Bowibury – Week 2

Over at Pushing Ahead of the Dame, people are listening to a Bowie album every day of the month. This week: Bowie conquers America, leaves America for Europe, and hits his finest period with the help of Iggy Pop.

Of all the weeks I have to cover for Bowibury, I was looking forward to this one the most. Neil Tennant coined the term “Imperial Phase”, the period in an artist’s life where they can do no wrong, and while that certainly describes this stretch of albums, it’s too small a concept for someone like Bowie who’s had several throughout his career. But the mid 70s all the way up to 1980 definitely has the fattest riches for fans of Bowie the avant-pop star.

It starts with him finally breaking the States with Young Americans, a love letter to his adopted country written with poison ink. Any album that finally launches someone into the mainstream always gets sneered upon as not being as good as the earlier stuff, and it seems Bowie agreed, often describing it as “plastic soul…the squashed remains of ethnic music as it survives in the age of Muzak, written and sung by a white limey”.

As assessments go, it’s pretty spot-on, but I don’t see that as a pejorative. The relationship between art and artifice has always been a thing with his music, and here the somewhat phony nature becomes an advantage. For a while, I couldn’t really get into the title track because of its opening couple of seconds – descending piano chords, twelve-string strumming, trumpets happily piping along. It sounded like it belonged in a Disneyland Rock n’ Roll Revue. But that was the point. On the surface it’s a good time singalong, but it reduces America to pantomime, a bunch of thinly-sketched characters (a young couple, a businessman who carries a razor “just in case of depression”) cast against a blur of images: Afro-Sheen, Ford Mustang, Nixon, Barbie, Soul Train. It’s a twisted soul album, full of breathless love songs to cocaine, and victory anthems for a faceless politician.

10cb711b5861f03c3b3a92adcb701391-1000x1000x1Calling it plastic also belies the fact that there’s real goddamn soul on this record. Bowie might have just been wearing a gouster’s clothes but damn if he couldn’t act the part, although having an amazing supporting cast (ex-James Brown man Carlos Alomar, backing singers including a young Luther Vandross) undoubtedly helped. When recording in Sigma Studios, he was horrified by the sound of his voice; where other studios had effects that could cushion the blow, Sigma was “dry”, so having a great backing band only pushed him further. He would be a worthy singer for the players, and the proof is in the gorgeous and soulful “Win”.

Young Americans nearly goes off the rails with an abysmal cover of “Across the Universe”, made solely to get John Lennon into Electric Lady Studios. Bowie doesn’t always have the best luck with covers, as we’ll get into next week, but the gentle spirituality of the original gets covered in a ton of thick syrup, to the point where he has to camp it up just to be heard. “Can You Hear Me” is another mid-tempo ballad that adds to the drag, but thankfully “Fame” comes along to course-correct. His first US #1, it’s the weird outlier of the record, more akin to the Berlin experiments. No horns, no strings, it’s just all rhythm, fractured and broken down, as taut and relentless as a shark. It’s a groove so potent that Mr Dynamite himself would later rip it off, and I don’t think you can get a higher compliment than that.

But that’s not close to Bowie’s apex as a performer. That honour goes to Station to Station, a futurist soul album that marks the start of his path as an art rock mystic who could go anywhere he pleased. There’s a lot of stories about this album – conceived in a cocaine blizzard, Bowie living on red peppers and milk while recording, witches allegedly trying to steal his semen – that added to its mystique, along with its striking minimalist sleeve and the severe figure of the Thin White Duke, an aristocratic revenant who dressed like a Berlin cabaret singer and sung about love as though from muscle memory. It’s also my favourite record.

When I put this on as part of Bowibury, I was amazed at how much I could sing along to it. It’s almost embedded onto my DNA, and what kept me coming back to it was the frightening level of style, power and control. They say the drugs don’t work, but Bowie was coked out of his mind while making this and it’s superbly mixed with truly fantastic performances from all involved. There’s not a dud track on here. The best way to describe the sound is “cold fire”, a deceptive term for a deceptive album; the title track begins with feedback and train noises, descends into neat minimalist krautrock, and then kicks into fifth with a joyous breakdown: “It’s not the side effects of the cocaine! I’m thinking that it must be LOVE!”

unnamedStation to Station is Bowie’s first attempt at marrying R&B with krautrock, crafting neat minimalist lines and charging them with life. For all the Duke’s iciness, there are heart-stopping moments: desperate negotiations with God on “Word on a Wing”, the slick flattery of “Golden Years” transforming into pleading, and the decadent croon of “Wild is the Wind”, elevating an abstract song dashed off for a movie into pure art. Hybridisation seems to be the name of the game here. “TVC15” merges a 1950s teenage death ballad with the Ballardian idea of television as an all-consuming predator we willingly allow into our homes. Christianity is used interchangeably with the Kabbalah and Gnosticism and Aleister Crowley; English Pagans would throw random gods together if it would help them get through the day. Past and future, white and black magic, America and Europe – all colliding together, with Bowie harnessing the resultant energy. Transitional record? Sure, but it stands on its own, self-assured and manically confident.

Of course, that kind of insanity is something nobody could keep up, not even iron-willed Bowie, so after they finished touring the album, he and Iggy Pop packed up their bags and headed for Europe to kick the habits: first France, then later Berlin. The resulting partnership gave the world two albums that would end up launching a thousand post-punk acts: Iggy’s The Idiot, and Bowie’s Low.

I feel I have to talk about both together because, well, enough has been said about Low by many a talented writer, but also because I don’t think you can talk about one without the other. They’re like twin atoms.

For one, The Idiot came first. Bowie was using Iggy as a guinea pig, testing out new directions to go in. Mostly it was an outgrowth of Station to Station‘s fusion of American and European rock, what Iggy called “James Brown meets Kraftwerk”, with the instruments bent and warped out of shape. For Iggy, it means a sound and texture as thick and sludgy as molasses, murky and dense (mostly because Bowie isn’t much of a producer, but you can’t deny it works.) In Bowie’s case, the influence from krautrock and Brian Eno is more apparent. A brilliant R&B band – Carlos Alomar on rhythm guitar, George Murray on bass, and human hurricane Dennis Davis on drums – are forced to play music anathema to them. Davis’s drums sound hollow and sharp thanks to Tony Visconti’s production; the gated drum effect of the 1980s starts here.aacff350a26bdf394ed6167f6ccf85c5-1000x1000x1

The grooves on both albums are almost bent on locking the listener in place. On Low, it encourages this idea of stasis and feeling frozen, of instrumentals and chords cycling endlessly, rarely reaching a conclusion. There’s a reason why most of the first side is instrumental, after all; even lyrics escape Bowie. Over on The Idiot, though, they’re almost claustrophobic. “Sister Midnight”, “Nightclubbing and “Funtime” reduce dancing and debauchery to a series of mechanical motions; fittingly, the album ends with an eight-minute industrial dirge, inspired by Iggy’s memories of Michigan. Low, meanwhile, has a second side devoted to imaginary European cities. “Warszawa” is based only on the few hours Bowie spent there, walking through town and buying a folk record, with a synthetic choir singing what sounds like a long-forgotten European pidgin.david-bowie-low

The big difference between the two? Iggy has never been afraid to cut himself open, and he does so constantly throughout The Idiot, spilling out the ugly secrets of his brain. He confesses to his muse on “Sister Midnight” about a sex dream with his mother. He croons despairingly about how innocent his lover is on “Baby”. On “China Girl”, it comes with the added taste of imperialist guilt – “I’ll give you television / I’ll give you eyes of blue / I’ll make you want to rule the world”. It’s a corrupted man afraid his disease will spread; “I’ll ruin ev’-ry-thing you ARRRREEEEEEE“. But Bowie? He’s more about isolation. Where Iggy flays himself open, Bowie watches the blood scab over. What few lyrics that are legible refer to hiding away from the world, staying in an electric-blue room, sketching awful things on the carpet, all seemingly to kill the time. The closing track, the cathedral-like “Subterraneans”, appears to have been written in private code. But it’s not doom and gloom, either. “Sound & Vision” puts a bright spin on the idea, a man sitting down, watching a song unfurl around him, seemingly content to wait for the full thing to come together. It’s a healing album, in a very weird way.

The next Berlin album, Lust for Life, is definitely more Iggy’s baby than Bowie. While he’d been a willing test subject on The Idiot, now he was carving out his own statement. Aware that Bowie worked fast, Iggy made himself faster, improvising whole vocals and lyrics in the studio. It probably helped that he was backed up by the Sales brothers, a ferociously talented bassist and drummer who could bring the thunder like no band of his since the Stooges.

71rh0pdzy-l-_sl1300_Largely free of the murk from the last album, Lust for Life is full of energy. The first thing you hear is Hunt Sales beating out a Motown tattoo as though his drums did him wrong; the eponymous “Lust for Life” builds from there, growing in momentum and delirious joy that it found its calling nearly twenty years later as the theme for Trainspotting (and also for Royal Caribbean commercials). The whole album is a hoot, especially “Success”, where Iggy plays Southern Baptist preacher and challenges his backing singers to keep up with him, and “Tonight”, a dark joke of a song that’s a sincere declaration of love to his girlfriend overdosing on the floor. Lust for Life can’t quite sustain the momentum – the Jim Morrison cabaret of “True Blue” and chest-puffing bravado of “Neighborhood Threat” drag too long compared to the sprightliness of the first side – but everyone involved’s working at the height of their powers, and there are two perfect rock songs on there: the title track, and “The Passenger”, the sunnier side of “Nightclubbing” in that it makes prowling the city by night sound Zen.

Something about the speed of production, of watching Iggy working at the mic, inspired Bowie to get back in the studio with Eno and Visconti, setting up camp at Hansa Tonstudio (“Hansa By-the-Wall”) for what would eventually become “Heroes”. Compared to Low“Heroes” gets less love, probably because its sister came first (and maybe because the instrumentals aren’t on the same level as “Warszawa” or “Subterraneans”). Where Low broke new ground, “Heroes” is building on those foundations. A shame, because this is almost the quintessential Seventies Bowie album – voice full of grandeur, weird go-for-broke experimentation, and wonderful pop melodies.

tumblr_mlceg6gzie1qflrq9o1_1280In a way, it’s the antithesis to Blackstar. Where that record has an avant-garde jazz group translating rock music into their own language, “Heroes” has a rock band (Robert Fripp plus the Alomar-Murray-Davis trio) taking a stab at making free jazz. The increased use of Oblique Strategies, a way of breaking creative blocks, led to more improvisation, with most of the music coming from jam sessions. It’s a looser, more confident sound, even with the tropical extremes in mood throughout. You go from the eerie “Neukoln”, full of Bowie skronking away on his sax, to the deliriously camp “The Secret Life of Arabia”. Where Low is probably about depression, “Heroes” is more bipolar, the songs mutating – “Blackout” drops away for Davis to drum up a storm amidst shrieks for a doctor, “Joe the Lion” sees Bowie go from a newsreader-like delivery to pure manic savagery.

Nowhere is this organic nature more apparent than the title track, or as I like to call it, The Greatest Song in the History of Anything. It’s just so wonderfully human, even with the ironic quotation marks around the title. The couple in it are barely functional. The man drinks all the time, the woman has a harsh temper, they accept it because “we’re lovers / and that is a fact”. It would almost be scathing if Bowie didn’t suddenly let loose four minutes in; during recording, the vocal gates around the mic would only open at a certain pitch, so Bowie’s essentially roaring to keep them all open. The narrator recalls the two of them kissing by the Wall, reacting to the guns, taking what could be the last opportunity to be human and in love again before they’re reduced to ash. It turns something so small into a heroic act; after his death, the 1987 Berlin performance is regarded as an important step in bringing down the Wall.

Just so we’re keeping count, that’s four albums with Bowie’s involvement released in 1977. Of course he’s going to take a break, and he makes an album, 1979’s Lodger, out of his diary entries. Bowie called it part of the “Berlin Trilogy” along with Low and “Heroes”, but it has little to do with either. The cast is largely the same, Visconti’s still producing, and there’s a similar experimental feel (Eno has a lot more involvement), but Lodger is a lot more difficult to piece together than the other two, hence its position as The Godfather Part III of the Bowie canon.

Take the record on its own terms, though, and it’s a fine grab-bag of ideas. Lodger isn’t attempting to reinvent the wheel, although its use of world music predates Peter Gabriel and even Eno’s own My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. It’s just Bowie throwing things at the wall to see what sticks. Get your band to play chords when indicated on a chart? Cool, build two songs around it. Sample other music and do something weird with it? OK, let’s rap over a barely recognisable “Suzie Q” about being trapped in the jungle. Sample your own music and do something weird with it? Go nuts! There’s no coherent structure like the other Berlin albums; there’s a vague travelogue idea on the first side, with musical influence from Turkey and Africa (which part of Africa is up to you), but it doesn’t really hold up.

b39cbf69601690e0cf43f51269268d36-998x1000x1No, I’d say that this is an album built from salvage material, kind of like Diamond Dogs. Where that was built on failed narratives and ideas, however, Lodger‘s foundation is in a more recognisably human realm. This is Bowie as tourist, an alien on safari, re-engaging with the rest of us. We get songs about living with depression, drunken German mercenaries, Turkish workers, queer men, women abused by men, the record-buying public (Bowie records, to be precise: “DJ” can mean disc jockey or David Jones, remember). Even the angel of death, on the Wildean melodrama of “Look Back in Anger”, has a cough and wings that have seen better days.

It’s definitely the weakest part of the Berlin Project, but even a diminished Bowie album kicks the arse of most other records at the time. There’s a similar punkish energy to the New Wave albums of the time, but odd enough that it doesn’t look like a trend chaser, and there are some outstanding tracks here. “DJ” is the Talking Heads song David Byrne wishes he could have written, “Look Back in Anger” gives Bowie the voice of an archangel, and “Boys Keep Swinging” outcamps the Village People, sending up masculinity with tongue firmly in cheek as Adrian Belew’s guitar solo sets fire to the scenery. That’s the thing when you’re in an Imperial Phase; everything you touch turns to gold.

But empires also have to end.


Bowibury – Week 1

The fine community of Pushing Ahead of the Dame are listening to a Bowie album every day this month. I’ve written up my thoughts from the first week. In some cases, this will be my first full listen to these records.

We start with two albums, both self-titled, both released in the 60s, both meant to show off a bright new star in the pop music galaxy. But as far as their creator’s concerned, there’s only one proper starting point. The first in a series of boxsets chronicling Bowie’s career begins with 1969’s David Bowie, begins with “Space Oddity”, with his 1967 debut, also called David Bowie, now regarded as juvenilia (or “non-canon” if you prefer).

You can see why Bowie would rather everyone forget about his first professional record. The guy on the sleeve looks more like a member of the Monkees, which already sported a David Jones. It came out the same day as Sgt. Pepper, a record that also took Edwardian whimsy and psychedelia and managed to make it art. It’s the perfect encapsulation1967_-_david_bowie_-_front of his pre-fame years, more a glorified audition tape where a nineteen-year old Bowie puts on a variety of hats to see which one looks the best, bordering on novelty. You can almost hear the strain at points – here he is as Syd Barrett! Now he’s Ray Davies! Oop, now he’s Anthony Newley!

It’s a Bowie who doesn’t quite know who he wants to be. For someone who built his career on appearing effortless and superhuman, showing your work was out of the question. But dismissing the 1967 David Bowie as an amateur effort overlooks the real gems hidden here. No force on Earth will make me love something as chirpy and smug as “Love You Till Tuesday”, but “Silly Boy Blue” is absolutely majestic, a perfect slice of pop loveliness about a young Tibetan monk struggling to fit in with the culture. “Uncle Arthur” predicted the modern nerd (an adult who lives with his mother and still reads Batman comics and is perfectly happy with his lot), “She’s Got Medals” hints at the gender-bending and androgyny of his future work, and as gimmicky as they are, “We Are Hungry Men” and “Please Mr Gravedigger” showcase the go-for-broke weirdness he’s always been fond of indulging. Throughout, there’s a real sympathy for the oddball, the ones who don’t fit in.

It’s as good a beginning for the Bowie story as any. Even “Space Oddity”, the official start of his career, has its DNA in this period, full of childlike language (“Major Tom” belongs in a Dan Dare comic, not from any official protocol). But for adavid_bowie-space_oddity-frontalll intents and purpose, the narrative starts with the folkie phase, with Bowie in the role of a serious young singer-songwriter who got lucky with a one-off novelty and determined to show he’s no flash in the pan. So 1969’s David Bowie is full of songs tracking at around five minutes each, even when they don’t need to be, with a pop classic like “Space Oddity” as an outlier. You can spot the occasional hint of the future – “Wild Eyed Boy from Freecloud” follows a messianic figure who’s too much for the doomed world below, and would later be paired with “All the Young Dudes” like Lego blocks – but otherwise it’s a sombre album devoted to soulful confessionals for old lovers and proggy jeremiads against the whole British counterculture. It’s the last gasp of the 60s, especially the closer “Memory of a Free Festival” descending into communal chants and group chatter a la “Hey Jude”.

There are some prog elements in The Man Who Sold the World, especially in the Luciferian sexjam  “Width of a Circle”, but mostly the follow-up is a swaggering piece of glam metal, full of melodramatic lyrics about demons and madness and Nietszche that Kieron Gillen would approvingly dub “#NoneMoreGoth”. As legend has it, Bowie was so swept up in his new marriage to Angie Barnett that the bulk of the work fell to producer Tony Visconti and his new guitarist, one-man Stravinsky Mick Ronson. While Bowie would object to this – “No-one writes chord changes like that,” he groused in 1998 – it can’t be denied that The Man Who Sold the World has a lot more rhythm and swagger than he’d normally be capable of. The closest he’d previously come was “Janine” and “The Laughing Gnome”, and you need a band who swear by Hendrix and Cream, as well as T. Rex’s new smash producer, to bring that out.bowie

On the other hand, it’s not like this is a “featuring David Bowie” album either. His pet themes run throughout – doomed messiahs, ancient gods, and especially madness. Cane Hill, the mental hospital that housed his half-brother Terry, graced the original American cover art, but the institution’s shadow looms over the whole album. “All the Madmen”, Ken Kesey in the key of Syd Barrett, has the narrator choose the company of the insane asylum to the “normal” outside world. On “Width of a Circle” and the title track, a man suffers such a psychotic split that he cannot recognise himself, seeing only a monster, or a road not taken. The countless amount of covers and interpretations of “The Man Who Sold the World” cement this further – doppelgangers, shadows, other versions of yourself you can’t recognise. But there’s also a stasis to the strange life. “The Supermen” is dominated by Ronson trudging back and forth between two chords over the “guardians of a loveless isle”, and the title track’s signature riff doesn’t change. It just goes on and on, cycling endlessly, trapping you. There’s no escape whatever you do, only a new set of irons.

Now how about something a bit lighter? It’s fitting that the sleeve for Hunky Dory depicts Bowie as a Time Lord mid-regeneration because this marks another shift, and probably the most significant. This is Bowie the Composer, the brilliant pop songwriter who traded in his battered old twelve-string for a piano at Haddon Hall, and in the process makes his first great album. The first side is a complete knockout, just classic after classic – “Changes”, “Oh! You Pretty Things”, “Kooks”, “Quicksand” – in a confident display of skill. Imagine being so confident that you listen to “My Way”, think ‘I can do better’, and actually succeed with “Life On Mars?”

a3e30f7e7fa1b1bf0dbab2ae5ea7e730-1000x1000x1Hunky Dory deals with legacy and succession: “Oh! You Pretty Things” quietly accepts that a new generation is coming along; “Kooks” was written after finding out he was a father. But the second side is more overtly about his influences, in some cases cheekily positioning himself as an heir apparent – “Song for Bob Dylan” cribs its title and theme from Dylan’s own “Song to Woody”, another letter of admiration from fan to legend. Biff Rose, Andy Warhol, Dylan and Lou Reed all get namechecked or tributed (sometimes even succeeding), while Terry Burns, possibly his greatest muse – the man who introduced the young Bowie to Buddhism, jazz, the Beat poets and science fiction – gets an enigmatic tribute in “The Bewlay Brothers”.

There’s something very postmodern about the pop here. It’s not that musicians never copied anyone else; any songsmith worth their salt needs a magpie’s eye after all. But Bowie was the first to show his homework. “Kooks” is obviously inspired by Neil Young’s “I Believe In You”; “Andy Warhol” opens with constructed studio patter in reference to its namesake; “Queen Bitch” and “Life On Mars?” both give thanks to the Velvet Underground and Frank Sinatra. Notably, Bowie is credited as “The Actor”, and that’s appropriate, with Hunky Dory seeing him move effortlessly through a series of masks and backdrops.

It was while in the studio for Hunky Dory that Bowie created his most enduring character, a red-haired rock prophet killed by his audience: The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. It’s often considered one of the finest concept albums out there, with its apocalyptic framing device and tales of aliens from way out there, not that he ever had a firm story in mind. Some have tried to guess at the narrative; the best one I’ve heard is that the album’s first side is the world Ziggy is born into, with the second side about the world he created. It’s all up to interpretation, but that’s arguably why it works as well as it did. Ziggy has substance only in the audience’s head.

ziggyI’d thought I had run out of new things to say about Ziggy Stardust, but listening to it again has unearthed new gems. If you cut the cover of Ron Davies’ “It Ain’t Easy” from the tracklist and replaced it with an out-take like “Velvet Goldmine”, you’d have an absolutely perfect album that marries Little Richard and A Clockwork Orange and Judy Garland so easily it’s almost an act of magic. As it is, it’s only sort of perfect, but it oddly fits; it’s the flaw in a Persian rug. The other thing that leaps out at me is how death and beauty go hand-in-hand. The opener, “Five Years”, is a string-swaddled ballad about the end of the world, where order has broken down and everyone greets each other with expressions of love – ‘Your face, your race / the way that you talk / I kiss you, you’re beautiful’. Elsewhere, we have warped love songs like “Soul Love” and “Moonage Daydream”, an extraterrestrial paean to humanity like “Starman”, before Ziggy dies in his followers’ arms, screaming for them to ‘GIVE ME YOUR HANDS! ‘CAUSE YOU’RE WONDERFUL!’ The apocalypse isn’t met with shock, but beautiful chaos, the nobody people colliding together and spinning into oblivion.

What always surprises people who first listen to Ziggy Stardust is that it doesn’t “rock” as hard as you’d expect such a celebrated rock n’ roll album to. For those people, there’s Aladdin Sane, or “Ziggy goes to America” as Bowie dubbed it, a snapshot of how the Spiders brought the house down while on the road. Cheekily, Bowie steals from the Rolling Stones’ at the point where their sound was laying dormant; Exile on Main St. was buried in murk and grit, while Goats Head Soup was their first truly mediocre record. If they weren’t using it, might as well put it to work on “Watch That Man”. Sometimes the humanity of those songs gets lost – Bowie reinterprets “Let’s Spend the Night Together” as a louche come-on rather than Jagger’s nervously excited proposition – but it fits the plastic veneer of Ziggy and the Spiders at the time.

On the previous records, America was a mythic country glimpsed only in imported records; “Moonage Daydream” is often described as a pop record from the world of A Clockwork Orange. On Aladdin Sane, Bowie is exposed to the US for the first time, and the sound is more quintessentially American. There’s a harder edge to the guitars, with many of the songs cracked portrayals of wherever the tour bus was passing through – Hollywood begets “Cracked Actor”, “Time” comes from New Orleans, “Panic in Detroit” is self-explanatory. It fit right in with glam’s obsession with the past, particularly the 1950s; Roxy Music were adapting doo-wop on their debut, while The Rocky Horror Picture Show owes a debt to rock n’ roll and drive-thru B-movies. There’s some European influence, notably on the Evelyn Waugh-lite title track and Mike Garson’s avant-garde piano solo, but otherwise Aladdin Sane is both fascinated and morbidly disturbed by American life.aladdin_sane

There’s no real transcendent moments on the level of Ziggy. Beauty give way to decadence and corruption: the faded Hollywood star hungry for sex on “Cracked Actor”; the ‘passionate bright young things’ flitting about on the title track; “The Jean Genie”‘s demonic charmer leading women astray. Even Bowie’s older “Prettiest Star”, written to celebrate his marriage, gets reworked into a raucous wedding party. The closest we get to sheer elegance is the final track, “Lady Grinning Soul”, possibly the best Bond theme that never was, an ode to Amanda Lear, the gender-bending and stateless conqueror of hearts. “She will be your living end”, indeed.

1973’s Pin Ups has the unfortunate honour of being the red-headed stepchild of the Bowie canon. Not as bad as the 80s records but not as good as Ziggy or Aladdin Sane, it came out after Ziggy had been decidedly put to bed under contractual obligations; Bowie’s manager Tony DeFries was haggling for better rates and urged his client not to put out any new material in the meantime. Just in time for Christmas, the world got a cover album of songs from Bowie’s mod years. The selections were clever – The Who, the Kings and the Yardbirds all get featured, but only their lesser-known records. These acts were all his contemporaries, so not only can he maintain his cred as Hipster King (“I was listening to The Who before any of you lot!”), he positions himself in their history. He was there from the beginning! He’s no one-hit wonder who got lucky!

That’s about as interesting as the finished product gets, sadly. It’s not a bad record by any stretch. The band are in good form and having a ball covering some old faves. Pin Ups front.tifSome of the interpretations are even inspired – “See Emily Play” shows real knowledge of and affection for early Pink Floyd, and “Sorrow” turns the original’s nervy blues into sweeping Romanticism. The problem is that so much of Pin Ups is functional at best. If you listen to “Rosalyn” or “Here Comes the Night” or “Don’t Bring Me Down”, you gain nothing that you didn’t already get from the originals, and sometimes they’re actively worse. What possessed you to turn “I Can’t Explain”, a song about a nervous young man plucking up the courage, into an act of peacocking? ‘I can’t explain what I’m feeling’? Bullshit, Mr Narrator! I can tell you’ve done this song and dance many times! Not a total loss, but the layers of camp going on in Pin Ups often turn it into a Rock n’ Roll Revue on a cruise ship in terms of hollow glitz.

Critics gave Bowie a lot of stick for his postmodern dilettantism, a charlatan pretending to be a rock star, content to piggyback on better musicians. Iggy Pop despaired when he listened to “The Jean Genie” and realised his identity had been stolen. In hindsight, we can agree this is a bit silly, but it rattled Bowie enough that, after disbanding the Spiders, his immediate response was Diamond Dogs, another stab at a concept album where he played almost every instrument, including the lion’s share of guitar.

Of course, the response is plenty barbed, presumably as another middle-finger to Lester Bangs. Diamond Dogs is a hideous chimera of several different projects. Amongst the component parts include: his failed musical version of Nineteen Eighty-Four; the vague concept of ‘Hunger City’ and its ghoulish teenage marauders; a musical about Ziggy Stardust that ended up a Viking funeral to glam rock; plus his growing interest in American music, particularly Bruce Springsteen and the Philly soul scene. The result is an almost oppressively grim record that features mutual suicide, ends with Big Brother crushing wills and making the bodies dance in a doomsday disco, language eroded away. The glam holdouts, “Rebel Rebel” and “Rock n’ Roll with Me”, lead off both sides and are an oasis in the middle of such darkness.

In conversation with William S. Burroughs, T.S. Eliot was brought up,tumblr_kzr79tsh8y1qbn2z0o1_500 with Burroughs surprised that Bowie hadn’t read The Waste Land. That must have stuck in his head, because Diamond Dogs tries to do for rock music what Eliot did for mythology. Cut it down the middle and you’ll find Ballard, Orwell, vaudeville, John Rechy, Joe Meek, the Stones, Tod Browning’s Freaks and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. And those are just the ones I can name off the top of my head. It’s a record made from junk and debris.

This kind of magpie behaviour isn’t remotely unusual for a Bowie record, but there’s not a speck of polish here. There’s no finesse to the instrumentation, especially the guitar, just pure sound and texture. It’s jagged, abrasive and froths with feedback, as though rock music has become infected. The cut-up technique, pinched from Burroughs and Brion Gysin, creates nonsensical lyrics that adds to this sense of chaos, of the centre not being able to hold. Even the meagre characters and settings it creates – Hunger City, Halloween Jack, the Diamond Dogs themselves – are phantasmal. You can see what the punks saw in it; this is Dadaism in torn and salvaged drag, and there’s a strange kind of beauty in that ugliness.

Given the muted feedback Diamond Dogs received upon the release, it’s surprising to me how well-regarded it is, particularly in the US, where it became the first Bowie album to crack the Top Ten. Many fans, including Neil Gaiman and Devin Faraci, have commented on how it conjured up this dense narrative world with just a few strokes, like a used paperback in vinyl form. As to its Stateside popularity, I have a vague theory. The Seventies were marked with assassinations and disasters and massacres. Within months of its release, Watergate would hit the front pages. The world suddenly looked uglier and darker. Diamond Dogs, built from the wreckage of dead stories, was the music it deserved.