an extended “orgasmic” moaning vocal and guitar break.
That this is the song just ahead of what is by far the most sophisticated and mature track on the album, the title number, just seems as though Bowie sailed in to the recording studio, heard what Ronson and Visconti had come up with, thought it fun and wrote an immature teen-boy lyric to go along with the crotch-rock stylings — and didn’t think too hard about where to put it in the running order. Nevertheless, “The Man Who Sold the World” seems all the more exotic in its placement between “She Shook Me Cold” and yet another stab at Nietzsche in the album’s final song, “The Supermen.”
Featuring a masterfully restrained guitar limited to extremely simple parts (the chorus itself is mostly just scales) and above-average bass (by Visconti again), the arrangement and rhythms of the song transport the listener to another time and place not otherwise found on this album — a mysterious arena where riddles and enigmas murmur sweet nothings in our ears.
Following Nirvana’s cover 23 years later, the song became a staple “hit” in Bowie’s subsequent collections and tours, but in fact it was never a single for him — it was the b-side of the following album’s “Life on Mars?” in the UK, and for the reissued “Space Oddity” single in the US. Lulu, of all people, had the biggest hit with it — she took it to #3 in the UK charts. Up to this point, Bowie had written a number of derivative-but-good songs, and was now writing some original-but-good songs — but this, in your humble reviewer’s opinion, was his second truly “magical” song (following “Space Oddity”) and by far the most “Bowie-like” (when viewed in later context) song that would foreshadow his future career highlights.
Despite (so the story goes) only having the lyric and vocal delivered while the producer and band waited around on the final day of album production, it is a glorious fusion of the gentle rock that had marked his first and second album with a more eloquent lyric addressing his own demons (and angels) than anything he had managed up to this point. It does borrow, yet reinvents, lines from diverse sources such as Hughes Mearns “Antigonish” and Wilfred Owens’ “Strange Meeting,” both poems from the early part of the 20th century (and let’s not forget Ray Bradbury’s “Night Meeting”), but places them in a wonderfully atmospheric new context that imprints Bowie’s own psyche onto those concepts.
The extended Ryko version of the album throws in a previously-unreleased track, “Lightning Frightening,” the non-LP single a-side “Holy Holy” — the latter of which was good enough to get Bowie a new publishing deal — and a pair of 1971 (and demo-like) versions of “Moonage Daydream” and “Hang On to Yourself,” recorded under the pseudonym “Arnold Corns” (A Corns in UK institution-speak) for legal reasons. It is said that the oddball group name was invented to recoup the cost of the demo sessions without violating Bowie’s existing Mercury contract). These songs wouldn’t reappear until two albums later — on The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars — and though these versions, recorded in the studios of Radio Luxembourg, are an interesting testament to those songs’ development, let’s not get ahead of ourselves.