The Dark Side of David Bowie

by Dara O'Kearney

The Dark Side Of David Bowie is the latest and undoubtedly greatest Bowie tribute album. Where previous Bowie tributes went for an eclectic approach (particularly "Crash Course For The Ravers") or amounted to no more than a scooping up of existing Bowie covers by high profile artists ("The David Bowie Songbook"), this one scores by going for a coherent sound (Goth) and giving the strong impression that each cover meant a lot more to the band's involved than a quick run through for a single B side.

The extensive and impressively produced liner notes start with: "Looking back at a career that has lasted for over 30 years now, David Bowie has influenced whole generations of musicians. The so-called "Chameleon of Rock" has changed his musical style during that career a lot of times, but always there was something dark, brooding underneath. Something that attracts bands who exploit the darker side of the human psyche."

For once this is not empty marketing-speak: the CD delivers on this promise.

Bowie's career effectively started with "Space Oddity", so it is appropriate that the album kicks off on a high with young German band Crimson Joy's version of the song. This song may not seem like the ideal material for the Goth treatment, a little too poppy (hardcore Bowie fans may remember such pop horror's as the Flying Pickets a capella version of the song and Jonathan King's massacre), but it really works. An ominous start leads into a mechanical drum beat, and the song gets a fine funereal rendition from the band. Imagine "Space Oddity" done as a Joy Division song with a female vocalist who sounds more than a little like Nico and you have the picture.

Next up is Syria, a band the liner notes tell us have been around the gothic avant-garde scene for a few years now. As befits an avant garde band, they choose not to tackle one of Bowie's better known songs but instead go for the very obscure "The Motel" from Bowie's 1995 dark masterpiece, "1. Outside". The version is close enough to Bowie original but interesting nevertheless.

Dreadful Shadows also raid "1. Outside" for their cover. The intro to their version of the title track of that album (Outside) immediately reminds us of the intro to "Space Oddity", thereby pointing to the continuity in Bowie's work that many miss. Again, they stick close to the original while managing to remain interesting and not just sound like a low budget imitation.

Unsigned Gallery Of Fear take a glorious risk by going for one of the songs Bowie fans might very well feel least suited to a Goth attack - the 1984 smash hit single "Blue Jean". In their demolition and reconstruction of this song, in the way they bring out the menace scarcely hinted at in Bowie's original ("They always let you down when you need them"), the band score one of the highlights of the record. This is one of the few Bowie covers I have ever heard that beats Bowie's original version hands down.

Opponents of the historical decline theory of Bowie (the one that holds that he peaked in the 70s, made his last good record in 1980 and went into steep and immediate decline thereafter) will find more evidence to bolster their view that Bowie retained his muse and his songwriting standards throughout the 80s (but maybe went wrong on the production of his albums) in the thrilling version of 1987's "Time Will Crawl" that is offered for inspection by Turin band, Burning Gates. The intro makes you think you're about to hear The Cult's "She Sells Sanctuary", and the whole song has a very Cult vibe.

Sepulcrum Mentis retreat to seemingly safer ground with their version of "Scary Monsters", a song that has had a seminal influence on the likes of NIN, Prick and Marilyn Manson. What thrills about their version is what sounds like demonic fiddle (presumably played by the same fiddler who took on the devil for Johnny Cash's soul) throughout the song (and over which there's a "souls in Hell" wail at opportune times). The liner notes tell us the band record all their songs live but like all the other covers on the CD, there is absolutely nothing slipshod or haphazard about the musicianship on this one.

Next up is Cream VIII's version of "Big Brother" from Diamond Dogs, another relatively safe selection. Perhaps because of this very safeness, I found this to be one of the least satisfying tracks on the album. One nice touch though is the insertion of what sounds like a short mumbled Satanic prayer into the middle of the song.

Exedra make an inspired choice by plumping for "Be My Wife", surely one of the strangest and darkest "love" songs ever written by anyone. This short song from Bowie's "withdrawal to my room in Berlin" masterpiece, "Low" (once described memorably as an album that is "the sound of a man trying to crawl back into the womb"), benefits nicely from the low key arrangement the band give it which also manages to convey the desperation of the original.

German band Endless go for the Ziggy song, "Five Years", and sound so much like the Cure it's hard not to hear this as "the Cure does Ziggy".

The prize for "picking the song least likely" surely must go to Kill The Audience for their selection of "Girls", the song Bowie left off his 1987 album, "Never Let Me Down", and gave to Tina Turner instead. You don't need me to tell you this is a much better and more genuinely affecting version of the songs than Tina's, and Bowie fans who recognised the song as quality and bemoaned it being pawned off to Tina (and Bowie's own version being squandered as a B side) will take heart from this impressive version.

I have always felt "Holy Holy" to be one of the weakest songs Bowie has ever written, and despite a valiant attempt, Marquee Moon don't manage to convince me otherwise. I have a feeling this will be one of the few tracks I end up skipping on a regular basis.

Swans Of Avon raid Bowie's 1979 album, "Lodger", for "Look Back In Anger". This has long been a live favourite amongst Bowie fans (he has used it as a concert opener more frequently than any other song) and the Swans do it justice.

The Merry Thoughts give "Station To Station" a "Sisters Of Mercy" type overhaul. With a song this good (considered by many hardcore Bowie fans to be Bowie's best ever), it isn't too hard not to go wrong, and The Merry Thoughts stay on the straight and narrow.

Full marks for being different for Swiss band Nuit d'Octobre for their idea to transform "Ziggy Stardust" into a melodramatic French dirge (complete with French language lyrics). While the idea is an interesting one, I'm not sure it works in its execution. My French wife hates it and bemoaned the fact that so much sounds like melodramatic Cabaret in French, and I tend to agree on this track. The vocals also sound a little too close to Johnny Halliday for my comfort.

The album could not have a better finale than the one supplied by Timothy Moldry. He transforms that Ziggy show-stopping stomper "Moonage Daydream" (revived by Bowie as a final encore finale in recent years) into a wistful minimalist ballad. Over the sparsest piano (almost Satie-esque), Moldry sings the words gently, almost forgetfully, like the ghost of Ziggy condemned to wander the now empty stage where he was killed by his creator, David Bowie, still mumbling the words he blared out with such gusto in his prime, while the killer riff that Mick Ronson used to blast out with such energy is now no more than a few plaintive keyboard notes. This is tremenduously affecting, and is rapidly becoming my favourite cover ever of a Bowie song.

As I said earlier, the packaging of the album is impressive, with nicely written and produced liner notes that tell and show us all we need to know without being overly pompous. The only negative thing I can say about it is that they might have got a native English speaker to proof-read the liner notes (which would have avoided such linguistic monstrosites as "When Time Will Crawl was published, its b-side", "Angst and pain are the main motives in Scary Monsters") but this is a very minor and pedantic gripe.

Anyone with an interest in Bowie (or Gothic music) would do well to track down this CD. This at last is a Bowie tribute CD that does full justice to the marvellous song writing talent possessed by a certain David Robert Jones, and should be the standard against which all future Bowie tributes should be measured. I was surprised to find it easily enough in my local store (given that it's released by a small German label). Anyone encountering difficulty ordering it can try the following contact information:

Celtic Circle Productions
P.O. Box 7113
D-47601 Geldern
phone +49(0)2831-87264
fax +49(0)2831-94298

published on KHAZAD-DUM cat-no KHA044
distributed in Germany on SPV 084-52932
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This document last updated Sunday, 22-Nov-1998 15:17:01 EST
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