Are you there? Okay, cool; you managed to cope with the visual documentation of why recorders were, once and for all time, a mistake nobody could compensate nor understand. Better yet, you read two volumes of some guy from the Midwest freaking out over David Bowie. What I lack in professionalism I make up for in enthusiasm, overbearing as it may be, and believe or not, this is end of the first Deep Cuts series – very much a work-in-progress – but not the end of what will become a regular mainstay of the site’s blogs for the time being. With that out of the way, we travel to 1979 to look upon the lonely and absurd Lodger.
The finale of the Berlin Triptych, Lodger already portrayed the Bowie/Eno union coming to an end. Both parties were finally losing interest, with Eno now focusing his attention towards the upstart Talking Heads and Bowie moving towards more commercial aspirations, his three-year long simultaneous detox and Krautrock/Berlin School tribute reaching its conclusion. The second track from the album, “African Night Flight”, is an anomaly even for the Berlin records, all of which featured uncompromising experimentation and challenged Bowie’s audience that had stuck around following his ventures through salacious glam excess and detached cocaine funk — or constantly alienated them and label execs, who pushed hard for more Young Americans.
And most importantly, the triptych was a denial of conformity that Bowie would fall right into eventually. “African Night Flight” perfectly embodied this denial, rejecting all notions of what a pop song could possibly be; Lodger didn’t have the ponderous ambient pieces Low or “Heroes” had, but what it did have was a sense of adventure. Hell, the first side’s concept was centered around the idea of travel and exploration, with “African Night Flight” being Bowie’s journey into the African bushlands. “African Night Flight”, much like some of the material of the record’s first side, are vignettes in Bowie’s musical trek; in this chapter, Bowie took inspiration from old German war veterans who could be found in Kenyan bars and would often smuggle contraband and perform other odd jobs while boozing up in the interim. “Night Flight” features a cut-and-paste vocal, practically rapped, while the backing track is on the verge of falling apart, in desperate need of stability. Eno contributed prepared piano and “cricket menace”, which was a combination of a drum machine and a synthesizer; this contribution, along with the odd rhythmic structures, adds to the messy quality of “Night Flight”. Chaotic is the only proper way to describe the finished product: Bowie certainly does not help with his vocal, shifting from a deadpan rap to manic shrieking converging with the increasingly monotonous lyric.
As deservedly maligned as it may be, Never Let Me Down, believe it or not, was the first phase of Bowie on the mend. The songs, for better or worse, were a return to straightforward rock with a hint of theatricality; the Glass Spider tour even more so, with its massive stage set (designed by Mark Ravits, the designer of the poorly-documented “Hunger City” set of Bowie’s Diamond Dogs tour) and a troupe of dancers, evoking the ambitious 1972 Rainbow Theatre performance led by Lindsay Kemp’s mime troupe, further supporting the show’s “Rock stars v. Reality” concept. It was the beginning of the end of Bowie’s pop stardom and the inklings of what the future held (even if it meant slogging through three albums’ worth of mediocrity with Tin Machine).
Never Let Me Down isn’t even the worst thing Bowie had put his name upon, with Tonight floundering spectacularly — even Never Let Me Down had more ambition behind it even if its creator dismissed it in the following years. Tonight had the misfortune of being forgotten outside its two singles (“Loving the Alien” and “Blue Jean”) and being a glorified cash-grab to hold the momentum that Let’s Dance had begun. What was the ultimate revenge against former manager Tony DeFries (who had pocketed the money made from the success of Ziggy and so on, up until the end of Bowie’s contract with DeFries’ group MainMan in 1980), putting out his highest-selling record yet with Let’s Dance and becoming a superstar in the process, had already run its course. Bowie now tired of the demands bestowed upon him by new label EMI and sought a new route out of the stale pop tropes he had now trapped himself within.
Never Let Me Down was the beginning of this realization, and while it’s not that great of record, it does contain the underrated ditties “Time Will Crawl” and “Never Let Me Down”, the latter being the song I selected for this series. Both were singles, with the latter being Bowie’s final U.S. Top 40 single (at no. 27) until Blackstar‘s “Lazarus” (at no. 40). Provided the record they were on was hampered by corny musical acrobatics and an overall lack of enthusiasm, “Never Let Me Down” was another one of Bowie’s ‘personal’ songs, this one being dedicated to his long-time assistant Coco Schwab, who aided Bowie throughout his perilous addiction in the mid-’70s and into his emergence as one of the biggest pop stars in the ’80s. What contrasts “Never Let Me Down” from the album it’s on is the sincerity not found elsewhere — a brief reprieve from ’80s pop clichés and theatrical excesses, although not without its own failings (most notably the bland rhythm track, which is prevalent throughout Never Let Me Down). Bowie’s vocal, an homage to the deceased John Lennon, leaves a bit to be desired; while demanding on Bowie, who was now singing in a lower register (since Let’s Dance), the vocal bordered between an agonizing whine and a spontaneous imitation of Lennon. “Never Let Me Down” was birthed from spontaneous action — a last-minute addition to the record it was housed in — and as a result sounds far more refreshing and enthused than most, if not all, of the other cuts from Never Let Me Down.
At its release in 1995, Outside must’ve seemed like a dream come true for Bowie obsessives, with Brian Eno as well as Spiders-era pianist Mike Garson returning to the fold. Outside must’ve taken fans for a ride as well, not being the album they expected from Bowie and Eno, who crafted a surreal world of ritual art murder soundtracked to industrial rock music. Quite honestly, Outside is perhaps one of Bowie’s finest works, and his true comeback… so how come it’s so underrated? It had all the grit and hunger that none of his post-Let’s Dance material had and by far had the ambition those albums lacked. Bowie wasn’t aiming for commercial success, not unlike the false starts that were Black Tie White Noise and The Buddha of Suburbia; what Bowie was going for with Outside was an expansive story arc that would span over three albums and the rest of the ’90s that, as we all now know, did not come to fruition.
With the story of Baby Grace and Nathan Adler forever left in the void and the vastly underrated “Strangers When We Meet” being the cliffhanger to a story without an end, Outside was misunderstood from day one, whether it be from claims of being bloated, confusing, or being too far a departure, even by Bowie’s standards. The man who had recorded the confusing storyline that was The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and had put out the Berlin trilogy had suddenly gone too far, with Outside being condemned to a cult following at best and forgotten at worst. Two cuts from this masterpiece found its way to this series: “The Motel” and “We Prick You”, both songs radically different from one another. The jazzy noir setting of “The Motel” took wild stabs at its inspiration: Scott Walker’s “The Electrician” and echoed the song’s hopelessness in the lyric “There is no hell / There is no shame,” offering a parallel with Walker’s refrain “There is no help.” “The Motel” is Bowie staring into the void, Garson providing his utmost tacky jazz piano that would not sound out of place in a boozed-up lounge in the early morning hours; Bowie broods as the song progresses, before exploding into a dramatic climax of revulsion and disdain as “The Motel” dies out once and leaves Outside‘s characters in an intermission before launching into the plot-heavy jaunt “I Have Not Been to Oxford Town”.
“We Prick You”, on the other hand, was Bowie at his most violent. Outside‘s plot was reaching its climax, the sexual innuendo-laced “Prick” (“dripping on the end of a gun”; “wanna come quick, then die”) being the album’s “interrogation piece”, if the constant refrain “Tell the truth” didn’t already give it away. “Prick” is distinct in that it previews Bowie’s drum and bass direction pursued on Earthling, but is very much a part of Outside outside of its significance to the story: the lyricism being very scattershot, the delivery aggressive, and the theme becoming more and more hostile in nature, despite the reassurances offered (“You show respect / even if you disagree”). Unlike “The Motel”, “We Prick You” did not find its way to the stage after the Outside tour, whereas “The Motel” became a fan-favorite during live performances, and for good reason.
1999’s Hours found Bowie going full-on Adult Contemporary, with the artist coming back down to Earth following the astronomical heights of Outside and Earthling and recording another straightforward rock album. What very few do know is that Hours (as we know it) was originally meant, as guitarist Reeves Gabrel has opined, to have a raw quality akin to that of Diamond Dogs; of course, what we got was far much more mellow and arguably much more dated. Hours struggles at times to muster the energy to support its material, which is admittedly, at worst, less than stellar. “Something in the Air” is one of the exceptions found on the album, a song that mourns the end of many things, whether it be a marriage or the 20th century. “Air”‘s strengths lies in its lyrics, depicting a relationship that’s only being continued as a means to a belated end (“It feels like we never had a chance / Don’t look me in the eye”; “We can’t avoid the clash, the big mistake”), although its narrator makes an attempt at piecing together a union that both sides have acknowledged has failed. What is lost within the murkiness of Hours is a constant theme of failure, acceptance, and dreams: concepts all aligning with Bowie’s sentiments that his time in the spotlight was reaching its definite end. He was now the elder statesman and not the youthful rock star; his time dying as the 20th century did.
Reality was the end of an era, in a way; Bowie had all but retired following a heart attack during the tour supporting the record and would never tour again. Ten years would pass between Reality and The Next Day, with “Bring Me the Disco King” being what closed the book on the era of Bowie’s reemergence. Fittingly enough, “Disco King” was the closer of Reality and the end of Bowie as we knew him. “Disco King” was also a farewell to his past: to the cocaine years, to the pop stardom, to the eclectic discoveries of the ’90s where “Disco King” was birthed as a “kitschy slam at late Seventies disco” and demoed during the sessions for 1993’s Black Tie White Noise. It did not make the cut. It was demoed again, this time for 1997’s Earthling, and once more it didn’t see a release. To the cutting floor it went through and straight to development hell all over the span of a decade.
“Disco King”‘s emergence on Reality is miraculous in nature, a salvage job if anything — the song being held together by drum loops (courtesy of Heathen drummer Matt Chamberlain) and Mike Garson in one of his finest hours as Bowie’s pianist. It would also be the final song he’d play with Bowie. The final product bids farewell to the ’70s… to the ’90s… and to youth, once and for all. Reality contrasted from Heathen, fighting tooth and nail to retain an inkling of the youth its creator had previously admitted was gone. “Disco King” dismissed this fight, discarding its ancestry and leaving itself barren of prior identity, leaving the trio of Bowie, Garson, and Chamberlain to craft a new sound for a song that had been a mere idea for a decade. “Bring Me the Disco King” is a eulogy, a resignation; god forbid it be the last song and the final say in a storied career, a work that asks its listeners to forget everything its creator had promised them, begging them to let him disappear.
This did not happen. The end was yet to come, although had this been the end of David Bowie the Musician, it would’ve been a fine, if not, sobering curtain call. Its closest cousins being the title cut of Aladdin Sane (being just as versed in jazz vocabulary) and the tired fatalism of “It’s No Game (Part Two)”, which also signaled an end of an era all the way back in 1980, “Bring Me the Disco King” combined the elements of both songs into a weary jazz slow burner that foreclosed the notion of the myth of David Bowie: that even legends must die. No happy ending nor a triumphant farewell — just the end. The difference is that David Bowie fought to the end, even in the face of certain defeat.
And for added bonus, the playlist. This is an alternate guide that features songs not included (although in varying iterations); most notably, despite being one of his most renowned works, his final performance of “Life on Mars?” in 2005:
Previously on The Guide to… series: