In keeping with the monthly (bi-monthly, if proper motivation and inspiration manages to come my way) ramblings that I regularly undertake – whether it be by a long-winded review, incoherent comment in some guy’s thread about Sputnik’s flavor-of-the-month album, or the now-immortal quip “list is digs” that is said to be bestowed upon a many lists, threads, and articles – I have seen it appropriate to further expand the ongoing Guides series, starting with a bi-monthly retrospective on the one and only David Bowie: the man of many faces, sounds, and visions.
No introduction is needed for such an astounding artist, but for those who do need a refresher, Bowie did a lot throughout his 54 years in the industry (1962-2016), beginning as a young man heavily influenced by the rhythm and blues very much popular with British youth and emerging decades later weathered through a multitude of personae, fashions, and most importantly, the stardom he desired so greatly and the acclaim that followed. Once a young man who dreamed of being his band’s Mick Jagger and inspired by the whimsical music hall sound of Anthony Newley (who reportedly destroyed his copy of Bowie’s debut in disgust) during his time with Decca (1966-1968), he went out as perhaps the definitive artist of his generation and as one of the most innovative pop artists ever.
Now that we’ve a little context behind the man who wrote classics such as “Heroes”, “Five Years”, “Life on Mars?”, and “Modern Love”, this edition of the Guides series will be dedicated solely to the works of David Bowie, and shall be a multi-part series as well to accommodate for the wide array of material worth reappraisal.
While I don’t consider myself a big fan of Bowie’s 1967 debut – which had the glorious misfortune of being released the same day as the astoundingly overrated Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band – it contained embryonic forms of the concepts that brought Bowie’s more popular works to fruition. Tales of depraved cannibals, dystopias, murder, and gender roles being turned upside-down would all find a place in his great big book of subjects one way or another later on, but there is one song in particular that found Bowie fascinated with religion and trying to grasp the ideals behind it: “Silly Boy Blue”, whose focus on Buddhism and Tibetan culture perfectly aligned with its creator’s desire to become a monk instead of a rock star when it looked as if his musical ambitions wouldn’t pan out. It’s a song that pairs a young British teen’s view of Buddhist life with the difficulties of a young monk at odds with his newfound culture; this song’s inspiration is sourced from Heinrich Harrer’s 1952 book Seven Years in Tibet (which would become the title of another Bowie track thirty years later).
Moving much further into Bowie’s career — and into the whitest mountains of powder he had now surrounded himself with (from about 1973-1976) — we now see Bowie shed the Ziggy, Aladdin, and Halloween Jack personae in favor for the Young American: well-dressed, snow-white tan, several pounds lighter, and increasingly paranoid. His behavior during his well-documented cocaine addiction went from peculiar to greatly bizarre, finding himself on a diet of peppers and milk and seeing bodies fall past his window in his Los Angeles home, all the while believing Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page had put a curse on him and that the Stones were sending him subliminal messages.
To say Bowie’s mental health had gone to shit is being generous; the man was losing his mind with each passing second to a point where had no recollection of the sessions of 1976’s Station to Station. Guitarist Carlos Alomar had commented that cocaine was a driving force behind the sessions of the renowned album, enabling recording to go on into the early hours of the morning. Going back to 1974 and to the peak of Bowie’s obsession with soul and his pursuit of the “American Sound”, the scrapped “Who Can I Be Now?”, meant for inclusion on Young Americans, encapsulated the transition from the jagged rhythms and doom-saying of the 1984-inspired Diamond Dogs to the divisive “plastic soul” phase brought on by the following year’s Young Americans, whose material was slowly phased into Bowie’s ongoing tour in North America.
At this point, “Across the Universe” and “Fame” were neither recorded nor intended for inclusion, with the lengthy remake of “John, I’m Only Dancing”, the passionate torch-song “It’s Gonna Be Me”, and “After Today” all considered for the final cut. “Who Can I Be Now?”, in another world, would be the song that defined Bowie’s career – a song that finds its narrator deep within their thoughts, wondering about their place in life, their reason for being, and in Bowie’s case: “Who Can I Be Now?” For a mind beginning to slowly ravage from constant drug abuse, his questions throughout the track are far more introspective than we are led to believe at this point in his career; never has a simple croon like “Can I be real?” sounded simultaneously beautiful and mortifying, but I’ll be damned if this is probably one of the best vocal performances from this era in Bowie’s career.
“Teenage Wildlife” is by far my favorite Bowie song; hell, it honestly may be my favorite song of all-time at this point. Coming from 1980’s Scary Monsters, an album often regarded by many to be the album by which every other Bowie album must be compared. Look at the reviews for Black Tie White Noise… Heathen… Blackstar — there is one constant descriptor, one so lazy and uninspired that it’s grown to be cliché now: “best since Scary Monsters“.
For an album in the shadow of the highly-esteemed Berlin Trilogy and the megahit Let’s Dance, Scary Monsters is quite underrated outside its hit singles “Ashes to Ashes” and “Fashion”, with the true standout of the album, “Teenage Wildlife”, not coming until the very beginning of the record’s second side. A response to the emergence of the New Romantics, to the people holding competitions at nightclubs under the guise of “Bowie nights” and aping his sound, “Teenage Wildlife” takes aim at no particular individual, instead grouping the whole lot of them together in a Springsteenian epic led by a wonderful lead from Robert Fripp (putting in one of his finest performances), Chuck Hammer’s choral guitar synthesizer work, and Roy Bittan’s presence on piano putting the finishing touches on what is, in my humblest of humble opinions, the quintessential Bowie song. It evokes many emotions within me depending on my mood — it could be triumphant one day and tragic the next — but its drama is its staying power, as was 1977’s “Heroes”. Drawing from his well of adolescent influences, Bowie channeled Ronnie Spector for the recording, coming ever close to bawling his eyes out by the end of it as he dissipates within his band’s chorus. It’s nothing short of beautiful.
Rushed out to record store shelves just a year after the insanely successful Let’s Dance, 1984’s Tonight put Bowie’s newfound superstardom in a new perspective. An album that is creatively near-bankrupt, but not without its particular triumphs, Tonight found David Bowie the Innovator being replaced by David Bowie the Complacent. Offering no instrumental input whatsoever, instead leaving the bulk of the work to his band outside of critical input, Bowie only had to worry about nailing his vocals, and in his own recollection, growing distant from his new audience. One of the few originals on the cover-heavy album was the religion-weary “Loving the Alien”; one of Bowie’s more ambitious works during his trek as a superstar, the song took notes from the minimalist sound of Philip Glass’s Einstein on the Beach with its breathy vocal hook while joining it with a tasteful (if not syrupy in some spots) string arrangement by Arif Mardin. Bowie’s combined curiosity with the concept of religion, and his intense disdain for the staggering power of organized religion, served as a starting point for “Alien”; settling imagery of holy lands and religious conspiracies, the song has a vague common ground with other similar topical works such as “Quicksand”, “Station to Station”, and “Seven Years in Tibet”, yet sets itself apart from the rest by outright condemning hopeless prayer in the hope of that “the Heathen lie will disappear,” and conjoining it with the very real consequences of holy wars and destruction in the name of a God, namely the “Alien”.
I have an affinity with 1997’s Earthling; just as old as I am, and very much a product of its time with its drum and bass sound that was just beginning to gain traction, it portrayed a man still willing to experiment, even if it came with mixed results. Earthling is far from being a perfect album, and in consideration that it came after his industrial masterwork Outside instead of the promised Contamination, it most likely led some fans astray, especially those who were invested in the story arc of Nathan Adler and Baby Grace Blue and the mystery behind Art Crime.
While what fans got was the energetic Earthling, one single culled from the tracklist, “Dead Man Walking”, never found proper airing following its album’s tour, and at this point, could easily be mistaken for a deep cut despite the fact it was a minor hit when it came out thanks to the various remixes released, most notably by Moby of Play (and CIA) fame. Revitalizing the riff from 1970’s “The Supermen” (which in turn was a riff given to Bowie by Jimmy Page in 1965) and grouping it with programmed rhythms and synthesized guitar lines, it ultimately gives way to long-time pianist Mike Garson to take the lead along with bassist Gail Ann Dorsey’s soaring vocals, all while keeping the chaotic pair of guitarist Reeves Gabrels and drummer Zachary Alford in check. Surprisingly enough, this was a track that was nearly cut from Earthling along with “The Last Thing You Should Do”, although both were revised and painstakingly salvaged as to spare the world from a ’90s remake of Tin Machine’s “Baby Universal”.
Unfortunately, while we were spared from hearing David Bowie sing “I’m the baby now” over jungle beats, we were not spared from this:
Truly, the ’90s were a dark, dark time.