Revisiting my extensive music collection, one artist at a time
To this point, David Bowie has only released two studio albums in the 21st century. They’re both worthy additions to his already incredible catalog, but before delving into them I want to discuss an excellent archive release, Bowie At The Beeb (2000). Subtitled “The Best of the BBC Radio Sessions 68-72,” this 2-CD collection gathers 37 songs he recorded live in the studio for the British Broadcasting Corporation during those early years. The sound quality is excellent throughout, even the earliest recordings (from 1968-69) of new favorites like “London Bye Ta Ta,” “Silly Boy Blue” and “Janine.” Recorded in 1970, “Amsterdam” is an excellent Jacques Brel song with just Bowie on guitar. The other five performances from this session are also top notch, although I was disappointed that “Memory Of A Free Festival” was edited down to about half its length. The Spiders From Mars first appear (under the group name Ronno) on “Bombers,” and then take over most of the remaining sessions. This is a good thing, as they began as a tight rock band and quickly grew into a powerhouse unit. The Chuck Berry song “Almost Grown” sounds like The Who in their early years, when they bashed out rock ‘n’ roll and rhythm & blues covers. The Spiders really kick it into another gear with “Hang On To Yourself” and never let up. They were clearly a ferocious live band. I enjoyed the inclusion of two Lou Reed-penned Velvet Underground songs, “I’m Waiting For The Man” and “White Light/White Heat.” Mick Ronson delivers a monstrous guitar solo on “Moonage Daydream,” which was a highlight of this collection for me. Unfortunately, my copy of disc 2 has the same version of “Ziggy Stardust” twice. I wasn’t aware of this until now, so I probably missed out on Virgin/EMI’s replacement discs with the correct versions. Other than that one flaw, this is a phenomenal document of Bowie’s early years.
The version of this collection that I bought in 2000 includes a bonus CD with a concert recorded earlier that year. BBC Radio Theatre, London, June 27, 2000 shows Bowie and his band in fine form. All of the musicians are phenomenal, most notably guitarist Earl Slick, bassist Gail Ann Dorsey, drummer Sterling Campbell and (of course) pianist Mike Garson. “Wild Is The Wind,” originally on Station To Station, is a surprisingly effective concert opener. I was also reminded of the song “This Is Not America” (originally recorded with the Pat Metheny Group for the movie The Falcon And The Snowman in 1985), which I loved back then but haven’t heard in years. This version is solid, but doesn’t compare to the original. As far as I know, it’s never appeared on an official Bowie release, but I should seek it out soon to see how well it’s held up after all these years. “Absolute Beginners” is another song which is new to me. Although it goes on a little too long, I know it has a great reputation among fans, and I will be sure to hear the original soon. I also like how the band adds a harder edge to “Fame.” Overall, this is an excellent live album, with Bowie’s voice in particularly great shape.
Tony Visconti returned to the producer’s chair for Heathen (2002), a return to form both musically and commercially. There’s a melancholy vibe permeating the album which Bowie claims had nothing to do with 9/11, since the songs were all written before then. More likely it had to do with his age (mid-50s), since a lot of the songs have nostalgic lyrics. The album opens with “Sunday,” featuring electronic pulses and a synth wash beneath his husky voice. It’s akin to Radiohead’s more mellow side, and the electronic beat builds slowly throughout the song. It sounds dark but not sinister. I like the elliptical lyrics, such as “Everything has changed, for in truth it’s the beginning of nothing, and nothing has changed.” This gives way to “Cactus,” a Pixies song that’s given a bass-heavy harder edged sound. The section where he sings “D-A-V-I-D” recalls the music and vocals from Lodger and Scary Monsters. Then things slow down for “Slip Away,” a nostalgic tribute to the low-budget Uncle Floyd TV show (which I used to watch on UHF channel 68 in the early ‘80s). This song has an epic feel and a molasses pace, and I love his Roger Waters-influenced vocals on “Don’t forget to keep your head warm; Twinkle twinkle Uncle Floyd.” Pete Townshend plays some stellar guitar on “Slow Burn,” which has a great driving bass line and reminds me of his Let’s Dance era (ie. “Cat People”). The chorus (“Like a slow burn leading us on and on and on”) is the catchiest part. “I’ve Been Waiting For You,” an old Neil Young song from his first album, features another guest guitarist, Dave Grohl. This is a plodding rocker, a la Crazy Horse, but opens up during the verses (“I’ve been looking for a woman to save my life”).
The second half of the album features my two favorite songs. “5.15 The Angels Have Gone” is midtempo and moody with interesting percussion and a cool guitar pattern. I absolutely love his emotional vocal delivery when he sings “We never talk anymore, forever I will adore you.” Just as great is “A Better Future,” whose repeated descending guitar figure reminds me of Dionne Warwick’s “Do You Know The Way To San Jose.” It’s probably the catchiest song here, with a steady beat throughout, a great guitar tone, and memorable lyrics (“I demand a better future, or I might just stop wanting you/needing you/loving you”).
[David Bowie – “A Better Future”]
I also enjoyed “I Would Be Your Slave,” a pleading love song with strings, a steady brushes-on-a-snare-drum beat and emotional lyrics (“Open up your heart to me, show me all you are, and I would be your slave”). The album ends with the solid “Heathen (The Rays),” which is pulsing and atmospheric until a steady beat takes over after the first minute. He sings, “All things must pass” (a tribute to George Harrison, perhaps), and it’s hard to tell if this is about a relationship ending, or possibly the end of the world. I liked this album a lot when it came out, but I was curious to see how it would hold up after listening to (and getting to know) all of his classics. I’m happy to report that it holds its own with the rest of his catalog, proving that he was still a vital musical force more than 35 years into his career.
He followed up Heathen rather quickly with Reality (2003), which is similar to its predecessor but has a little more punch. This is made clear right off the bat with “New Killer Star,” which blends late-90s Britpop (think Blur’s “Song 2”) with a guitar hook similar to Billy Squier’s “Everybody Wants You.” The 9/11 reference is clear (“See the great white scar over Battery Park”), but it’s not a downer. There’s a great repetitive hook in the bridge (“Don’t ever say I’m ready, I’m ready, I’m ready; I’ll never say I’m better, I’m better, I’m better…than you”), and the song really opens up in the chorus (“All the corners of the buildings…”). It’s followed by the Jonathan Richman song “Pablo Picasso,” which is more stylish and less sinister than the versions I’ve previously heard by The Modern Lovers and John Cale, and his vocals have a youthful swagger. It sounds like he’s fighting the aging process tooth-and-nail on “Never Get Old.” This song features big echo-y drums & bass and choppy guitar, and a couple of great hooks: the chorused vocals on “Better take care” followed by synth squeaks, and his powerful vocals in the chorus (“I’m never ever gonna get old/high/low”). His voice sounds aching & wounded on “The Loneliest Guy,” where he tries to convince himself that he’s “the luckiest guy, not the loneliest guy.” It’s a slow, sparse tune featuring some of Mike Garson’s most subdued piano playing.
There’s not a lot to the 4/4 stomper “Looking For Water,” but its simplicity is what I like about it. He sounds troubled, like he’s in the middle of a bad dream, and I love the backing vocals (“looking, looking, looking”) and the fact that the music never lets up. “She’ll Drive The Big Car” has a lighter feel, especially when the harmonica pops up throughout the song, and his vocals recall the “plastic soul” of Young Americans. “Days” is light, airy, almost playful, with acoustic guitar, bongos and light percussion. There’s a great hook in the chorus (“All the days of my life…All the days I owe you”) and the lyrics are tinged with regret (“You gave for free, I gave nothing in return”). I believe it’s Earl Slick who provides the searing lead guitar on “Fall Dog Bombs The Moon,” which reminds me a lot of “The Man Who Sold The World” in tempo and feel. He once again pays tribute to George Harrison by performing his song “Try Some, Buy Some,” which was originally recorded by Ronnie Spector. Lyrically it fits perfectly, as lines like “Not a thing did I have ‘til I called on your love and your love came to me” could also have been written by Bowie. The title track, “Reality,” is a pretty good charging guitar-based rocker with cool lyrics about aging and looking back at his musical past (“I built a wall of sound to separate us”), but I think it probably sounded better in concert. He saved the best for last, though, as “Bring Me The Disco King” quickly became one of my all-time favorites. Apparently he tried recording it several times in the ‘90s but was never happy with the results. It’s a good thing he waited to get it right, with this slow, stripped down and jazzy version, mostly featuring piano and brushes on a snare drum. It’s a long, peaceful journey (nearly 8 minutes) that can only be described as breathtaking and exquisite. If he is, in fact, retired (which has been speculated) and this is his final album, it’s a fitting end to an amazing career.
And with that, I conclude my epic journey through David Bowie’s back catalog. I spent more than 2-1/2 months revisiting nearly 30 albums, most of which I was previously quite unfamiliar with, and my only reaction is “WOW!” I knew he had a diverse catalog of music and a singular vocal style, but I was unaware of how great a songwriter and musician he is. Not only that, but the musicians and producers he’s worked with are all world-class, with pianist Mike Garson being my favorite discovery. It was clear that I had become a huge fan when I recently listened to the Sound + Vision box set and the Bowie At The Beeb collection, and I knew just about every song within seconds…and I was excited to hear them all. There aren’t many artists who have released so many classic records for such a long period of time, and that puts him on the short list of greatest artists of all time. I’m so glad I’ve gotten to know this music, and it’s been a pleasure sharing my discoveries with you. Thank you to everyone who has stopped by and enjoyed these posts, and to all of you who have written to me (either in the Comments sections, via email or in music forums) about your love of his music. My appreciation of his catalog wouldn’t be the same without you. Now it’s time for me to move on to another artist (still to be determined). I hope you’ll continue to visit and join me in this ongoing musical conversation.