Revisiting my extensive music collection, one artist at a time
After David Bowie veered away from the glam-rock that defined his Ziggy Stardust era with the release of 1974’s Diamond Dogs (which I revisited for my previous post), he took his music in several new directions during the middle of the decade. This was clearly a transitional period in his career. It took some time to warm to the two studio albums I’ll be discussing here, since at first they seemed a little cold and clinical (with the exception of a couple of hit singles), but as with all of his music so far, the more I’ve listened the more wonderful discoveries I’ve made. Before getting to those albums, though, I need to talk about his first live album.
Recorded during the Diamond Dogs tour with many of the musicians from that album (most notably Herbie Flowers on bass, Tony Newman on drums and Mike Garson on piano, as well as David Sanborn on sax and flashy newcomer Earl Slick on guitar), David Live (1974) is a 2-record (and 2-CD) set that shows the first signs of the blue-eyed soul style he would fully embrace on his next studio album. It’s a good collection, but nothing here outshines the original versions. One of the first things I noticed was the mediocre recording quality. The sound is echo-y, like you’re sitting in the last row of a cavernous arena, which makes it hard to connect to the performances. Also, his voice is a little ragged in spots. With these disclaimers in mind, I did enjoy numerous songs here (especially “Moonage Daydream” and the gorgeous “Sweet Thing” on the first disc). It includes the first appearance of “All The Young Dudes” (a song he wrote for Mott The Hoople, which became a huge hit) on a Bowie album, as well as his version of Eddie Floyd’s soul classic, “Knock On Wood.” Slick’s guitar heroics live up to Mick Ronson’s originals on “Width Of A Circle,” and I love the version of “Big Brother” (with a shortened, and uncredited, “Chant Of The Ever Circling Skeletal Family” at the end). “Rock ‘N’ Roll With Me” has that lighter-waving sound I suspected when I first heard the studio version. This is not the definitive Bowie live album, but it’s the only one I own (apart from Bowie At The Beeb, a collection of his BBC radio appearances that I will revisit in a later post), so for now this is my only exposure to Bowie in concert.
He introduced a new persona on Young Americans (1975), embracing blue-eyed soul with a detached, aloof quality that Bowie described as “Plastic Soul.” The album begins with one of his classic singles, “Young Americans,” that doesn’t sound like anything he had done before. It’s got a great forward-driving groove, and David Sanborn’s smooth sax playing is featured throughout. It sounds like he’s both celebrating youth and bemoaning its brevity (“We live for just these twenty years, do we have to die for the fifty more?”), so depending on your point of view it’s either optimistic or pessimistic. I enjoy this lyrical ambiguity. “Win” follows with an airy-sounding sax melody that climbs & swirls (this is repeated throughout the song). The tempo is slow and it’s not super catchy, but I love that sax part, as well as Bowie singing in his deepest voice (“All you’ve got to do is win”). I think Roxy Music’s Bryan Ferry was taking notes. It’s also got another great hook in the backing vocals (“it ain’t over”). “Fascination” is an excellent, super funky tune (a mix of P-Funk, Rufus, and The Isley Brothers’ 70’s records) with a chorus that somehow reminds me of Stephen Stills’ “Love The One You’re With” (must be those backing vocals). Bowie’s voice moves from super low to falsetto, and it’s got a great extended instrumental vamp at the end. Luther Vandross co-wrote this song with Bowie, and he’s also featured on backing vocals throughout the album.
“Somebody Up There Likes Me” features his most raw and rockin’ vocal performance on the album, and you can really hear Vandross’ vocals. Although it has some pretty moments and good playing (especially Sanborn wailing on sax), it’s mostly an inconsequential song, but I could imagine it being more powerful in concert. “Can You Hear Me” is probably the most soulful song here, with the dramatic feel of a Phil Spector/Righteous Brothers recording. There are some tasty guitar licks, and the sweeping strings indicate a Philly Soul influence. “Right” is a cool but minor tune that’s got a slow, sexy groove with the saxophone melodically soloing behind Bowie’s voice. The biggest “miss” on the album is his version of the John Lennon-penned Beatles tune, “Across The Universe” (featuring Lennon on guitar & vocals). Other than the tasteful guitar playing, it’s too overblown and dramatic. Lennon also appears on “Fame” (which he co-wrote with Bowie and guitarist Carlos Alomar). Not only does it have one of the coolest intros of any song ever recorded, but it’s also immensely catchy, has an amazingly funky groove, and includes some great vocal effects near the end. It’s rightfully one of his best-known songs.
I believe the three bonus tracks included on the Rykodisc reissue of the CD were all originally considered for inclusion on the album, which makes them more than just throwaways. The best of them is “It’s Gonna Be Me,” which is like the hangover after the indulgence of “Fame.” He’s drinking at an after-hours bar, recalling all of his one-night-stands and longing for the one woman he loved and lost. It’s dramatic, like a cross between Springsteen at his most subdued and Sinatra’s torch songs, with a touch of Brill Building girl group backing vocals. “Who Can I Be Now” is a solid Southern soul song with gospel elements. At first I hated “John I’m Only Dancing Again,” especially compared to the original version, but it has its own unique disco-fied charm, with a James Brown groove as filtered through Led Zeppelin (a la “The Crunge”). The main problem is it goes on way too long, and the groove just isn’t strong enough to sustain through its nearly 7-minute running time. This album has too many excellent songs to be considered a failure, but it was still his most inconsistent album up to that point in his career, with the possible exception of his self-titled debut.
For his next release, Station To Station (1976), he took a left turn away from anything he had previously recorded. Based on what I’ve read about this period, Bowie was pretty coked up and paranoid, and he was also listening to a lot of Krautrock groups like Can, Neu! and Kraftwerk. You can hear these influences throughout the six songs here. Fortunately for me, in the past few years I’ve become a fan of all three of those groups, so I was primed and ready for these songs. One of the great things about the album is that, even when portions of the songs aren’t terribly catchy, the grooves are cool and keep the listener interested (I feel the same way about the much-maligned Rolling Stones album, Black And Blue, which was released the same year). This album also introduces the character of the “Thin White Duke,” who’s always immaculately dressed but shows little emotion while he’s singing, with vacant eyes behind that steely gaze. He’s like the musical version of Patrick Bateman from American Psycho, without the homicidal tendencies.
Beginning the album with “Station To Station,” which clocks in at over 10 minutes, was a bold statement. The song begins with phased electronic sounds, like a train in the distance, and the vocals don’t begin until after the 3:00 mark. It moves into a metronomic midtempo beat with some syncopated drumming. The rhythm picks up at around 5:20 (“Once there were mountains…”), then goes into a disco groove (“It’s too late…”) for three choruses, with a Ronson-esque guitar solo by Carlos Alomar. Each chorus ends with “The European cannon is here,” which I can’t decipher. Is he referring to himself? I also question whether the stations referenced in the title are train stations or space stations (I’m guessing it’s the latter), and the song itself seems to be about attempting to make connections, even while his character is disconnected.
The best-known track here is “Golden Years,” a funky sister song to “Fame” that has an awesome groove. His vocals are spot-on, the melody is memorable, and it’s definitely among his best. “TVC15” has been a favorite of mine since I first heard it on the Sound+Vision box set over 20 years ago. There’s a sci-fi theme but it’s not robotic, and it shows a surprising sense of humor (it’s about a TV swallowing his woman). There’s a nice bouncing bass line and barroom piano in the 30-second intro. The song shifts gears a couple of times (at “Transition…transmission”), and we even get a hint of his old glam sound with the chorus (“Oh my TVC15, oh oh, TVC15”). How did he make these lyrics so catchy? “Word On A Wing” is the prettiest tune here, with a couple of great hooks. The first one, during the verse, is “Sweet name, you’re born once again for me,” which sounds like a Springsteen ballad (that’s Roy Bittan of the E Street Band on piano). The second hook comes at the end of the chorus, with “Lord, Lord, my prayer flies like a word on a wing.” It sounds like a direct prayer to God, especially when he sings, “Just as long as I can walk, I’ll walk beside you, I’m alive in you.” I didn’t expect something like this on an album that’s supposed to be cold and disconnected.
I loved “Stay” a little more each time I listened to it. Starting with a killer percussive groove and a sort-of chicken scratch guitar, the incessant rhythm kicks in after about a minute. What a great combo of groove, musicianship, vocal performance and lyrical content. He wants to ask a woman to stay but doesn’t have the confidence to do it (“because you can never really tell when somebody wants something you want too”). He shows a lot of vulnerability instead of rock star posturing, which was pleasantly unexpected. The album closes with the acoustic guitar-driven “Wild Is The Wind,” which has a nice driving beat as the song builds slowly & subtly, pointing to a song like U2’s “One.” Lyrically it’s passionate and confessional (“You kiss me, with your kiss my life begins”; “Don’t you know you’re life itself”). Even though the album only has six songs, and they shouldn’t necessarily fit together, after listening to it many times there was a cohesion that I didn’t initially pick up on. I would rank this up there with Bowie’s best work. Also note that there are two album covers, both showing an image from the film, The Man Who Fell To Earth. The original was a stark black-and-white photo, while the CD reissue has the same image colorized. I only knew the colorized version until recently, and I think both covers are striking and capture the various moods of the music.
I will begin revisiting his so-called “Berlin Trilogy,” which takes us to the end of the ‘70s, starting tomorrow, and I’m hoping to fall in love with them the way I did with Station To Station. I know they’re not the most easy-listening releases in his catalog, with no hit singles and only a few songs whose titles I recognized when I looked at the track listings, but sometimes those are the most rewarding albums to spend time with.