Happy Birthday, David Bowie! It’s Bowie week here at the Fault!
David Bowie would have been 71 today. For those of you who don’t know, Bowie was a groundbreaking musician who either directly or indirectly invented glam rock (through his Ziggy Stardust persona) and also 80’s synthesizer new-wave tunes (through his Berlin trilogy of albums, which he released in the mid-70’s.) He also toyed with hard rock, singer-songwriter compositions, straight-ahead pop, jazz, jungle, art rock, instrumental soundtrack work, and occasionally acted. Indeed, few artists have had as varied, groundbreaking, and commercially successful careers as David Bowie. He’s also one of my favorite artists of all time. I won’t try to give you his biography here, as others have done it better and in more detail than I could possibly hope to achieve. What I would like to do is touch on some of his greatest hits, chronologically, as well as give a few thoughts on what his songs mean to me, and what they meant to the larger context of the musical and cultural landscape at the time of their release.
We have the success of the Monkees TV show for Bowie’s eventual name change, as the Monkees already had a “Davy Jones” in their group. Bowie (as Davy Jones or Davie Jones – Jones being his birth surname) kicked around for a few years in other bands (The Konrads, The King Bees, The Mannish Boys, The Lower Third) before releasing his first self-titled album, David Bowie, in 1967. Like many debut albums, David Bowie was a mess of stylistic influences and sounds, the first tentative reportings of an artist soaking up his surroundings and repeating them back for anyone who cared to listen, and is mostly best left forgotten. It’s soft and airy, not unlike Burt Bacharach or other mid-60’s singers of the time. Think of any 60’s TV commercial where the sound is bouncy, cheery, and light. It’s boring and rightfully forgotten. It’s hard to tell, from this album, what a changeling and tastemaker Bowie would become. Oh yeah, Bowie also recored a terrible novelty single around this time called “The Laughing Gnome.” Don’t listen to it.
His next album, David Bowie, (wait a minute, weren’t we just there?) was released in 1969. It was another foray into the styles of the time, with a very soft hippy vibe present throughout. David Bowie/Space Oddity isn’t all acoustic jams, it does feature a rhythm section and electric guitars on some of the tunes – think “Spirit In The Sky” (a song familiar now thanks to the Guardians of the Galaxy movie) for an idea what the album sounds like. The songs as a whole are optimistic, but not saccharine-sweet like on his ‘first’ album. The album features production and playing by Tony Visconti, a musician/producer who would work with Bowie, and help define some of his ‘sounds’, for many years to come. What set this album apart at the time, and helped influence his work for years to come, was another novelty single, this one a bit more prescient and timely, called Space Oddity (eventually, RCA records, his record company beginning in 1971, would rename the album for it’s hit single, so people didn’t mistakenly buy his terrible Decca self-titled album mentioned above). The US had just sent a man to the moon, after all. The song was sparse and minimal, keeping with the overall man-with-acoustic-guitar vibe of the album, but it had…something (other than its timeliness) that kept it fresh and listenable. As the US and other nations continued space exploration through the rest of the century, this song was easy to trot out as a soundtrack, keeping it fresh in the public’s mind. I feel the song is still worth a spin, and it’s the first real flowering of Bowie’s artistic vision, after 7 years of kicking around and learning his songwriting craft.
So, Bowie strikes gold with a soft acoustic tune, a timely piece about space exploration. Smart money says more of the same, yeah? Nope! Instead, he took some of the harder elements of the Space Oddity album, enlisted an actual band (after being mostly solo on the Space Oddity album) and recorded a hard rock album called The Man Who Sold The World. Once again produced by Tony Visconti, the album was, for years, known primarily for Bowie’s “man’s dress” featured on the cover of the UK release of the album. This cover is preferable to the German “griffon and hand” cover or the US “man with rifle” cover, and seems tame by today’s standards. At the time, the “man’s dress” created quite a controversy, and showed to the world that Bowie was an artist unafraid to take chances. The music contained within the album only reinforces this artistic striving, being much moodier and heavier than anything on the Space Oddity album. The lyrics, as well, represent a much more paranoid view of the world. It’s a well-respected album, well written, played, and produced, and it probably sounded fresh at the time of it’s release, but I never cared much for it. It’s not hard enough to be hard rock, it’s overly slow in it’s tempo in many places, and it never had that one song that hooked me. Kurt Cobain loved it, though, and Nirvana famously covered “The Man Who Sold The World” (and this was in the 90’s, when people should still have vividly been aware of Bowie, yet many still erroneously credit this song as a Cobain composition – to which the Fault says “bah, get a clue!”). Further listening does reveal some of the guitar work that would come to define his ‘classic’ period (and here I have to pause – while critics may seek to define an artist’s ‘classic’ period as maximum press saturation, critical acclaim and album units shifted, ‘classic’ is very subjective, and should largely be dependent upon the listener’s preferred tastes. For an artist with as varied a catalog as Bowie’s, ‘classic’ for one listener might be garbage for another), but, while the ingredients might be upon the table, there are a couple of ingredients missing. I’d be remiss if I didn’t state that my buddy Liam Fitzgerald (who has an awesome C&W/Rockabilly band called The Rainieros) has tried to argue the validity and sheer awesomeness of The Man Who Sold The World on more than one occasion. While he’s a great guy, and a talented musician (seriously, check the link out above, and find them on Facebook), I’m not buying it.
New year, new style. Not having struck commercial gold with the harder stylings of Man Who Sold the World, Bowie took a step forward and a step backwards at the same time. Hunky Dory, his first of many lp’s for RCA records, would feature more of the singer-songwriter stylings of Space Oddity, but with a more piano and orchestral bent than the hippy acoustic vibes of Oddity. Ditching Visconti completely, Hunky Dory was produced by Ken Scott and features the three members of the band that would come to help define (again, according to the critics) his ‘classic’ period. There are some stone-cold classics on this album, from “Changes” to “Life On Mars?”, “Oh! You Pretty Things” and hidden gem “The Bewlay Brothers.” You’ve all heard “Life On Mars?” a million times, either on Spotify, the radio, or in various TV shows. “The Bewlay Brothers” might be Bowie’s first truly ‘autobiographical’ song up to that point, being about himself and his brother (a subject he would revisit many years later on the song “Jump They Say”). While not every song works, it is, on a whole, a much more solid affair than either of his previous albums, and features solid piano playing by Rick Wakeman (a prog guy best known for big capes and being the keyboard player for the group Yes). Indeed, Wakeman owns this album, so much so that it’s hard to appreciate the contributions of the other players on the album. This album is much lighter than World, the difference being that the songs that work, really work, while World seems to be trying too hard to be paranoiac and heavy. Maybe that’s due to the arrangements, or the production, or it could just be down to Bowie’s stylistic shifting (check out the first 30 seconds of song “Andy Warhol” to see how far Bowie was willing to go to push the envelope), going in the course of three albums from hippy to heavy to middle-of-the-road singer. Middle of the road seems to be the last place anyone would expect Bowie to be, and even he didn’t seem too comfortable with it (although he’d change that tune over time, and seek out the center at various points in his career). The middle wouldn’t be a problem forever, as would be seen soon. All the ingredients were now in place, the spices measured out, and it’s all down to timing now. Coming soon, the album that would define (and haunt) Bowie for years, a statement that would bring his talents to a much wider audience.
If I had to choose one of these albums to listen to on repeat, it would be Hunky Dory. It doesn’t sound dated like Space Oddity, and as I mentioned above, I really don’t care for the heavy sound Bowie was striving for on World. However, if World sounds like your cup of tea, seek out a vinyl version (either an original 70’s pressing or a recent repress), as the vinyl seems to really bring the grooves to life. Even I enjoy listening to it more on vinyl. What’s interesting about Bowie (and I’ll probably revisit this many times during the course of the week) is that he was such a huge artist, and his records stayed in print for such a long time, yet, his original pressings (even his repressings) are ridiculously overpriced. Bowie shifted millions of units – his albums were out there forever, new and languishing in the used bins, unloved once the shiny CD came along, cheap and available for the taking. Once records became the hip thing to own again, prices started to go up as pressings started to disappear. Supply and demand, we all understand it. Bowie’s death didn’t help, as he was such an influential artist that his output became something of a holy grail for record collectors. I’ve heard (and have) some of his original pressings, and I have the Five Years vinyl boxset. While I can make arguments as to original-vs-rereleases (such as “well, if that’s the way you fell in love with it, why would they remaster it” – to which I say, “yup, and you can always seek out a used original, or buy both”). I can say that the Five Years box sounds amazing; it was remastered to take advantage of what sounds were ‘wanted’ originally -but at the time, vinyl pressings had limitations, particularly in what the bottom end could reproduce. The three albums I’ve mentioned above are all available as single piece reissues (along with various limited edition pressings, like a gold vinyl Hunky Dory), and if you’re looking for pristine copies, get them for around 20 dollars a pop. But if you’re looking to start somewhere with Bowie, wait for my post tomorrow. I’ll set you on the path.