(Image (C) Rolling Stone)
Bowie week rolls on at the Fault! It’s day 4 of David Bowie week!
OK, so, Bowie has survived the Ziggy Stardust/Aladdin Sane era and come out the other side mostly intact, right? What’s a newly christened international pop superstar to do? Record a covers album, apparently. Pin Ups is a lackluster affair, but it was probably a break in the surface of the water, so that Bowie could catch his breath. Covers albums are a hit-or-miss endeavor; nobody expects a ‘loving tribute’ to surpass the originals – those that do are likely because the cover version was able to reach a wider audience compared to that the original version (Soft Cell’s version of ‘Tainted Love’ The Clash’s ‘I Fought The Law’ are two good examples. You could also say Johnny Cash’s version of Nine Inch Nails [whom Bowie would work with in the 90’s] ‘Hurt’ is also superior). Most of the time, it’s an artist saying ‘these are songs that influenced me/I have a contractual obligation for another album/here’s a stopgap while I plan my next move’. Cover albums are the junk food of the musical world.
Then what? A stage musical based on the book 1984? Sure, why not. Bowie was now a ‘big’ name, and he was always theatrical, and to top it off, he was starting to do mountains of cocaine (which he, along with Rick James, would learn is “a helluva drug”, and not recommended by the Fault). Only one problem with that though – George Orwell’s wife wouldn’t give him the rights to ‘officially’ use the material (oddly enough, when Todd Haynes wanted to make a movie about Ziggy set in the glam period of early-70’s Britain, Bowie said no, that he was developing his own film about Ziggy. Haynes made ‘Velvet Goldmine’ [named after a Bowie b-side], an excellent, if at times strange, love-letter to 1970’s glam rock. The soundtrack features a bunch of the pre-eminent artists of the time, minus any Bowie, plus some ‘new’ glam songs by [then] contemporary artists that are just as good. I want a vinyl release of this soundtrack, and I want it now! You’d think Bowie would have remembered what happened to him with Orwell’s wife and told Haynes “yes, please make a loving homage to Ziggy…”). I put ‘officially’ in quotes because, well, Bowie has always been a bit of a light-fingered individual. Don’t they say that genius borrows? While the concept of a theatrical show might have been stymied, his initial ideas did pop up on his next proper album, 1974’s Diamond Dogs. Diamond Dogs is a great album – it’s by turns glam rock, art rock, musical theatre, and experimental musings. It contains the last gasps of Ziggy-era glam, and the rest of it contains hints of what Bowie would be producing, musically, for the remainder of the 70’s. It also contains one of Bowie’s most out-of-place (in my opinion) songs, “1984“. This song is straight up disco, and by that I mean DISCO disco. Most reviewers call it a funk rave up, or something similarly silly – you could say because of the cool guitar work that, yeah, it has some funk elements. But in actuality, it’s essentially everything heard on American top-40 radio in 1978 in that it’s all disco, all day, all night. Except that the lyrics are about paranoia and escape, not boogie-oogie-oogie. So the question then exists: did Bowie invent American disco? OK, enough of that. Diamond Dogs has some tracks you’re familiar with (Rebel Rebel, Diamond Dogs) and side 2 is most of the aborted 1984 stage show. It’s a good transitional album, but it was followed up by a terrible, no good, energy-less live album. David Live is apparently a marriage of convenience where no party is happy: part audience-expectation tunes a la Ziggy, part new-direction ‘plastic soul’, which stylistically hadn’t been recorded yet. It’s important to remember, when artists used to do the whole album-tour-album routine every year, ‘new’ material got road tested before being committed to wax. There aren’t any new songs on David Live, but there are arrangements-in-progress, as Bowie was looking to incorporate US soul and R&B sounds into his work. However, the merging of soul-and-glam didn’t turn out so well, and David Live is an overall dour, lifeless affair. I hear the stage show was good though.
Bowie became fascinated with America while he was initially touring the Ziggy Stardust material. In fact, much of Aladdin Sane was Bowie (as Ziggy) reflecting on America. After decamping to Europe to record Pin Ups and Diamond Dogs, Bowie permanently (for a time) decided to relocate to America. The first fruit of this relocation was the album Young Americans, released in 1975. Here Bowie’s interest in US soul and R&B arrangements (first seen a bit on Diamond Dogs and, more clearly, on David Live) were combined with with his uniquely Eurocentric viewpoints. Young Americans, for me, works better in theory than in application. It was a bold move (one of many) for an established pop star. Bowie, much like the Beatles in the 60’s, didn’t want to be pigeonholed into one genre or sound. The best pop stars (like The Beatles, like Bowie) can be weird, experimental, confrontational, and mainstream at the same time. It’s got to be a monumentally difficult balancing act, as evidenced by the roadside detritus of discarded ‘pop idols.’ Young Americans sees the return of Tony Visconti to the producer’s chair, and features mostly-live band-takes. And what a band. Featuring a young Luther Vandross, David Sanborn, and Carlos Alomar, among others, Bowie cherry-picked the cream of the crop of R&B and studio musicians to help him record this album. While most of the lp was recorded in Philadelphia, Bowie took a quick trip to NYC to do blow with John Lennon, which gave us one of the best and also one of the worst tracks on the album. “Fame”, the big hit, everybody knows it, it’s been covered by everyone including, probably, my mother. It’s a great song that never gets old, and it’s a Lennon co-write. But then Bowie recorded a totally pointless cover of “Across the Universe” which blows. And that’s the album as a whole. It’s equal parts good and bad. “Young Americans”? Great tune, you know that one..”Win”, you might not know, but for me, that’s actually the best cut on the lp. Of course, then you have “Fascination” and “Right” which are…ok, really. Side 2 (if you’re listening on lp, which you should do, as it sounds much better) starts off with “Somebody Up There Likes Me” which, while certainly true for Bowie, is also a stellar tune. Then you’ve got the dud of “Universe” along with “Can You Hear Me?” before you get to “Fame”. 8 tracks, 4 great, 2 so-so, 2 no-no. My man Liam of the Rainieros (whom I gave a shout-out to the other day, read the first post of Bowie week) is now all about the Young Americans album. There’s just no pleasing some people.
Young Americans turned out to be a mixed bag, reception wise, for Bowie. While some praised his new direction, others derided the final release as being derivative. Bowie himself has said that he wanted to try some (to paraphrase) genre-bending, as he felt music was headed into this bland, faceless, Muzak-like direction, and so why not put a white Englishman’s take on American soul music out into the world? Let’s not forget, the man was a genius intent on doing new things – Young Americans was written and recorded in the span of less than 5 months. Between 1969-1979, Bowie put out 12 studio albums, 2 live albums, starred in a handful of movies, toured multiple times, and generally forever altered the musical landscape. So sure, every album wasn’t going to be brilliant, but, in context, and given how often he was willing to turn left and try something new, it’s more impressive than whatever you or I have done with our time in the last 10 years. But 1975 wasn’t over yet, for Bowie decided to go back into the studio again.
And just like that, the soul died. Not fully, but enough. In September of 1975, Bowie went into Cherokee Studios in Los Angeles to begin his next album. Prior to this, he did a starring turn in Nic Roeg’s movie The Man Who Fell To Earth, where he played, appropriately, a paranoid alien named Thomas Jerome Newton. While he was set to record a soundtrack to accompany his star turn, this was nixed, but it’s likely some of these ideas remained in his head and influenced his next album, January 1976’s Station To Station. Station To Station was a lot like Diamond Dogs, it wasn’t one thing or another. For one thing, it was only 6 tracks, and they were longer, with only “Golden Years” being less than 5 1/2 minutes long. So, if you’re not into extended songs, this isn’t your album. That being said, and much like Young Americans, I like half the album. The title cut is great, a 10 minute synth-rock and funk hybrid (likely the first of its kind), and this song definitely points to the direction Bowie would take with his next few albums. There’s also the immensely popular “Golden Years”, which you could argue is ‘plastic soul’, and a great lesser cut named “TVC 15”, which, to me, really speaks to where people thought technology was going in the mid-70’s. It’s like watching old episodes of Battlestar Galactica or Space 1999…ooh, the future! It’s a bit plastic soul, a bit straighforward pop, a bit odd. I’m still waiting on my flying car, by the way. There are 3 other cuts on the album, one of them is a cover (Wild Is The Wind), none of them really work. They’re ostensibly plastic soul, but Bowie appears to have largely lost his enthusiasm for his take on US soul and R&B, as these tracks sound hollow and lifeless. This could be down to Bowie’s voluminous cocaine usage during this time (he even stated, on occasion, that he didn’t remember making the Station To Station album at all.) Regardless of the reason, the album, while OK, contains too many (50%) slower songs for my liking. If you took the best songs of Young Americans and the best songs of Station To Station, you’d have one fairly superb mid-70’s Bowie record. What this album did achieve though, in the choosing of musicians, was to cement the core of Bowie’s backing band for the rest of the decade. Alomar returned on guitar, with George Murray showing up on bass and Dennis Davis hitting the skins. These players would stay with Bowie through the rest of the decade, although they never got a cool band name like The Spiders From Mars. Despite the abruptness of Bowie’s plastic soul period, his next release would polarize his fanbase even further…