Music Heroes I: David Bowie (Part 2: The Spiders from Mars)

There are two types of lyric.  Well, there may be more, but I’m only clever enough to think of two.  Firstly, there are lyrics that essentially recount a story or set forth ideas and thoughts in a clear and more or less literal fashion.  This can be done with humour, wit and innovative choice of language…or not.  Secondly, there are lyrics where the meaning is not entirely clear.  It is perhaps hinted at, but the different lines do not necessarily connect together to form a clear narrative.  There is often use of imagery, metaphor, simile and any other of those kinds of things that I’ve forgotten about.  Sometimes it may appear that lines are thrown in at random or feature obscure details that only the writer could know about, or reference, sometimes obliquely, people, literature or philosophical texts.  

There are two ways of looking at such lyrics.  Well, there may be more, but I’m only clever enough to think of two.  You can treat them like some sort of cryptic crossword, examining the clues to reveal the author’s intended meaning.  This assumes that the writer did have a clear intended meaning that can be deciphered.  It also assumes that the author is deliberately employing a rather annoying strategy of hide and seek to deliver a message, requiring you to work hard at the unravelling, rather than just making it clear.  Although these things are conceivable, for me this kind of lyrical technique offers the listener the opportunity to interpret the meaning in the context of their own experience.  In some ways, the writer has released control of the words and they are now yours to play with.  It makes them more interesting.  Some lyricists are not trying to convey a literal clear message, but rather a feeling or mood, vague atmospheres, disconnected ideas and thoughts, weird dream-like fragments, ingredients that can make a pleasing whole, but don’t necessarily tell a clear story.  As a lyricist, you are free to throw in a line simply because it appeals to you, despite not being clearly connected in any narrative way to what else is written; it just sounds right.  I have no problem with that.  The listener may have to put some thought into their interpretations, actively using their imagination, but it can be more rewarding.  There is a price to be paid: the danger that people will interpret what’s been written very badly, jump to ridiculous conclusions based on what they perceive to be obscure references to fascism or the like, inferring dark intentions, conveniently forgetting that lyrics are often written in character and not necessarily the camouflaged beliefs of the writer.  I once ended up in a futile on-line argument about Lou Reed, with someone convinced that Reed was advocating wife-beating on his Berlin album.  Inevitably, the internet is full of such stuff.  People see what they want to see.  

There is, of course, always the option of not even trying to fathom out what’s being said at all.  You can just sing along, or even hum, or mumble the wrong words…

Bowie produced both kinds of lyrics, but by 1971 he was using the literal clear narrative sort less.  He never completely abandoned it, but he was experimenting.  He never stopped experimenting.

Hunky Dory (December 1971): We can only be thankful for the patience and indulgence shown by record companies back in the early seventies.  If they recognised talent, they were prepared to back it and tolerate commercial failures, in Bowie’s case several commercial failures, but he must have been close to testing their patience beyond its limit.  The Man Who Sold The World had not sold well to the world, the band was essentially broken up, though after several months of interim, Ronson was (fortunately) persuaded back, with drummer Woody Woodmansey, and the future Spiders from Mars line-up was assembled.  Tony Visconti was replaced on bass by Trevor Bolder and no longer involved in production.  Crucially, the services of keyboard wizard Rick Wakeman, also a contributor on Space Oddity, were secured.  Bowie had some new songs…

Being the charming raconteur that he is, Wakeman tells a good tale of being mesmerised as Bowie reeled off his new songs on the 12 string.  The heavy sound was out, melody was to the fore and, on the album, the keyboards were set for centre stage.  And that was where Rick came in.  Having commended their foresight in backing talent despite no commercial returns being forthcoming, I remain utterly baffled by the reports that the record company moaned about there being no candidates for a single.  The album has ChangesOh! You Pretty ThingsLife On Mars? and Kooks on side 1 alone.  What more do they want?  Peter Noone (of Herman’s Hermits fame) actually had a hit with Oh! You Pretty Things, a bizarre shift from “I’m ‘Enery the Eighth, I am” in a mockney accent and “Mrs. Brown You’ve Got A Lovely Daughter” as the northern lad next door to “Homo sapiens have outgrown their use…”.  Life on Mars? was, of course, a hit single later on, in 1973, and is now pretty much universally known, possibly even on Mars.  It’s also indisputably one of Bowie’s finest songs, with Mick Ronson’s sumptuous string arrangements, the wonderfully meandering piano, the restrained and subtle guitar embellishments, and Bowie’s dramatic vocal delivery combining in spellbinding fashion.  How was it even conceivable that somebody might hear the final version of that and not consider it potential single material?  But such was the world back in 1971…

Side One of Hunky Dory is almost impossibly good: peak Bowie the songwriter, accentuated by Wakeman’s tinkling virtuosity.  The opening four tracks hang together like a piano-based suite, a flowing stream of warm impermanence”.  The album opens with musings on the nature of change. “Turn and face the strange changes”.  Very apt for Bowie, who was always turning, forever changing.  The piano merges the following three tracks into each other in pleasing fashion, Eight Line Poem acting as an engaging conduit between two heavyweights (don’t you dare skip it…), with the piano joined by Ronson’s guitar in melodic mood, as Bowie recites his obscure poem.  Oh! You Pretty Things can be made to sound like a pop song, as Peter Noone proved, but the apparent philosophical references and imagery make it unlike your average chart fodder, though it does seem to address intergenerational strife, a not uncommon topic in the hit parade.  On the other side of Eight Line Poem, we get one of Bowie’s most famous songs of all.  To me Life on Mars? is dripping with disappointed nostalgia, reflecting on the forlorn tedium of everyday frustrated life in a humdrum place surrounded by dull people.  The only escape is found via fantasy, Bowie being an expert on that, though even the fantasy served up by the movies seems unsatisfactory.  The song conveys the feeling of being trapped. Bowie, of course, escaped his suburbia.  I’ve also got a strong emotional attachment to the song, with clear childhood memories of being on holiday at some seaside town, sitting on the steps of our B & B, probably waiting for my mum and dad to come down the stairs, and hearing Life on Mars? on the radio. It must have been 1973, aged 12, but it’s engrained in my brain, and adds to that nostalgic feel.

Whilst the piano takes a break, with Kooks, we return to literal lyrics, as Bowie serves up a rather touching and cheery ode to his new child, with questionable thoughts on parental responsibility regarding homework, though the advice about avoiding fights with bullies and cads remains sound.  Side 1 ends with the dark Quicksand, a slow strumming acoustic song littered with philosophical and other references from the smorgasbord of a confused mind.

As if to shift spirits on to cheerier ground, side 2 begins with the jaunty Fill Your Heart, Bowie’s first cover version to feature on an album.  It’s a somewhat eccentric choice, but does merge rather nicely into Andy Warhol, a splendid acoustic guitar track, featuring a wonderful anti-guitar solo near the end, where repeated harmonics are played.  It’s the first of two tribute songs, though Warhol famously did not appreciate his tribute. Perhaps it was the “jolly boring thing to do line that did it.  Whether he liked it or not, or would ever have admitted it, Warhol probably ended up with more fans because of this song.  I love to play this tune on the guitar.  If I’m ever brave enough to record a Bowie cover, this will be the song.  I’ve sung it to myself, and I liked it, so what could possibly go wrong?

Ronson the electric guitar maestro gets to demonstrate his skills on Song for Bob Dylan, though the piano and acoustic still dominate.  Ronno is fully outed on Queen Bitch.  In retrospect, this serves as an appetiser for what’s coming up, the full-on Ziggy experience.  It also inspired the world to go searching for bipperty-boppertyhats.

The album closes with The Bewlay Brothers.  Some have interpreted it as being about Bowie’s relationship with his brother.  I’m rather sceptical given Bowie’s already clearly established history of making all manner of weird stuff up and singing in character. To me, it’s an enigmatic guitar strumming folk ballad, containing great lines, reflective of some time past. Whether it’s really personal or fictional is not at all clear, leaving the way for people to interpret however they feel.  It does include the lyric “lay me place and bake me pie, I’m starving for me gravy”.  So there’s that.

Writing this has made me think more about the album than usual.  As well as great individual songs, Hunky Dory is actually full of contrast and variety, and yet seems to hold together cohesively; that itself is another contrast.  For a lot of people, it’s their favourite Bowie album, and I can understand that.  As with the previous LPs, it didn’t sell that well when it was first released, despite getting a good reception from the critics.  It seems extraordinary now.  Eventually, it was a big commercial success, but only after Bowie had made his breakthrough with the follow-up.  In truth, it’s all about getting noticed, and not enough people were aware of the existence of Hunky Dory, or David Bowie, except maybe as that one-hit wonder space guy from a few years ago.  I’m sure that Bowie knew this.  He had been trying many things in an attempt to get noticed.  Around this time, Bowie would have been very conscious of the success of his great mate Marc Bolan, transformed from cult hippy strummer, sitting cross-legged in front of a smattering of admiring acolytes, to glam rock star, strutting in front of thousands of screaming girls, and getting approving nods and hero-worship from just as many males.  Bolan was now one of the biggest names in pop, with a couple of number one singles and the UK’s best-selling album of 1971, another number one.  I got Electric Warrior for Christmas in 1971, and I was only ten.  That’s how huge Bolan was all of a sudden.  He was bonafide famous.  Ah, thought Bowie to himself (I imagine).  It would appear that Boley has got himself noticed then.  I see…  I’d best forget about me pie and me gravy and get me arse in gear.  He almost certainly didn’t say that to himself, but you get the idea…

The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1972).  Clearly, this is Bowie’s most significant album.  In order to become a rock star, he acted the part of a rock star; a self-fulfilling prophecy.  It’s going to be very difficult to say anything new about this album, but I’ll try, in my own modest way, to say something worthwhile.  Much is made of it as a concept album, but it doesn’t have the clear narrative of, for example, The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway.  Bowie as the archetypal doomed rock star is the concept.  I think I’m a rock star, therefore I am a rock star.  It worked.  Was it genius, or bleeding obvious?  The timing was perfect, riding the glam wave, following in Bolan’s slipstream.  The only hit from the album was Starman, a late addition because the record label was once again miffed by the apparent lack of single material.  But it was enough to get Bowie noticed and launch his career into the stratosphere.  They bought the single, then they bought the album, and then they bought everything.  They includes me.

Like so many of Bowie’s classic albums, the first and final tracks set the borders beautifully.  They are amongst Bowie’s greatest songs.  The two tracks are similar in structure.  From gentle, quiet beginnings to searing crescendo.  With the closing track, ending on that dramatic cello, this is achieved in under three minutes; stick that in your Bolero and smoke it, Mr Ravel… 

The famous faded-in drums of Five Years open the album, with Bowie narrating scenes from a dystopian earth, its people tortured by the knowledge that their remaining time is limited.  It’s a sci-fi idea in the form of a song, following in the footsteps of some of his previous work.  Having reached its discordant climax, with Bowie’s ever more anguished vocals atop the sinister strings and a dispassionate choir repeating the Five Yearsmantra, the track allows some respite, fading out on the same persistent drumbeat that runs throughout, until the drums mutate into the start of Soul Love.   In interviews Bowie has linked it into the Ziggy Stardust character narrative, but it stands on its own as a fine piece of work, especially in the era of global climate change.

Soul Love muses on the subject of love, but with splatterings of darkness, and even political relevance for then and now: “she kneels before the grave, a brave son, who gave his life to save the slogans…”. It’s got a pleasant but melancholic vibe, with periodic passages featuring heavier electric guitar sounds, just in case you get too mellow.  Bowie also plays a rather splendid melodic saxophone solo, a reminder of the instrument that first set him on his musical journey.

The pleasant foot-tapping fade-out of Soul Love is rudely interrupted by a blast from Mick Ronson’s electric, and suddenly we’re into Moonage Daydream which, like Hang On To Yourself, started life as a track released as part of the Arnold Corns project, a short-lived diversion in 1971, again without success.  Here we have Bowie in character, our “rock’ n’ rollin’ bitch”, a more obvious link to the rock star theme. On the album, the track brings Ronson’s rock guitar to the fore.  In live shows, it was a cue for him to properly go off on one, taking centre stage, briefly upstaging the boss. There’s a hypnotic feel to the repetitiveness, with subtle alterations to the arrangement to keep you interested, along with the soaring guitar. 

Starman is another of those lovely acoustic guitar songs to learn.  With the strings beautifully integrated and Ronson’s disciplined but effective electric guitar playing, the song was evidence that Bowie was finally getting the hang of how to write an obvious hit song. Side One ends with a Kinks cover version, It Ain’t Easy, kind of emphasising my point that this doesn’t really hang together as a concept album as such.  The message here is that things are hard, but you can make it through.  If you’re determined that it should fit an overall story, it can be done, but that applies to almost anything.  Perhaps that was the idea.  It’s a song that he had played in sessions on the BBC previously.  Bowie was a big fan of Ray Davies songs, understandably…

Side Two starts with Lady Stardust, musically a mournful piano-based tune reminiscent of the Hunky Dorysound.  With the lyrics, Bowie is playing with us, and with gender ambiguity, but a demo version suggests that he also has his old chum Marc Bolan and the recent ascendance to fame in mind, the scamp.  “Ooh how I sighed, when they asked if I knew his name”.  Mind you, the reference to “songs of darkness and dismay”could very easily be applied to Bowie himself.  After that, we have a run of songs that could readily be imagined as part of rock show by the character Ziggy, though the Ziggy Stardust track itself reads more like a post-mortem on the demise of the band, told by a fellow band member, happy to hang some dirty washing in public.  Ziggy, playing the egotistical big star, often pissed the guys off: “we bitched about his fans and should we crush his sweet hands”.  Probably a few worker band members recognise that feeling; it shows that Bowie has a pretty good understanding of humanity.

StarHang On To Yourself and Suffragette City are all high tempo rock tracks, with Bowie sounding like the archetypal rock ‘n’ roll singer, and do wopla labom bom nonsense backing vocals in proper 50s/60s style thrown in (on Star).  Mind you, he always was partial to a bit of that. The vocals on the short and sweet Hang On To Yourself sound splendid, Bowie accompanying himself to great effect, as he often did. The track also has a pleasing meandering bass, and again demonstrates how Ronson can reign in his guitar axeman instincts.  He could show off if he wanted to, and he was let loose in live shows, but they both recognised that more discipline was required on an album.  You didn’t need to use everything that you’ve got.  It’s what sounds right that matters, not what shows off your skills and inflates your ego.

Suffragette City, along with Queen Bitch, was regularly played at the Cyprus Tavern in Manchester ten years later, when I was a student, emphasising the influence of this style on the punk and new wave generation that followed.  Bowie’s all-encompassing presence as grandmaster of the zeitgeist was further emphasised by the smattering of Iggy Pop and Lou Reed songs also regularly on the play-list.  His kiss of approval re-launched both of their careers. Of course, Bowie’s seedy rock instincts on this album were heavily influenced by them, especially the Velvet Underground, so the debt was being repaid.

The Side 2 rock tracks have broad appeal.  Though superficially relatively simple, they are performed with professional slickness, Bowie sounding every bit the rock singer, but Ronson’s role is crucial, not only as guitarist and keyboard player, but in the arrangements.  At the end of Suffragette City, the real end rather than the teasing dummy end, we get one of the great album transitions, from noisy sudden exit to gentle strumming entrance.  I love Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide.  It’s a perfect song: the structure, the arrangement, especially the gorgeous strings and brass embellishments, the way it builds, the climactic ending.  In some ways, it’s a shame that the universality of the lyrics might be obscured because of the rock and roll star focus, because I suspect that the song addresses feelings that afflict many suffering from mental health issues.  At the end, as the music reaches its crescendo, Bowie is left pleading, almost screaming, with real passion for the sufferer to recognise their worth, to step back from the brink: “you’re not alonegimme your hands, ‘cause you’re wonderful”.  

It’s a truly breathtaking, powerful finish to the album, which is why any attempts to shove bonus tracks on the end after it constitute a crime against humanity (well, art anyway).  I usually have to take a deep breath after the drama of Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide.  Not your standard pop music this, even though it was released as a single.  It peaked in the nether regions of the top 30.  I don’t think that Pan’s People were asked to come up with a dance routine for it.  I could be wrong. Maybe they’ve even had a minor soap actor dancing an angst-ridden tango routine to it on Strictly.  Actually, that might work.  It’s got the tension and drama.

Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide is yet another glorious song to learn on the guitar, but you’d have to be a pretty confident singer to try and reproduce the original vocals.  Following The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars everything changed for Bowie.  Suddenly, he was right up there with his old pal Bolan, or pretty close. Both of them now had fame to cope with. 

Aladdin Sane (1973): .  

I bought Aladdin Sane as soon as it was released.  Some think of it as Ziggy Part Two, perhaps even dismissing it as repeating the trick.  I disagree.  I think it’s fundamentally different.  Whereas with the Ziggy album Bowie was dipping his toe, testing the water, here he is fully emersed.  He’s gone from playing the famous rock star to being it.  The album is more exuberant, more confidence, edgier, dirtier.  

It was mostly written during Bowie’s gruelling tour of the USA.  Each of the tracks has a sub-heading identifying mainly US locations; telling us where the song was written.  The album smacks of Bowie throwing himself into the darker and seedier sides of the American experience, basking in his new-found celebrity, living it large.

Watch that Man, the opening track, sets the scene; it’s a raunchy rock number plunging us into the role of voyeur at some probably drug-fuelled party, with New York identified as the likely setting, but it’s the glorious title track Aladdin Sane that draws our attention to the new musical innovation, Mike Garson’s jazz piano playing, which take this and other tracks to a different level, creating a unique sound.  The lyrics are brief.  We get a character name, and notions of departure and melancholy, but there is no sense that the rest of the album is intended to take this any further.  However, the inventive sometimes discordant keyboard, and playful saxophone, enhance the uneasy feeling generated by the driving hypnotic backing to create a wonderful dark mood. 

There are so many great tracks on this album.  Drive-In Saturday is a beautifully constructed song, one of Bowie’s best.  It’s got the nostalgic feeling of Life on Mars? though the lyrics disappear off in flights of impenetrable fancy, throwing in references whilst keeping any coherent meaning well hidden.  Along with The Jean Genie, it was a top three hit single in the UK.  Panic In Detroit reputedly describes a busy rush-hour scene.  “A trickle of strangers were all that were left alive” suggests it was an especially bad rush hour.  It is, of course, Bowie drifting off into dystopia again.  Side One ends with Cracked Actor, Bowie in full-on rock sleaze mode.  This track exemplifies the altogether dirtier and seedier rock vibe compared to the previous album.

In Time we are treated to a dramatic rock cabaret piece, Garson’s piano again to the fore, as the music alternates between the keyboard dueting with Bowie the vocalist, and the rock kitchen sink being thrown at it.  Again, the sordid darkness shines through (making darkness shine was another Bowie talent).  The Prettiest Star, was already quite an old song.  On the original version from a few years earlier, Marc Bolan had played guitar.  If an interview with Bowie is to be believed, the pleasing guitar riff may well have been Bolan’s idea.  Certainly, the foot-tapping rock feel make it one of Bowe’s most T-Rex-like tracks.

Midway through the second side, Bowie includes a cover of a Rolling Stones song, Let’s Spend the Night Together.  Compared to the original, Bowie really sounds desperate, like he really means it; like he is gagging for it.  It makes it fit nicely with the general sleazy feel.  The Jean Genie was released some time before the album and already well known.  The song’s classic repeated riff, coupled with Bowie’s vocal delivery, made it an obvious hit. As for the lyrics, who knows what the singalong chorus, and especially the love of chimney stacks, means?  Who cares, it sounds great.

Bowie ends the album with another beautiful song.  On Lady Grinning Soul, Garson’s shimmering piano and Bowie’s lush vocals give the track a surreal cabaret feeling, and Ronson’s Spanish Guitar style solo is wonderful.  It’s a splendid ending, Bowie’s lovely vocals and Garson’s piano guiding us through to the fade-out with a glowing feeling.  I’ve changed my mind about Desert Island Discs.  This is the Bowie track I’m choosing now.

The album marks the end of the Spiders from Mars.  It was a fine way to go out.  If absolutely forced to choose, I would probably select Aladdin Sane as my favourite.  Now famous in the UK, making inroads in the USA and seemingly determined to make that his focus, Bowie broke up the band.

Published by Craig Winstanley

I make music. I create videos and photographic collages, some of which are accompanied by music.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: