Revisiting my extensive music collection, one artist at a time
In the history of popular music, no artist has been more of a chameleon than David Bowie. This applies not just to his appearance (fey long-haired British folkie, Ziggy Stardust, glam superstar, Thin White Duke, androgynous pop star, MTV idol, etc), but also to the various stylistic shifts his music has taken over the years. Growing up, I was vaguely familiar with Bowie’s music, especially the songs “Changes,” “Young Americans” and“Space Oddity” (which I probably knew as “Ground Control to Major Tom”), but I didn’t know anything about him and wouldn’t have considered myself a fan. In fact, I don’t think I owned any of his records until either my late teens or early 20s. One year at summer camp, when I was about 11 or 12, someone had a giant poster of Bowie on the wall. Compared to the bands whose posters adorned my walls (Kiss, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin), he seemed like an alien. I wondered, “Who is this guy, and what kind of music would he make?” It wasn’t until years later that I discovered the image on the poster was from the US album cover for The Man Who Sold The World (and yep, he still looks like he’s from another planet, even though he’s just kicking up a storm on stage).
I was 16 when I got my first job at a record store (Music Factory, in the Staten Island Mall), and one of the few records the store manager played nearly every day was ChangesOneBowie, an 11-song compilation that became my true introduction to David Bowie’s music. I was immediately impressed by the variety, from the manic pop of “John, I’m Only Dancing” to the glam-rock of “Ziggy Stardust” & “The Jean Genie,” from the straight-ahead rock ‘n’ roll of “Rebel Rebel” (which I would later perform with my college band) to the blue-eyed soul of “Young Americans.” Little did I know that this compilation barely scratched the surface of his recording career up to that point, let alone what he would go on to record. Also, that same year Bowie released his most commercially successful album, Let’s Dance, which featured the MTV hits “Let’s Dance,” “China Girl” and “Modern Love.” So even though I still didn’t own any Bowie albums, his music was a major part of my life at that time.
I don’t recall which Bowie album I purchased first. It might have been the 1989 box set, Sound + Vision, since box sets are a great way to delve into an artist’s catalog without having to purchase every album, and this particular set was visually stunning & contained hits, album tracks & rarities. Not only did it include most of the songs I already knew (sometimes in alternate versions), but it also introduced me to such great songs as “The Man Who Sold The World,” “Panic In Detroit,” “Cracked Actor,” “TVC15” and his version of Bruce Springsteen’s “It’s Hard To Be A Saint In The City.” Within a year or two after getting this box set, I probably purchased 5 or 6 of his individual CDs, and in the years that followed I ended up with just about everything he’s officially released (with the exception of soundtracks and a couple of live releases).
Although I’m more familiar with his music than someone who just knows the hits, I never spent enough time with each album to really get to know them. I know I love albums like The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars, Hunky Dory, Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps), and even later ones like ‘Hours…’ and Heathen, but over the next month or two I want to further explore these and other albums that I’m less familiar with. Since each album has its own sound, I’m extremely excited to finally delve deeply into his catalog, more so than any artist I’ve covered here so far, believe it or not.
For those who don’t know my process for revisiting every artist and album, I make it a point to listen to each record at least once without reading anything about it (even the liner notes & credits), just so I can hear the music without any preconceived expectations. Only then will I start to learn more, by paying more attention to lyrics, reviewing the historical context, reading the credits for guest musicians, producers, etc. This enables me to have a better understanding of the music, and really get to know each song. I recently purchased a special edition issue devoted to David Bowie, from the makers of UK music magazine Uncut, with in-depth interviews, stories, and reviews of every album. I expect it to be an excellent companion as I revisit his sizeable catalog.
I’ve already started listening to his first few albums, and I hope to be back soon with my first post on these records. As always, I invite you to share your thoughts in the Comments section, as your input is always very helpful, and I hope my comments inspire you to dig out your seldom-played records and give them another spin. Thanks for stopping by.
Excuse me if I’m posting here, I just wanted to mention that I saw your comment on my blog and answered! 😉
As for David Bowie, I look forward on hearing about the Berlin period, as I don’t know much about it and Eno is one of my favorite artists ever!
Hi Jacopo. Thanks for stopping by again. I replied to the comment at your blog about the Jethro Tull “Aqualung” re-release. Always nice chatting with you.
I’m also looking forward to getting to know Bowie’s Berlin period a lot better. I’ve always enjoyed those albums when I’ve played them, but I still can’t say I’m that familiar with them. Hopefully that won’t be the case in a few weeks. Are you a fan of any of Bowie’s music?
I’m afraid Bowie never did too much for me, but I certainly respect him as a talented songwriter!
I’ve always had a bit of an odd relationship with Bowie’s music. I picked up Ziggy in my early 20s and really enjoyed it. This sparked off a flurry of purchases and I also enjoyed Hunky Dory, Aladdin Sane and Diamond Dogs. I went through a period of listening to those a lot and then… I was just done. His stuff got worn out really quickly and I’ve really been unable to enjoy his music much ever since! I still appreciate his talent and remember my “phase” of being a fan but I always found it worrying that his music didn’t endure longer with me (like Mott the Hoople’s). It’s always led me to suspect he is a tad over-rated. I’ll enjoy going through these posts to see what you make of it all (although your obviously way more into him than I ever was).
Interesting, HMO. I never really went through a Bowie phase, so my exposure to his sprawling discography happened over a long period of time. In the early 80s, when Scary Monsters was released, I remember liking a few songs I heard on the radio, but it wasn’t until my first record store job in ’83 that I was exposed to his earlier music via Changesonebowie and Let’s Dance. By the time I wrote this series on his music, I had accumulated just about everything he had officially released but I still didn’t consider myself more than a casual fan. Within 2-3 months that had completely changed. I definitely don’t agree about him being over-rated. In fact, I think it’s just the opposite. He gets more acknowledgment for his characters than his music, other than the usual radio hits. Once you delve into the albums you’ll find a lot of truly amazing & groundbreaking music, and the musicianship is almost always brilliant. Hopefully you’ll find something in this series that surprises you.
Really interesting point about the focus being on his characters more than the music… I hadn’t saw it that way but I wonder if the perspective of him is different here in the UK than it is in the US?
I certainly wouldn’t want to knock him or his abilities. He certainly surrounds himself with top-drawer musicians too. It’s probably just an matter of taste, I always want to like his stuff more than I actually do and I got bored with the albums I owned amazingly fast. Maybe it’s just not for me but I’m really keen to see if your posts and selections convert me! There’s definitely large chunks of his career I’m unfamiliar with.
That’s a good point regarding the difference in perspective between US & UK fans. I know that his androgynous look was a hard sell for US audiences in the ’70s (and beyond). We Americans just never got the whole cross-dressing thing, at least when it came to our musical heroes, although it was fine for comedy (i.e. Monty Python). Perhaps a lot of UK listeners were turned off by having so many people praising him as a genius. It’s the reason why a lot of people from New Jersey don’t really like Bruce Springsteen while their friends & neighbors think he’s the greatest artist of all time. I know you’ve got varied taste in music, and I’m convinced that there would be some Bowie albums that you would love as long as they’re not accompanied by hype. The “Berlin Trilogy” is definitely worth exploring (it became my favorite era, along with the album that immediately preceded it, “Station To Station”). If you’re looking for a dark & metallic (but not “metal”) album, “Outside” was a very pleasant surprise for me.
Funnily enough Bruce Springsteen was another guy I had a really short phase of being interested in and just burnt out on his music really quickly!
The hyperbole around Bowie never put me off initially but it does grate now. Especially since he’s returned, some of the articles I’ve read about him have been so fawning it’s excrutiating!
But I will remain open-minded as I read through your posts. The Berlin Trilogy is of particular interest actually, as I haven’t heard much of that era at all and always hear good things about those albums.
I went through a big Springsteen phase in the early 80s, lost interest during the mega-exposure years immediately following Born In The USA (which is still my least favorite Bruce album), then slowly started returning to his music by the early 90s and have continued enjoying his music ever since. So I understand the “going through a phase” thing, and I can tell you there’s always another phase if the right album hits you at the right time. I think any of Bowie’s albums in the Berlin Trilogy could do the trick for you, but it depends what mood you’re in when you hear them. I can tell you that the post I did on those albums is still the most visited post I’ve written, so that seems to be a very popular era in his career.
“There’s always another phase” – I absolutely agree and that’s why I still pay some attention to both artists and can’t totally write them off!
Of the two, the Bowie phase was definitely the more enjoyable and affecting. Even when I was enjoying them, I still felt a lot of Springsteen albums were pretty patchy.
Springsteen certainly has some patchy albums, but he also had a purple patch between his debut and The River that most artists would die for. I’m always impressed by any artist who maintains a career for 30-40 (or more) years and continues to release valid music that stands proudly among their best work. Springsteen, Bowie & Tom Waits are three that immediately come to mind, and I’ll throw Maiden onto that list too.
Definite kudos to any artist that can maintain long and interesting careers like Bruce has. I imagine my view of him as “patchy” is probably more an indication of him just not being entirely my cup of tea. He’s maybe a “Compilation or Catalog?” artist for me. I enjoyed the “Essential” compilation that came out a while back and possibly that would be enough Springsteen for me… for a while anyway!
Thanks for helping me turn “Compilation Or Catalog?” into a thing (haha). I totally understand why some people aren’t into Springsteen. He’s a great musician but his style, as varied as its been throughout his career, isn’t for everyone. Of all the bands I love, the only one I don’t understand when people say they don’t like them is The Beatles. Even if it’s something you don’t choose to listen to, what they accomplished in a relatively short amount of time is unlike any other artist in the history of recorded music, and their music is in the DNA of just about every artist that followed, even the ones who deliberately tried to not sound like them. On the other hand, Zeppelin has been my favorite band since I was 13, back in 1979, but when people tell me they don’t like them other than a few songs, I get it. I don’t agree, of course, but I understand.
Hahaha this conversation could just run and run!
Personally, I don’t enjoy The Beatles but I completely agree with your point and I would never put them down. Critically, I know they were hugely pioneering and groundbreaking but I just never enjoy hearing them. I feel myself enjoying what I hear of them more and more though so I may thaw eventually!
I do like Led Zeppelin at least! Maybe not one of my top bands but I do enjoy their stuff. Physical Graffiti and Houses of the Holy in particular.
Surprised to hear that you’re not a huge Zeppelin fan. I figure anyone who’s into heavy music must love Zeppelin. The ones you like are great ones. Then again, I love just about everything they released. I would put their catalog against any other artist for sheer consistency. Of course, had they not split up after John Bonham’s death in 1980, I’m sure they wouldn’t have maintained that quality level.
I always enjoy our conversations, no matter how brief or long they might be.
I do like them but they’ve just never been my main thing. I don’t get as excited about them the same way others do. But I am a fan (wearing a Song Remains The Same T-Shirt as we speak!). I’ve got most their albums and I really like Plant’s solo stuff.
I promise I’m not just being too cool for school by not liking popular artists! I just realised I’ve knocked The Beatles, Bowie, Springsteen and Led Zep in the course of one conversation! I like plenty of well-known artists… honest!
Don’t worry…I know plenty of people who only admit to liking obscure artists so they can somehow seem cool (to themselves, mostly)…but you’re not one of them. I’ve never liked or disliked anything solely based on popularity, although occasionally I have lost interest in a particular artist after they became hugely popular, but usually that’s because the quality of their music dipped at the time of their commercial ascent.
I find that I have the best connections with people like me who like what they like for no other reason than “they like it.” I know, that’s a lot of “like”s for one sentence, but I’m sure you get my point.