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 encapsulation 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 all 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.
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?”
Hunky 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.
I’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.
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. Some 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, 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.