David Bowie: “Young Americans” (1975)

Bowie wholly abandons glam and his entire Ziggy and post-Ziggy persona to indulge in some “plastic soul”, working with a bevy of soul and R&B performers — including a young Luther Vandross — to record an album that will produce his first #1 single in the US. The single, “Fame”, sees Bowie working with John Fucking Lennon and guitarist Carlos Alomar; Alomar will stay by Bowie’s side as both an axeman and bandleader for almost the next twenty years.

This album didn’t quite grip me the way “Diamond Dogs” did, but I still found it beautiful. While some of the blue-eyed-soul indulgence gets a little on-the-nose at times — “Somebody Up There Likes Me” and the remake of “John, I’m Only Dancing (Again)” — Bowie seems to be able to find a take on soul that is uniquely his own and that avoids typical white appropriation. Really, the toolbox he assembles here is going to see a lot of use over the course of his career.

The standout tunes are obviously the aforementioned “Fame” and title track “Young Americans”, both of which are some of Bowie’s best work. All of side one is stellar, though: “Win”, “Fascination”, and “Right” all show Bowie comfortable in the genre, yet still distinctively himself. “Across the Universe” — the other collaboration with Lennon on this album — stands out despite the Philly soul treatment. It may be that a Beatles song, even funkified, will remain a Beatles song. It’s a wonderful take on the tune, but to me feels more like Ziggy than any of the rest of the album.

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http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Young_Americans_(album)

David Bowie: “Diamond Dogs” (1974)

This is another Bowie album that I passed over in y youth because the cover totally freaked me out.

Which makes me an idiot, because I can’t stop listening to this album.

So, with Ziggy Stardust now behind him, Bowie starts exploring his unique Bowie-ness by producing a concept album that tells the tale of Hunger City, a post-apocalyptic version of New York peopled by (roller)-skate-punks — and keep in mind punk won’t be invented for another three years or so — and cat-sized rats feeding on the corpses of the dead. The album opes with some nightmare-inducing narration from Bowie, and then proceeds into a landscape of end-of-days Glam Rock, dystopic cabaret, and a little shameless theft from Issac Hayes.

It is dark, and it is glorious.

The album began life as a musical adaptation of Orwell’s “1984”, but after negotiations with Orwell’s estate broke down, it transformed into the album we know. Tracks like the Shaft-derived “1984” and the King-Crimson-y “Big Brother” are the most obvious remnants of this.

The Spiders From Mars are now fully-jettisoned, and, amazingly, Bowie handles most of the guitar duties himself. I had no idea! The sumptuously raunchy riff that seals the deal with “Rebel, Rebel” — perhaps one of Bowie’s most beloved singles, both by himself and his fans — was written and is performed by Bowie himself, which I find pretty fucking impressive. There two songs with session guitarists lending aid, one of which being Earl Slick, a guitarist Bowie will work with quite a bit over the next thirty years. Otherwise, Bowie’s somewhat ramshackle guitar presages punk rock, once again showing him as constantly on the bleeding edge of pop music.

This album also reunites Bowie with Tony Visconti, who will continue to produce Bowie until “Let’s Dance” shows up in the mid ’80s.

Wikipedia also notes that this album is also sort of a farewell to Glam, with the aforementioned “Rebel, Rebel” being the last great Glam Rock song, and thus Bowie leaving the genre he founded before it eats itself.

What’s really interesting is how well this album hangs together despite a fairly broad variety of genres in play. It’s the same kind of diversity we saw on “Aladdin Sane”, but here it seems to work, for me at least, where the former felt disjointed. Maybe it’s just the quality of the songs, or the glue provided by the overall “1984” concept; I’m not sure. Whatever it may be, I feel like this is as much a quantum leap for Bowie as the transition from “The Man Who Sold The World” to “Hunky Dory”.

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http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Diamond_Dogs

David Bowie: “Pin-Ups” (1973)

Released the same year as “Aladdin Sane” and within months of Bowie retiring the persona of Ziggy Stardust, “Pin-Ups” sees the man who put Glam Rock on the map taking a whack at a set of covers that reflect his early influences (or perhaps peers). All of the tunes on this album are from the “Swinging London” scene of ’64-’67, some more well-known than others.

This was actually a fun album to tackle. I listened through it once before reading the Wikipedia entry, then I compiled a YouTube playlist of the original songs (link below), and then listened to Bowie’s version one more time. I discovered a lot of cool songs; “Sorrow” by The Merseys is fantastic, and I finally got around to hearing The Kinks’ original version of “Where Have All the Good Times Gone?”, which I’d only known from Van Halen.

I wouldn’t say there’s anything particularly stand-out on the album. It is interesting to hear Bowie tackle classics like The Who’s “I Can’t Explain” and Pink Floyd’s “See Emily Play”. The band is still the Spiders, though now with Aynsley Dunbar on drums. Ronson is still rocking out with badass, raunchy guitar licks. While Bowie definitely gives each song his unique signature, it’s still obvious that these are not his songs. This album was apparently a big hit for Bowie at the time, but I have to imagine it felt a little weird to fans hoping for more Ziggy-ness.

https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLU9Jpjk1a5zUPEqM_-yAQPvLu9TP3k5ha

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http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pin_Ups_(album)

David Bowie: “Aladdin Sane” (1973)

Now we get to what I think will be a common trope in Bowie’s catalog, namely the valleys between the peaks of genius.

Granted, this album is considered a classic by many, and it’s one of Bowie’s biggest-selling albums; ZIggy fever was at it’s peak and Wikipedia claims there were 100,000 pre-orders for this album.

That said, I’m not a big fan of this one. Silly as it sounds, back when I was a teen browsing the bins at Rolling Stones on Irving Park, I was always put off by the cover. I found it weird, and the only track I recognized was “The Jean Genie”. AntKnee had bought a copy, and we’d howl the lyrics to “Panic in Detroit” now and then, but otherwise this album was just not on my radar.

There is some good music here, though, such as the aforementioned “Panic…”, big single “The Jean Genie”, “Watch that Man”, and a spirited cover of the Stones’ “Let’s Spend the Night Together”, but none of them capture the energy of the tunes on “Ziggy”. Thankfully, there is still a goodly amount of raunchy Ronson licks present.

But the addition of pianist Mike Garson — who is amazing, honestly — bring us a lot of piano-heavy numbers that veer into pure cabaret. Sometimes it works for me (“Lady Grinning Soul”), but sometimes it doesn’t (“Time”, “Aladdin Sane”). And, jeez, the sheer about of campy doo-wop (“Drive-In Saturday”) just gets annoying.

Wikipedia says Bowie summed up this album as “Ziggy in America”. Most of it was written while Bowie toured the States behind “Ziggy Stardust”, each song apparently inspired by a different locale (and noted as such on the original album sleeve). I suspect that Bowie was spread a little thin this whole time, and perhaps the Ziggy persona was wearing thin, ergo the songwriting is just not at the level it was for the previous two albums.

But that’s okay! The tour behind this album proves the be the last for Ziggy, ending when Bowie gives his famous announcement at the final show of the tour that “not only is it the last show of the tour, but it’s the last show that we’ll ever do.” Bowie’s chameleon-like nature kills Ziggy Stardust not even two years after his arrival, and moves on… another common trope we’ll be seeing more of.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aladdin_Sane

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http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aladdin_Sane

David Bowie: “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars” (1972)

This is it. With just five years to go before earth dies, a spaceship lands and out comes a bisexual alien bearing a message of peace and love… and sex, drugs, and rock and roll. Earthlings rejoice, rock out, and then tear him apart as he self-destructs.

By becoming Ziggy, Bowie has finally become Bowie.

This is one of the few Bowie albums I actually own on CD, so I’ve been listening to it a quite a bit the last few weeks. As I mentioned previously, this was the other side of the Bowie tape I played relentlessly in high school. Vintage Vinyl on Davis had a phenomenal Ziggy t-shirt hanging in the window back then, one of the most glorious and garish things I’d ever seen. I’d share a picture, but Google isn’t helping me find one.

Luckily, I’m pretty sure I have the shirt sitting in the closet at home. I rarely wore it, but held on to it nonetheless.

Anyway, Wikipedia says that the release of “Ziggy…” was heralded by an apparently landmark performance of “Starman” on Top Of The Pops. It was so shocking at the time that it generated controversy that propelled sales of the album. It’s incredibly tame by today’s standards, but I think Bowie’s look combined with the casually sexy way he’ll put his arm around Mick Ronson probably just did not compute with most people back then — except for probably a lot of kids who had felt like outcasts because of their sexuality, but now had an icon to follow.

Here it is: David Bowie – Starman (Top Of The Pops, 1972) HQ

All of the songs on this album are fantastic, and they exemplify all of the best aspects of Glam Rock. There’s wild romanticism — possibly even camp — yet also severe, severe rocking. “Hang On To Yourself” borders on punk (and, live, goes totally punk), and Trevor Bolder’s bass line is like a locomotive. And Mick Ronson — holy crap. I have a whole new appreciation for him as a guitarist; soaring, tasty lead lines and fantastic, throaty tone.

And, unlike a lot of Glam that followed, the androgyny on display was sincere. Bowie was openly declaring himself gay, yet also married and a father. He wasn’t just adding a little mascara and glitter to his stage routine; he created a complete bisexual identity that mixed fashion, art, and theater into a unique stage persona.

I’d venture to say that this is when the ’70s actually begin.

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David Bowie: “Hunky Dory” (1971)

God dammit this is such a good fucking album. I listened to it twice before I even thought to write this.

Back in high school, AntKnee made me a tape with this album on one side and “Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust…” on the other. I spent so many nights during sophomore year listening to that tape, just playing through each side over and over and over again. AntKnee and I would even write lyrics from this album in each other’s assignment books. 

I am going to stick to my Bowie Apprenticeship™ theory and say that “Hunky Dory” — despite being not only one of his best albums, but one of the best rock records of all time, period — is still proto-Bowie. Nearly all of the songs are homages or tributes or heavily inspired by artists Bowie loved: “Queen Bithch” is The Velvet Underground, “Changes” is Sinatra, “Song for Bob Dylan” is you-know-who, “Kooks” is Neil Young, etc.

Granted, we’re really close. Trevor Bolder has replaced Visconti on bass, so we now have the final Spiders lineup. “Queen Bitch” is said by Wikipedia to be the song that invents Glam Rock, and the sumptuous “Life on Mars” begs to be played in a medley with the next album’s “Five Years”. And the unevenness of Bowie’s previous songwriting is just flat out gone. “Hunky Dory” is solid — hell, it’s magnificent — from start to finish. 

And “Quicksand”… one of the most beautifully harrowing songs Bowie’s ever written. 

God dammit this is such a good fucking album. 

#BlowByBlowByBlow

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hunky_Dory

David Bowie: “The Man Who Sold The World” (1970)
Bowie’s slow march towards megastardom continues with this 1970 outing that probably most famous for its title song being covered by Nirvana for their “MTV Unplugged” appearance.

Aside: Bowie apparently loved Nirvana’s version, but Wikipedia notes that: “Bowie bemoaned the fact that when he performed the number himself he would encounter ‘kids that come up afterwards and say, ‘It’s cool you’re doing a Nirvana song.’ And I think, ‘Fuck you, you little tosser!” 🙂

(Bonus track! Lulu’s Bowie-produced version from 1974. #3 on the UK charts! Lulu – The Man Who Sold The World (1974))

So, on this album we have most of the band that would become the Spiders From Mars once Bowie transforms into Ziggy Stardust, save for producer Tony Visconti who is still serving duty on bass. The sound is mostly straight-up-btih-a-Bowie-twist hard rock in an early Zeppelin and “Truth”-era Jeff Beck vein, though with lingering twinges of psychedelia. Wikipedia also tells us that Visconti asserts that the band did most of the songwriting, with Bowie mostly coming in at the end to add vocals, though Bowie denies this. I have to think that there is some truth to this, as many of the tracks feel somewhat derivative of its hard rock contemporaries. Wikipedia also notes that the riff for one song (“The Supermen”) was given to Bowie by Jimmy page during his session-man days.

Regardless, this is pretty enjoyable acid rock. The lead-off track is “The Width of a Circle”, an epic eight-minute riff-rock extravaganza. I loved this song when I first heard it on the “Ziggy Stardust: The Motion Picture” soundtrack, but back then I had no clue from whence the song had come. Even back in the early ’80s, Bowie’s catalog was intensely confusing to me.

Again, I feel like we’re getting closer and closer to Bowie’s “apprenticeship” coming to fruition with Ziggy, yet we’re just not quite there yet. As I said above, I’m still hearing too much of what Bowie’s contemporaries were releasing at the time, and still just a glimpse of the artist Bowie is about to become.

I also want to point out that the original UK cover of this album — Bowie in full androgynous bloom, reclining on a chaise lounge and wearing a designer dress — is fucking awesome, and I think it’s very lame that later US pressings of this album eschewed that cover for a plain black-and-white photo of Bowie-as-Ziggy. Thankfully, the dress cover was restored when the album was reissued in the ’90s.

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Bowie’s second album sees him veer far away from the campy cabaret and poetry of his ’67 outing and land somewhere in the vicinity of prog-rock, or maybe prog-folk. The album’s claim to fame is, of course, “Space Oddity”, Bowie’s first bona-fide hit single, which is a fucking awesome song.

The rest of the album is very listenable, though it’s still miles and miles away from the Bowie we’ll come to know and love in a few years. Wikipedia says “Unwashed and Somewhat Slightly Dazed” is reminiscent of Dylan, but it sounds pretty Zeppelin/Faces/Humble-Pie to me, and it’s utterly bizarre for me to hear this kind of thing on a Bowie record. “Cygnet Committee” is apparently Bowie’s longest song (9:35), and even ends with a stately, military march feel, which is a classic prog move.

This album is also notable for being Bowie’s first work with bassist/producer Tony Visconti, the man who will go on to produce Bowie for next decade, as well as produce a truckload of other artists (including Morrissey, which he will have in common with other Bowie alum, Mick Ronson).

Bowie is getting better, but I’m sticking with my “formative years” theory for now. We’re seeing inklings of what he’ll become, but we’re not there yet.

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http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Bowie_(1969_album)

This is the return of #BlowByBlowByBlow.

Bowie’s first album was released on the same day as The Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” That fact 
combined with the album being both a commercial failure and filled with a bizarre assortment of songs that veer wildly 
between Syd Barrett and Burt Bacharach probably explains why I’d never even heard of this album until last week, when I 
stumbled upon a couple of Bowie documentaries on YouTube.

The Wikipedia entry for this album says that Bowie’s manager at the time was trying to mold him into an “all-around 
entertainer”, hence the noted absence of anything resembling rock n’ roll on this album. Yet, the songs are filled with 
incredibly bizarre lyrics, even by Swinging London standards. It’s hard for me to single out any particular track, as they are 
all oblique and campy, though album-closer “Please Mr. Gravedigger” is certainly memorable given that it’s comprised solely 
of a solo vocal accompanied by sound effects.

I think that Yard would find this album either a) stupid or b) brilliant.

While there are some tiny shreds of allusion to Bowie’s later work, this album honestly sounds nothing like any Bowie with 
which I am familiar. For the time being, I am lumping it in with what I’ll call Bowie’s “formative period”, i.e., everything that 
leads us up to “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust”. 

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Bowie_(1967_album)