If I was allowed a trip back in time to talk to my 12-year-old self and offer one valuable piece of advice, but only one, the conversation might go like this:
Me: so will I get a good job, live a fairly normal, happy life, get married, be successful?
Older me: Forget about that nonsense, this is important. Do NOT sell or give away any of your vinyl albums, especially in order to replace them with bloody cassette tapes. Dolby or not, they are shite! You’ll still be able to play your vinyl 50 years from now. Cassettes are a total bollocks of a format in comparison.
Me: do I swear a lot in the future then?
Older me: that’s two pieces of information, so I can’t tell you that. But yes…
And because the rule was broken, my younger self was never able to assimilate this valuable piece of advice. But more of that later, let’s get back to the albums…
Pin Ups (1973): The kids hadn’t killed the man, Bowie did that himself, and he also broke up the band. Having said that, all but the drummer contributed to Pin Ups, a surprising album of cover versions, with Bowie paying homage to some of his musical heroes. As with Lou Reed and Iggy Pop, the Bowie sign of approval would have helped to draw the attention of a new generation to the work of some artists, though in the case of bands like Pink Floyd and The Who, still very much around and selling plenty of records, this wasn’t really necessary. It’s a bright and breezy interlude of an album, giving Bowie the chance to show off his saxophone skills. The arrangements are slick, and you can tell that Bowie is enjoying himself. Many of the cover versions are actually very true to the originals; See Emily Play, for example. Others, such as the standout track Sorrow, chosen as the single, take the original to a whole new level, with string arrangements replacing the simple harmonica of the original, a 1965 B-side by a band called the McCoys. The Merseybeats had a hit with the song in 1966, a pretty limp attempt to make it sound a bit like the Beatles. The album ends with a meaty cover version of Where Have All The Good Times Gone, a Kinks B-side given some well-deserved prominence, with a nostalgic Bowie recounting the nostalgic lyrics of Ray Davies.
Diamond Dogs (1974): Bowie’s first truly post-Spiders album retained Garson on keyboards, but the other musicians were new, with Bowie himself taking care of the guitar and saxophone. The bass was played by Herbie Flowers, famous for the massive Clive Dunn maudlin number one hit Grandad (which he wrote)…, oh, and playing on something called Walk on the Wild Side. Tony Visconti was back to help with the production and string arrangements, but this was clearly the man going his own way.
The outer cover, with its mythical half Bowie half dog creature, fully visible only when you open up the gatefold, supplemented by an inside cover scene of misty futuristic city skyline, along with introductory text featured on Future Legend, gets you in the mood for something strange. And from the very start, with Bowie reciting the opening narration, commencing with “and in the death, as the last few corpses lay rotting on the slimy thoroughfare…” we are left in little doubt of a return to dystopian territory. In fact, much of the album is rescued from ill-starred musical/theatrical projects, including one based on the Orwell novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. This goes some way to explaining why it doesn’t quite have the same coherence as some of its predecessors. Yet Diamond Dogs undeniably contains passages, sometimes very long passages, of brilliance. The start and end uphold the standards of magnificence expected from a classic Bowie album, and there are two hit singles, Rebel Rebel and the title track, boasting memorable guitar riffs, and linking clearly with a trajectory established with singles such as The Jean Genie.
After the opening sci-fi introduction atop howling and other strange, unnerving noises, the title track is announced with the disconcerting warning that “this ain’t rock ‘n’ roll, this is genocide…”, before sashaying through a wail of multitrack guitars, saxophone and treated vocals, with occasional supplementary howling thrown in sporadically. After rousing us with what, despite the introduction, sounds like a pretty fine, if slightly unhinged, rock ‘n’roll track to me, the highlight of the album comes with the glorious Sweet Thing–Candidate–Sweet Thing (reprise) run that dominates Side One. After its eerie opening, sounding like some instruments may be getting replayed backwards, we are transported to dark and seedy streets, Bowie varying scene setting with what seems to be a tale of a probably doomed romantic encounter. Though the meaning isn’t made entirely clear as the narrative accelerates through the Candidate section and beyond, there’s a feeling of being trapped in some hopeless underworld. The music is sumptuous and theatrical, Garson’s slightly crazed, gloomy bar piano accompanying a Bowie voice that commences at a level several notches lower than we have ever heard it before, dredging atmosphere from the depths. The vocals vary dramatically, Bowie narrating at times, accompanying himself with odd high-pitched harmonics at others. There’s a definite nod to the Prog Rock-style of sectioning tracks like movements in a classical piece, as with Width of a Circle before it and Station to Station after.
As the track appears to be reaching a climax of sorts, it breaks instead into the Candidate section, which starts slowly but accelerates to build the drama, Bowie’s voice commencing low and slow, but ascending and building momentum towards some ill-fated crescendo, before ending suddenly with a huge saxophone break, and returning to the more sedate reprise of the Sweet Thing theme. Candidate ends with the narrator’s suggestion that they should buy drugs, watch a band, then jump into the river holding hands; again the feeling of no way out. The final Sweet Thing section gives us a bit more of Garson’s disorienting keyboards, before ending with a repeated rock refrain that breaks directly into Rebel Rebel. Although it’s now a familiar rock classic, the song is really not quite the same if you listen to it without the dramatic predecessor.
In fact, there is an utter necessity to listen to the tracks on Side One in this particular order, which is why my idiotic sudden conversion to Dolby Cassette Tapes rather than vinyl (because you don’t get scratches), coupled with the brutal artistic ignorance of the record company, was such a disaster. Presumably to save tiny amounts of money, evening up the two sides, or perhaps out of pure malignant hatred for their customers, they switched the order of the tracks around stupidly. My schooldays were a haze of buying vinyl, selling vinyl to buy tapes, then re-buying vinyl and ending up with both, but I was stuck with the wrong order for a disturbingly long amount of time (one day would be too long). It was not quite as calamitous as the track order switching on the cassette of the Lamb Lies Down on Broadway (utterly inexcusable), but it was bad enough
Returning to the order of play as intended by the artist, Side Two commences with Rock ‘n’ Roll With Me, a rather standard-sounding romantic rock ballad that sits a little incongruously on the album. We then get a run of tracks based around the Nineteen-Eighty Four theme. We Are the Dead sounds suitably sinister and, like Big Brother, recapitulates the mood of Sweet Thing, a feel unique to this album. The lyrics are not obviously following the Orwell story, despite the title, though there are certainly hints such as: “I hear them on the stairs, because of all we’ve seen, because of all we’ve said, we are the dead.”
1984 on the other hand, pleasant though it is, never seemed quite right to me, with its disco string arrangement, theme from Shaft funky guitar, and foot-tapping jollity. As a track in its own right, it sounds fine, but maybe it’s a good job the Musical idea didn’t come to anything… However, there’s a strong ending to the album, with Big Brother reprising the sinister mood with a dutiful ode to the mighty Big Bro, before morphing into the wonderful and weird Chant of the Ever Circling Skeletal Family, finishing with a prolonged repetition of “ bro, bro, bro, bro…”, as if the record was stuck, something that can also go wrong with vinyl.
I loved the album at the time, and still do, even though I wouldn’t rate it quite as highly as, say, Aladdin Sane. Being a rather stupid 13-year-old when I bought it, originally on cassette, I ended up taking it back, thinking there were missing tracks, having been confused by the way that Sweet Thing–Candidate–Sweet Thing (reprise) merge into each other. What a prat…but I wouldn’t have done that if I’d been sensible enough to get the vinyl version from the start rather than some months later. I should have demanded my money back for the mutilation of track order had I known. Actually, I was a wimp, so I probably wouldn’t have had the nerve to do that.
Young Americans (1975): It would be a few years before I could experience it myself, but at some point in the 1970s, soul music mutated into a night out at the Howard Arms on the outskirts of Chorley, with moustachioed DJs who fancied themselves as potential talent for daytime Radio 1, lording it over a vast array of vinyl disco dross. It’s when I recollect my early disco experiences that I can most relate to Morrissey’s lyrics on Panic, especially the “Hang the DJ” part. By 1979, Bowie was an oasis in the desert of 70s disco pap, where for every Nile Rogers there were ten D-I-S-C-Os, Starship Troopers, Boots up the side of somewhere or others, Disco Infernos or YMCAs. This aberrant evolutionary pathway was enough to put me off the whole idea of funky music for years.
As a younger teenager, I allowed myself broad and indiscriminate taste, having not yet learned the self-censorship of musical correctness. I was happy listening to singles by Detroit Emeralds, Detroit Spinners, Chairman of the Board, Chi-lites, Isley Brothers, Isaac Hayes, Harold Melvin and the Bluenotes, various Motown and O’Jays, alongside Roxy Music, T-Rex, Bowie et al. One early song I remember really liking in particular, and finding a little odd, especially the vocal style and unusual funky bass, was Family Affair by Sly & Family Stone. I didn’t really know what “soul music” was. I either liked something, or I didn’t. This had begun to change by 1975, when I was developing that regrettable I like this now so can’t like that attitude, probably as I got into more sophisticated Prog Rock bands. Ironically, exactly the same ridiculous attitude had me denying Prog for a couple of decades, when I moved into the punk and post-punk era. Bowie, uniquely, survived all purges, passing seamlessly from pre-prog to post-prog to pre-punk to post-punk without the slightest reduction in appeal.
Young Americans was released during the period when I was moving from my earlier indiscriminate mood towards tastes that were required to fit allegiances, and as the kind of “soul” music hitting the charts was starting to deteriorate, though that was a more general malaise, to be honest. The title track, number two in my don’t ever try to tackle this at karaoke list, with its much-caricatured vocal style, really stretching the voice to its limit, was released as a single. This gave a hint about what was to come, but I was still expecting something that followed on more obviously from previous work. However, instead the Young Americans album gave me my first (but not last) real WTF was that?? moment. On first listen, I wasn’t at all sure that I liked it, but Bowie had a lot of credit in the bank entitling perseverance, so naturally I listened to it over and over again.
The opener hits the laid-back soulful feel from the start, with the gospel-style backing vocals, funky guitar, and saxophone complementing those extraordinary Bowie vocals, and lyrics brimming with absorbed snippets of Americana, peaking with the karaoke-of-your-nightmares high note that finishes “ain’t there one damn song that can make me break down and cry”.
OK, you think, that was a magnificent distraction, something uncharacteristic and different. Fantastic one-off track. That’s Bowie for you. But then comes Win, and it’s clear that Bowie’s take on the slower, heart-rending black American soul sound is a continuing theme. It’s tempting to think that “me I’m fresh on your pages, secret thinker sometimes listening aloud” is Bowie fessing up to the role of interpreter and conduit. I dislike the term plastic soul. This is much more a case of Bowie absorbing the essence, reshuffling, rearranging the component parts, passing it through the magic filter and then venting forth, with his twist on the feel and mood of the thing. The card-carrying musicians and backing singers lend it the necessary authenticity, but it still exudes his personality and genius.
Fascination is a more up-tempo funky excursion, with lyrics that could refer either to obsession with a person, or absorbing new things, or of course both. Here the teamwork between Bowie’s voice and the backing vocals starts to feature more prominently. Right follows on naturally, with funky guitar, soulful sax, and vocals that start in a controlled manner before flying off into more interesting directions, with intricate and extended sections of interplay between Bowie and the backing singers, creating a gorgeous and sumptuous arrangement.
Side Two starts with Somebody Up There Likes Me. It’s the same formula, with the full range of backing vocals on offer, as Bowie sings about a character apparently emphasising what a lucky guy he is to his lover. It’s not entirely clear whether the narrator agrees. Maybe Bowie himself is the character and narrator; judging himself.
It’s at that point when the album takes an unexpected detour. John Lennon famously got involved in the studio, contributing backing vocals to the version of his own song (with McCartney) Across The Universe, which follows on from Somebody Up There Likes Me. It’s an odd diversion, breaking the soulful atmosphere a little, despite Bowie maintaining the same vocal style. As if to get us all back into the mood, Bowie continues with the luxurious Can You Hear Me, a soulful love ballad given the full treatment, my favourite track on the album (despite a natural aversion to love ballads…), with Bowie’s heartfelt vocals beautifully complemented by the other voices, saxophone and string arrangement, ending with more glorious vocal interplay.
The Lennon distraction comes to the fore again on the final track Fame, for which he is given a co-writer credit. It’s the most experimental, least soulful track on the album, standing somewhat apart. Carlos Alomar’s funky riff provided the basis for Bowie’s odd vocal experimentation, backed by Lennon. The lyrics have Bowie musing on the subject of fame and its downsides, not for the first or last time. For example: “Fame, puts you there where things are hollow.” It’s an interesting distraction, playful in the use of treatments to take the voice above and below the normal range, even if it does fit a little incongruously amongst most of the tracks on the album.
Young Americans sits alone amidst Bowie’s output. It was a brave endeavour, earning him some respect amongst the American soul community, and some complaints from longer term fans expecting more Rebel Rebel rock. After many, many listens, I’m happy to include it at the top table of Bowie albums. With massive hindsight, it’s probably the Lennon distractions that detract from the coherence somewhat, though at the time they may well have been something more familiar to grasp hold of. It certainly cemented the idea that with Mr Bowie, you never quite know what to expect.
Station to Station (1976): Let’s not beat about the bush. I can’t see any bushes anyway, and even if I could, I have no inclination to beat about them. Station to Station is pretty close to the perfect album; no waste, no unnecessary indulgence, just six perfectly constructed, entirely different aural treats. The beauty of the album is that you can ask any Bowie fan what their favourite track is, and there will be pretty much equal votes for every song. Personally, I can’t even decide. I would give you a different answer every day. It could be any of the six. It was also the shock of the new once again, commencing with a track unlike anything previously recorded by Bowie. Coming after Young Americans, it was hard to know what to expect, but it wasn’t this.
The title track takes up half of the first side of the album, Bowie giving it the chance to breath, as it comes to life slowly, announcing the latest departure. The opening simulates the noise of a train slowly beginning its journey, with sounds alternating between the ears, stoking the atmosphere before we hear the first more conventional use of instruments. Then the music builds before taking us to the repeated slow rhythmic motif, with Slick’s guitar making industrial wailing noises in the background. Eventually, we get the grand vocal entrance, as a break introduces the idea of the Thin White Duke returning, perhaps after his brief flirtation with the soul side, and “throwing darts in lover’s eyes” rather than singing mellow love ballads. So not an especially nice chap then…
The pulsing repetition is reputedly influenced by the sounds of emerging 70s German bands. Kraftwerk’s Autobahn, of course, is an obvious parallel, given the theme of transport, but the sound is perhaps more reminiscent of the rhythmic and hypnotic driving sensation created by many Neu! tracks, but passed through the Bowie prism. The tempo increases before we embark on the final repetitive section, introduced with “it’s not the side effects of the cocaine, I’m thinking that it must be love” and announcing that …. “the European canon is here.” Bowie was famously struggling with overuse of cocaine at this point in his life. In many ways, the quality of this album, despite these problems, is amazing. It seems to have amazed him as much as anyone else, though he was perhaps starting to think that he needed such influences in order to continue being so creative. There is a clear strategy to signal the idea of being more Euro-centric again, after the flirtations with Americana, though he hadn’t escaped back to Europe, being entrapped still in an increasingly nightmarish LA scene.
Having used the opening track to signal yet more variety in sound, the next song, Golden Years, hit single and dance number with the coolest of guitar motifs, could be seen as a link with Young Americans. It certainly proved to be a blessed relief at provincial discos for some years to come. The track is a fine example of Bowie’s mastery of the art of the perfect pop song, complete with whop-whop-whop backing vocals and cheery whistling.
Side one ends with Word on a Wing, which builds from mellow and gentle beginnings, with the keyboard more prominent and acoustic guitar strums fading in to add to the vibe. As more layers are added, and the key changes mount up, the vocals become increasingly emotional, backed by what could easily pass for an angelic choir, albeit quite a subtle one. The theme seems to revolve around spiritual questioning, with Bowie musing on religion and his efforts “trying hard to fit amongst your scheme of things”. The “age of grand illusion” sounds painfully contemporary, but I guess that for Bowie himself, most of his life as a fully fledged Rockstar must have been feeling pretty unreal, especially in LA, even without the drugs.
TVC15 begins with something of an old-time bar piano feel, before moving into the main repeated theme. The music is upbeat, though the lyrics appear to be recounting some hallucination (possibly drug-fuelled) or sci-fi story, narrated by somebody whose lover seemingly merged with, or disappeared into, a TV set. Bowie’s lead vocals reflect the confused state that such an eventuality might quite reasonably be expected to induce, as he pleads for some resolution with either her coming back out or him heading on in. The backing voices, mostly Bowie himself, dip in and out in a variety of guises to add to a pleasingly playful mixture of sound.
Stay has probably my favourite ever intro section. Opening with a guitar riff, then building in instrument by instrument atop a pleasingly funky rhythmn, as we move towards the vocals. Lyrically, it’s more straight-forward as a theme, the days and weeks dragging until another romantic encounter, and the plea to make it last longer and, we assume, go further. But there’s always that old confusion with human communication, and “you can never really tell when somebody wants something you want too”. After the words finish, the song continues to vary and develop, with both guitar and bass embellishments adding little treats over the repeating rhythm section, as we move to the fade out.
Wild is the Wind is a cover version originally written for a film, and number 1 in my don’t ever try to tackle this at karaoke list. Johnny Mathis and Nina Simone had both recorded versions previously. Bowie’s vocals are exceptional, a contender for his best ever, hitting extraordinary, prolonged notes, and channelling the emotion to full effect. He basically throws the kitchen sink at it. The backing music is relatively simple, providing a nice counter-balance and allowing the vocals to be the main focus, right up to the apex of the voice hitting the final high note, after which the music steps briefly to the fore before fading to oblivion. It’s a glorious contrast to the rest of the album, something that you could say about each and every track. And yet, the whole hangs together perfectly, with that signature great start and finish.
Overall, Station to Station is as different from its predecessors as any of them are to each other, demonstrating once more not only the amazing creativity, but the extraordinary productivity, an album a year now for more than half a decade, each taking us on a very different journey. And what’s more, he hadn’t finished yet…