Besides the Thin White Duke, Ziggy Stardust, and the Kraut-rocking Eno-collaborator, David Bowie is best known as the Chameleon of rock 'n' roll and for good reason. From 1969 to 1989 Bowie jumped from musical styles (from glam rock to disco soul and new wave to grunge rock) as easily as he changed the clothes that represented the styles (even if he got the grunge look wrong). With Virgin Records' re-release and remastering of every single Bowie album recorded from 1969 until 1989 one can get a special perspective not only in the obvious left-turns Bowie took stylistically, but the subtle evolution of every character. What ties all seventeen of the albums Bowie produced during that time is his lust for the stage. Bowie is a performer who transcends his craft. He acts, writes, paints, works in both the printed and cyber-space media and plays the saxophone. What is captivating about Bowie is not the deftness with which he can undertake each task, but his manner in tackling them. The man is creatively unstoppable.
The seventies marked several creative peaks for Bowie. In 1972 he produced Lou Reed's Transformer and Iggy Pop's Raw Power, while creating his own masterpiece (The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars) and single-handedly saving the career of Mott the Hoople (they were on the verge of breaking-up when Bowie bestowed "All the Young Dudes" upon them). In 1977, with Brian Eno (a pioneer in record production) and Robert Fripp (a pioneer in guitar craft) on either side of him, he released two albums (Low and "Heroes") that redefined pop music while producing two experimental, though career-reviving, albums for Iggy Pop.
The eighties would see the release of some of the best and worst albums of Bowie's career. The decade kicked off on a strong note with Scary Monsters and Let's Dance, both albums spawning a slew of hit singles and holding up as great bodies of work to this date. Then, self-consciousness and contrivance set-in and years would pass between two half-hearted Let's Dance clones (Tonight and Never Let Me Down), until Bowie damns it all in 1989 and joins a rock band. He creates Tin Machine with guitarist Reeves Gabrels and Iggy Pop's former rhythm section, citing the Pixies and Dinosaur Jr. as major influences and reclaiming the creative consciousness that would make the releases of the nineties rival the quality of his seventies albums.
Space Oddity shines on both its intimate songs of pained love ("Letter to Hermoine" and "An Occasional Dream") and its epic statements about disillusioned flower power ("Cygnet Committee" and "Memory of a Free Festival"). This was Bowie's first album that transcended his attempts at R&B-infected mod rock and Tony Newly-inspired crooning. This was Bowie's soul defrocked, from the impromptu announcement on "Memory of a Free Festival" to an open love song to his ex-girlfriend ("Letter To Hermoine"). Originally titled Man of Words/Man of Music, this album still stands up for Bowie the poet as well as the human being.
THE MAN WHO SOLD THE WORLD:
The Man Who Sold the World casts a cold, dark shadow over Bowie's previous album. It heralded the debut of Bowie the rocker. With Bowie decked out in a "man's dress" on the album art and singing lyrics laden with apocalyptic images and themes of sexual ambiguity, this 1971 album became one of the slates in the 10 commandments of glam-rock.
Besides its thematically glam qualities, The Man Who Sold the World features Mick Ronson's first appearance on a Bowie album. Ronson's fuzzy and flashy guitar work did more here than redefine Bowie's sound-- it established the characteristic glitter rock sound.
Released in December of 1971, Hunky Dory, a decidedly more up-beat album than The Man Who Sold the World, was quite the left turn for Bowie. It opens with the now classic single "Changes," and includes the saccharine "Fill Your Heart" ("Happiness is happening/Dragons have been bled") and the hokey "Kooks," a song written for his then newborn son, Zowie. But the songs that steal the show on this album are the meditative numbers: "Quicksand," with its existential mantra of "knowledge comes with death's release" and "Life On Mars?" a wistful call for disillusioned teenagers that hinted at the messiah to come that would be Ziggy Stardust.
THE RISE AND FALL OF ZIGGY STARDUST AND THE SPIDERS FROM MARS:
Arriving six months after Hunky Dory's release, Ziggy Stardust would see the fulfillment of a concept album that had Bowie fully immersing himself into a new personality. Bowie was channeling an extraterrestrial rocker, come to give meaning to the lives of spaced-out glitter painted boys and girls everywhere. It's a marvelous, practically flawless work that flows through Bowie's brilliant songcraft and Ronson's dazzling guitar licks.
While touring the U.S. with/as Ziggy, Bowie wrote most of Aladdin Sane, an album inspired by American culture and driven by the Ziggy-imposed schizophrenia (the lighting bolt painted across Bowie's face on the album cover would be seen as representing his split personality).
Fittingly, the songs are visceral and even chaotic at times (Mike Garson's angular piano playing is the perfect representation of the mood that permeates this album). This was glam rock at its peak: the guitars were more at the front, soulful female singers offered over-the-top backing vocals and decadence seethed from tracks like "Cracked Actor" and "The Jean Genie."
At the end of 1973, Bowie retired Ziggy and playfully reflected on the music that first inspired him in the sixties. All the songs on Pin Ups were tarted up (Bowie still hadn't shed his feather boas and glitter make-up) covers of songs that provided the soundtrack to his life as a London mod.
Pin Ups is probably Bowie's most light-hearted album and it's easy to overlook it, but it features some of the sauciest performances by Bowie and Ronson on record. Bowie wheedles the sexuality from "I Can't Explain" much better than the Who ever did.
In 1974, it was back to high concept for Bowie with Diamond Dogs, an album that was originally intended to be a musical interpretation of George Orwell's 1984, but Orwell's wife would not have it. No matter, songs like "1984," "Big Brother," and "We Are the Dead" and the idea of "they're watching" still appeared on the album. The music still maintained its sexy glam aesthetic and the glitter-rock anthem "Rebel Rebel," made its enigmatic debut on this album. Though, as a whole, not as concrete a concept as Ziggy, songs like "Sweet Thing," featured Bowie at his most rock-operatic.
Bowie's U.S. tour for Diamond Dogs did its grandest to join theatrics with concept album. But, with a stage show plagued with technical difficulties and a visit to Philadelphia, things were forced to change. Too bad Virgin isn't re-releasing David Live, the live album that documented the transformation (for some undisclosed reason Virgin has passed on reissuing all of Bowie's live albums). The soul influence in 1975's Young Americans is a jarringly drastic change for Bowie: David Sanborn on saxophone, Luther Vandross on backing vocals, and Bowie's new rambling, smooth-vocal stylings.
The U.S. pop audience finally embraced Bowie, giving him his first US number one single with "Fame," a song co-written by fellow Brit-cum-American, John Lennon. But new guitarist, and native (African) American, Carlos Alomar gets the credit for the fanciful hook.
STATION TO STATION:
A year later, the six-track Station To Station certainly still had the soul influence that makes it the logical child to Young Americans, but the title track and the single, "TVC15," hinted at something deeper. "Golden Years" may have put Bowie on "Soul Train," but these two other songs foreshadowed Bowie's interest in a colder, more technologically advanced music. "Station To Station," with its chugging synthesizer crescendo, and "TVC15" with its theme of sex with a TV screen (cyber sex, anyone?), hinted that Bowie wanted to push his music to other realms. He wanted more than radio-friendly albums.
In 1977, the sudden appearance of Low in Bowie's catalog was quite an anomaly. What Bowie called his "plastic soul period" had gone full cycle and consumed itself to shit out this then strange, yet prophetic album.
Inspired by Kraftwerk and Brain Eno's Another Green World, Bowie moved to Berlin to find a change. More than half the album was instrumental, and what strange instrumentation it was: hissing drumbeats, synthesized heart beats, squeaking Moogs and wordless lyrics. It was a cold, stark recording that pricked the ears of the new romantic movement, and may have been the most honest look into Bowie's soul since Space Oddity.
Released the same year as Low, "Heroes" perfected what Low experimented with. The instrumentals were more Kraftwerkian ("V-2 Schnieder" is a reference to Kraftwerk-founder, Florian Schneider) and the songs more traditional.
"Heroes" also contained what arguably could be Bowie's most romantic song ever (the title track). Still galvanized by his Berlin surroundings, "'Heroes'" was inspired by a pair of lovers Bowie periodically spotted meeting by The Berlin Wall. "Though nothing will drive them away/We can beat them/Just for one day," Bowie would sigh against the yearning wash of sound created by Fripp's E-bowed guitar strings. Gorgeous.
In 1979, after a tour and a narration of Peter and the Wolf, Bowie was back in the studio with Eno, this time in Switzerland. Lodger proved to be simultaneously the weirdest and poppiest album recorded with Eno. Produced under the auspices of Eno's "oblique" recording strategies (the melody for "Move On" came from "All the Young Dudes" played backwards), the album was also a source of Bowie's most experimental promotional films to date. "DJ," "Boys Keep Swinging" and "Look Back In Anger" were all made into kooky, yet, at the time, revolutionary, videos.
Speaking of music videos, who can deny the influence of the album that spawned the "Ashes To Ashes" video? Bowie, the new romantic, came into full blossom with 1980's Scary Monsters. It both spawned hit singles and broke new ground in Bowie's music catalog. Trent Reznor, of Nine Inch Nails, would even call this booming, aggressive record, one of the coldest and most frightening records he heard at the time.
With Scary Monsters, Bowie would let his recording contract with RCA fizzle, and he would turn to stage (The Elephant Man) and screen (The Hunger and Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence) work for the next three years.
The commercial success of Let's Dance (on his new label EMI) has often overshadowed the quality of the music it harbors. Yes, this was a twisted pop turn from Scary Monsters, but Bowie was still wearing the new romantic label, joining the likes of Duran Duran and Spandau Ballet. Still, the music on this album has aged better than any album by the aforementioned new wavers. The guitar work of Stevie Ray Vaughn gives the album an incomparable classic style and ambiance.
Let's Dance remains one of Bowie's rare, consistently enjoyable albums. Besides the hit singles "Modern Love," "China Girl" and "Let's Dance" one can't forget the low key, yet charming tracks "Without You" and "Criminal World."
The 1984 follow-up to Let's Dance seemed to try to follow the former's successful formula. Like "China Girl," the title track and "Neighborhood Threat" are remakes of songs Bowie wrote with Iggy Pop in 1977. It never paid off. The only thing that saved Tonight from bombing (it went platinum) were the singles "Blue Jean" and "Loving the Alien," which were accompanied by ambitious videos for MTV. Next to these two songs the rest of the album sounds like filler.
NEVER LET ME DOWN:
Three years of recording silence save for a single ("Dancing In the Street") and several soundtrack contributions, and the public gets this? Although it went gold, Never Let Me Down was a flop among fans as well as critics. It's only redeeming qualities are trivial, like Mickey Rourke's rap in "Shining Star (Making My Love)," and the "Rebel Rebel" guitar hook of "Beat of Your Drum." Unfortunately, the notion that Bowie could have a hit single as big as "Rebel Rebel" from the effort put into Never Let Me Down is laughable. Throughout the album he sounds bored and lackadaisical, tired of trying to top the success of Let's Dance.
Tin Machine could be interpreted as the frustrated, cathartic scream that closed off Bowie's work for EMI. After a lengthy, intricate world tour for Never Let Me Down, Bowie created an aggressive sounding rock quartet called Tin Machine. Bowie's new, hard-edged sound was a refreshing and welcomed change from the superficial pop of his two previous albums. Tin Machine would herald a flirtation with many young, pioneering, and, most importantly, popular artists. A teaming up with Nine Inch Nails that would raise Bowie's career to new interests would not be far off, as well as several releases that rivaled the quality of his best work in the seventies.
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For David Bowie, the 90s were a strong bounce back from the hit and miss decade of the 80s. Unfortunately, it wasn't a perfect bounce back, and his final installment of the decade, Hours... is just another blemish among some of the greatest music of Bowie's career. With this new album the oomph of Earthling is gone, and the charming whimsy of The Buddha of Suburbia is nowhere to be found.
What made Bowie so great in the 90s was his lack of pretensions. With his 90s albums, whenever Bowie thought too hard about his songs and music he screwed it up. In 1992, he gave us Tin Machine II out of an obligation to counter the press; cynicism that Tin Machine was just another Bowie experiment, and 1995's Outside was constrained by its being a musical interpretation of a short story by Bowie. Hours... fails because of its empty-hearted message of "woe is me, I'm getting old, which isn't true, Bowie is too happy and too rich nowadays (he's worth millions after putting his catalog up on the stock exchange). Hours... rings hollow.
The only good stuff on Hours... comes after plodding through the first few tedious, opening numbers, including the "Quicksand"-like Seven (note the 12-string strumming that drives the song) with nary the existential angst of the original ("I've got seven days to live my life or seven ways to die" versus "Should I kiss the viper's fang/Or herald loud the death man/I'm sinking in the quicksand of my thought/And I ain't got the power anymore"?).
It isn't until we get to the center of the album that we find some redemption, even if the atonement is superficial. "What's Really Happening?" was a result of a contest by Bowie to challenge a fan to write lyrics for him. Alex Grant won and deservedly so. His "Grown inside a plastic box/Micro thoughts and safety locks" is more Bowie than Bowie. "The Pretty Things Are Going To Hell," finally brings some balls to the forefront, though it still falls short of the calmest number on Earthling. It's not only Bowie whose diluted in his performance. Guitarist Reeves Gabrels has also lost some punch, and, as co-writer for every song, he is as much to blame for the weak music on Hours... as Bowie.
Calling Hours... a mellow album would just be excusing it for being bland. Once again, Bowie falls prey to his self-consciousness, unintentionally diluting the power of his creativity by making a contrived attempt at this coming of age album. Come on, David, any real Bowie fan knows your immortal. Just give us Bowie.