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 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.
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.
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.