Momma’s Little Jewel


Glam rock certainly rolls on here at The Fault, doesn’t it?  Good Mott the Hoople albums are hard to come by – by ‘good’, I mean, of course, “All the Young Dudes” (pictured above), as well as the follow-up album, “Mott”.  And…that’s about it.  There are a couple good songs on the “Mott” follow up -appropriately titled “The Hoople”, but that’s it.  Diminishing returns after, and presumptive failures prior.  If you want your money’s worth, pick up Greatest Hits.  While not imaginatively named, it does feature most of the great tracks from Dudes, Mott, and Hoople.  I’ve seen copies of both Mott and The Hoople at local shops and passed on them, waiting for the crown jewel – that being Young Dudes.  I did recently stumble upon the Greatest Hits, and it was a bargain at 5 bucks…although, let’s look at the economics of scale here.  Music is time-sensitive, much more so than cost-sensitive.  Sure, the first LP ever pressed is going to cost an exorbitant amount of money to acquire, that should be a given.  But a CBS Records packaged greatest hits compilation from 1976 (with the majority of the music contained having been released in 1972 and 1973)? And on vinyl – used vinyl at that – shouldn’t be that hard to come by today.  And yet, this is the first time I’d seen a copy of Mott’s Greatest Hits on vinyl in years.  Mott only set the world on fire briefly, for a scant second – and that on the back of a David Bowie penned song (you know it, it’s “All The Young Dudes” – you did know Bowie wrote that, right?), so maybe it’s wrong of me to think there should be tons of used Mott records floating around.  I mean, it’s hard enough to find original Bowie pressings, and they pressed those things in the millions.

It’s really more the economics of time than anything related to price.  When you’ve spent as much time shopping for records as I have, you come to realize most pieces of original-pressed wax settle into one of two price points – under 20 dollars, 20-60, and anything over 60.  Much like the X.99 price tag, where marketers eventually realized people though, hey bargain, cause it was under XX dollars, 60 bucks seems to be the cutoff point for most ‘harder to find’ vinyl in decent shape.  And 60 is still too much.  But right now, it’s still partly a sellers market where vinyl is concerned, as any readers (there have to be a few) of this blog will realize from my many, many, probably too many, posts on the subject.  So, this is where the economics of time intersect with the economics of price.  I’m not young, by anyone’s standards – I’m your average middle aged guy, maybe a bit grumpier than most, certainly more bald than most!  So, we have our equation of TIME + PRICE.  Anything else?  Oh yeah, demand.  How many people are looking for Mott the Hoople’s hits on vinyl in the year of our something, 2018?  I suppose regardless of the demand, you still have to factor supply into this somewhere.  Sure, CBS (or whoever owns the rights to Mott’s catalog today) aren’t rolling copies of their Greatest Hits off the assembly line to the tune of thousands a day.  Why would they?  How many people are actually looking – or would actually be willing to pick up a copy, if they stumbled upon one?  This one might be a little tougher.  Sales = (Demand/Supply)*(Time+Price)?

I like data, I love analytics, but I’ve never been the guy who can figure out an equation like this off the top of my head.  These variables are very much of the ‘sliding scale’ variety – in terms of supply (how many copies were pressed, how many still exist, and how many are within a few miles of me – namely, in one of my local record shops), in terms of demand (Led Zeppelin pressings?  Demand.  Mott the Hoople pressings?  Demand, but of a lesser scale).  Time (how long since the record came out?  was it genre specific?  how many people still give enough of a crap to shell out money for it today?  who is it appealing to – middle aged guys, younger people, some odd intersection, or nobody?)  Intersecting with Time is Demand – for the further away from a production point you get, the harder the product is to acquire.  So, if the demand remains high (like with Zeppelin pressings), the time away from pressing (40+ years and counting for some Zeppelin releases) makes acquiring a copy harder, despite the high pressing count.  Add into this the fact that more people ‘want’ Zeppelin than ‘want’ Mott, and that has to, in some exponential way, factor into the equation.  Finally, but not really finally, we have price.  Price is dictated by supply, demand, and also, at least for something like records, time.  Again, Zeppelin is going to cost more than Mott.  But by how much and for how long?  So, I said price was the final element, but not really, because…cultural cache.  Who’s cool?  Is Zeppelin cool?  Still seem to be.  Is Mott cool?  Maybe to a few.

This really could make someone’s head hurt. It makes mine hurt.  I’m going to figure out a way to put all of this into Tableau Software, if I can ever make sense of the equation.  I might be able to get ahold of initial sales figures (minus returns, so again, not a full picture).  Look, here’s the deal…if you want some glam that isn’t Bowie, Eno, Roxy Music, Lou Reed…find some Mott the Hoople, or at least the two albums I mentioned (or their Greatest Hits).  If you want to expand your glam library, you won’t be disappoint.  However, can someone tell me what a Hoople is?

Switch On the TV, We May Pick Him Up On Channel Two


Today is the anniversary of Bowie’s first live performance ‘as’ the character Ziggy Stardust.  Bowie had spent months preparing to ‘inhabit’ the character of a hedonistic alien bent on saving the human race, developing his persona, designing costumes for himself and his band, and getting ready to ‘live’ as Ziggy.  It was his hope that this ‘inhabited’ character would propel his career in ways that hadn’t happened yet.  Premiering at the Tolworth Toby Jug in London on this day in 1972, the performance wasn’t an overnight smash.  Truthfully, the Hunky Dory album was still in the shops, and the songs that comprised the Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars album, though mostly written, produced, and recorded in November of 1971, (a last few tracks would be put to tape in February of 1972) wouldn’t appear in the shops until June of 1972.  But it was common for acts of the time to be premiering new material live on stage prior to the release of an album.  But the early leg of the tour was a dud.  When Bowie finally performed “Starman” on Top of the Pops in July of 1972, he’d already been performing this new material for 5 months to little fanfare.  His ToTP performance changed that – TV helped catapult Bowie, as much built on image as on sound, into the hearts and minds of more performers than he could have hoped to reach with only album sales and tour receipts.  The performance was slightly scandalous, with Bowie having made remarks to the press that he was gay, and the appearance on ToTP showed him draped across his guitarist Mick Ronson, insinuating something naughty.  The orange mullet, odd jumpsuit, and silver circle on his forehead were revolutionary in rock costuming.

This brought Bowie the newfound notoriety he’d been looking for.  As the Ziggy Stardust tour progressed, Bowie crossed over to the US, then back to England, the US again, then over to Japan (in April of 1973), and finishing the world tour in England.  Nothing lasts forever though, and on July 3, 1973, Bowie ‘retired’ Ziggy Stardust live on-stage.  During this nonstop tour, Bowie was able to produce a follow up album, Aladdin Sane, featuring perhaps his most famous look, the lightning-bolt face.  It had been a wild 20-month ride that changed rock music forever.  It brought glam to the forefront as a viable musical genre.  It taught aspiring rockers how to invent characters for them to inhabit.  It presented a credible take on the ‘concept’ album.  It made David Bowie a bonafide rock star.  Not to mention it produced one of the best albums in the history of rock music, one whose blueprint can be heard in songs still being released today.  Here’s to Ziggy.



14 Hour Technicolour Dream


It’s awesome album cover Saturday here at The Fault.  Take a gander at the psychedelic masterpiece above.  It has everything a good psych cover should – odd, collagist imagery, a juxtaposition of Victorian and modern styles, and enough surrealist composition to beckon you inside, take a trip, relax your mind, float away, yada yada.  I find myself wanting to listen to nothing but old garage/freakbeat/vintage psych stuff two or three times a year.  For me, there’s a timeless quality to this music that just puts it head and shoulders above anything else.

A large part of why the Nugget series works so well is that it’s, like the cover art that adorns the music contained within, a melding of multiple styles.  You’ve got electric blues, garage, and burgeoning psychedelic sound stylings.  The Nuggets series is a great place to hear some truly amazing performances by artists who in many cases went on to greater success with other bands.  And that’s something most people don’t realize – bands weren’t meant to ‘last’, at least not in the way today’s acts do.  A group of working musicians might have been three or four different ‘groups’ within the span of a few short years.  Remember too, that most of these acts were British, and British pop (of which heavy blues, garage, and psych were all parts of) bands were controlled as much by their management as they were by their songwriters.  Thus, a band might be garage for six months, and then try to cash in on this ‘psychedelic’ phase that just popped up.  So, you switch the brothel creeper boots and sharp suits for paisley shirts and flowers.  Same members, different package, different arrangement style.  The technology of music was evolving at such a rate that a guitar reverb was a novelty at the time that, if showcased on a record, was likely to become a hit due to it’s relative novelty.  Now, anyone can have dozens of delay options for practically no cost.  In the 60’s, it’s relative newness gave it a cache that bands wanted to cash in on.

Most people who weren’t there just assume that all the psychedelic bands were trying to promote some sort of lifestyle of dropping acid, smoking mary jane, and kids grooving against the old establishment.  This is not the case.  For many of them, it was simply a means to an end.  Let’s look at some of the bands represented on Nuggets, and their eventual ends:

I Can Hear The Grass Grow – The Move.  These guys started as a traditional rock group, dabbled in psychedelia during it’s peak, and went back to rock.  Two (eventually three) of the members went on to form a little band in the 70’s known as ELO, much more disco than psych rock.  That eventual third was Jeff Lynne, who fronted his own band known as The Idle Race, represented here with Imposters of Life’s Magazine.  The band Tomorrow appears with My White Bicycle, featuring guitarist Steve Howe who would later join progressive rock band Yes.  Speaking of Yes, another band featured on Nuggets was The Syn, with their entry here being 14 Hour Technicolour Dream.  The Syn’s bassist Chris Squire would help form the progressive band Yes that Steve Howe joins.

Nuggets is packed full with a who’s who of players.  David Bowie has an entry here as Davy Jones performing You’ve Got A Habit of Leaving.  Jimmy Page shows up playing guitar for The Primitives on You Said, while John Paul Jones plays bass for The Poets on That’s the Way It’s Got To Be.  There are cuts by The Small Faces, Status Quo, The Creation, and The Pretty Things.  Most of these bands would continue in some incarnation or other for years after the psychedelic bubble had burst.  Some of the bands represented are unique and certainly were probably cobbled together quickly from competent players to cash in on the psychedelic craze.  Bands like The Action, The Eyes, Sorrows, Kaleidoscope – these are the real unsung, disappeared entrants in the psychedelic musical canon.  That’s what’s great about Nuggets, it brings all these one-off hits by bands big and small and makes them all available in one place for optimum listening pleasure.  Sadly, this box set is now out of print, so hopefully you either stumble upon a used copy or find a download somewhere.  Happy listening!

She’s In The Pocket of a Homeboy


Bowie Week continues here at The Fault!

For Bowie, 1980 began much the same way his last few years had – writing and recording a new album.  Eventually appearing in September of that year, Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps) was a dark, antisocial, ruminative album lyrically, and musically it was a near-perfect melding of his experimental and commercial leanings.  It sounds very much a new wave album, albeit one with a lot of muscle behind it.  Every song moves along briskly, and this album features lots of guest stars supporting Bowie’s usual core band of Alomar, Murray, and Davis.  Pete Townshend and Robert Fripp both show up to do what they do best, guitar-wise, while Chuck Hammer contributes the relatively new guitar-synth to the proceedings.  Be Bop Deluxe player Andy Clark provides synth (side note:  Bill Nelson, leader of BBD, Red Noise, and a solo artist, started BBD as very much a glam band, and their first album Axe Victim was especially saddled with comparisons to Bowie.  Luckily, BBD went on to produce great, futuristic sounding prog rock albums that probably deserve a post of their own some day).  There was also a member of Springsteen’s band in there.  Producer Tony Visconti was at the helm again, contributing Eventide Harmonizer to the drums.

In many ways, Scary Monsters was Bowie’s response to a world he was starting to not recognize (not surprising, given how he was always writing, recording, or touring – doesn’t leave a lot of time to catch up with the nightly news), as well as his response to the fresh crop of new wave artists that sprang up after punk, taking a healthy dose of Bowie as their main (sometimes only) cue.  It contains big hits “Fashion” and “Ashes To Ashes”, as well as gems like “It’s No Game”, “Up The Hill Backwards”, and the title cut.  It’s my favorite Bowie album, hands down, from lyrical content to musical delivery.  Bowie did at the start of the 80’s what so few ‘younger, fresher’ artists managed to achieve – a perfect album from start to finish.  Speaking of the song “Ashes To Ashes”, within the lyrics, Bowie buries Major Tom, the titular star from his very first hit, “Space Oddity.”  In many ways, it is David Bowie laying his past to rest to look towards the future.  His first album of the new decade, it was also his last for longtime label RCA (although the record company didn’t know that yet).  People probably didn’t think too much about the lyrical content of “Ashes”, but Bowie clearly did, as the rest of the decade would see him change directions fasters than a dog chasing a rabbit.

Bowie also did one other thing in 1980, in that he for a time starred as Joseph Merrick in the broadway play The Elephant Man.  1981 didn’t bring much musical activity from Bowie, unless you count a worldwide smash #1 hit single made in collaboration with group Queen.  There’s been a lot of controversy over who came up with the famous bassline (it wasn’t you, Vanilla Ice, you giant toolbox), with everyone in Queen (except for Brian May) and also Bowie himself at one time being credited for the musical passage.  Whoever really wrote it, I’m just happy Bowie was friends with the band, as we got a lasting, amazing song out of it.  Freddie Mercury was also responsible for Bowie (eventually) signing with EMI Records, Queen’s label at the time.  I am paraphrasing here, but the conversation went something like this:  [Mercury] “David, you may be rich, but EMI can make you Croesus rich.”  Also in 1981, and following up his previous turn in The Elephant Man, Bowie decided to take on the character of Baal, a play written in 1923 by Bertolt Brecht  for a BBC Production.  For this, he recorded his take on five of the songs, again with Visconti producing, at Hansa in Berlin once again.  It’s completely non-essential listening, but it did show that Bowie was stretching his creative muscles.  1982 saw him contribute a song called Cat People (Putting Out Fire) to the film of the same name, with music by legendary disco producer Giorgio Moroder.  He would re-record this song for his next album, but in my opinion, the original single version crushes the remake like a grape.  He also rounded out 1982 with the release of a duet with Bing Crosby (originally from a 1977 Christmas Special, making its first official release in ’82), an update of a classic Christmas tune.  Bowie was unhappy with his original appearance and with the song as a whole.  When RCA released it without checking with Bowie, it was the final nail in the coffin for his relationship with the label.  Oddly enough, it’s become a Christmas classic, and in keeping with my true curmudgeonly attitude, I can’t stand it.  Bowie also took the time to be the leading man in the film Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence.  Bowie received praise for his work in the film, which would see release in 1983.  Bowie also appeared in the 1983 vampire film The Hunger, which also featured Bauhaus in the opening club scene.  Bauhaus, of course, did a rocking cover of Ziggy Stardust (not in the film, but in general as a single.  No, the song used in the film is of course Bela Lugosi’s Dead, their own vampire ode.  Predictable, but appropriate.  The cover of Ziggy might have been cooler, and a little nod-and-wink to the audience at the same time).  The Hunger is a well done (if only moderately received) film, and Bowie’s performance seems very Bowie…he’s effortlessly acting as a version of himself.  However, before either of his cinematic contributions to the year 1983 would see light, Bowie would release an album that has polarized his fanbase ever since.

Let’s Dance, shall we?  In December of 1982, Bowie, having signed a multi-million dollar contract with EMI Records, went to work in NYC at Power Station Studios with Nile Rodgers, the guitarist for disco act Chic.  The album was supposed to be produced by longtime associate Visconti, who had even blocked out time in his schedule to make it, only for Bowie to decide to go in a funkier direction after meeting with Rodgers and telling him to ‘help me make hits.’  Bowie, tired of being seen as ‘that arty guy’ wanted to be a massive pop singer, and Let’s Dance made that dream a reality.  The songs are very American, very pop, very funk.  It was what American top 40 radio was playing, and that ‘new’ channel MTV helped further sales of the album by playing Bowie’s videos for the new album non-stop.  You know the title track, you know the single “China Girl” (originally from Iggy Pop’s The Idiot album from 1977), as well as the hit “Modern Love” and the new version of “Cat People.”  Apart from Cat People and China Girl, there was one further song borrowed from another release, “Criminal World”, originally released in 1977 by the band Metro.  The band was top notch.  Besides Rodgers, guitar duties were played by an unknown Stevie Ray Vaughan, with drumming by Chic drummer (and future Power Station drummer) Tony Thompson.  It was a popular album, but not a great one.  A few of the tunes just flat out don’t work, and the ones that did now sound dated and trite.  For many, however, this was Bowie’s introductory statement, that of a suit-wearing, smiling, blond man.  Let’s Dance was Bowie’s only #1 single in America, and to support his new sound and image, he went on tour in May of 1983 through December of the same year.  Propelled by hit singles, hit videos, an impressive promotional attack, and Bowie’s own press releases, the tour, which was to start in 10K seat venues (much like Bowie’s previous tours) had to expand to larger arenas as Bowie’s popularity grew.  The tour was a sellout everywhere it went.  It placed Bowie into the upper echelon of mainstream pop stars.  He soon realized it’s not where he wanted to be.  My opinion?  One of Bowie’s worst albums…a sellout, cash-in, boring, uninspired…look, the man’s a genius.  He wants to make American funk music?  Fine.  That was his call.  But I didn’t like the sound then, and I don’t like it now, and putting “David Bowie” on the cover doesn’t make the product any more enjoyable.  RCA still owned the rights to Bowie’s back catalog and put out the live album Ziggy Stardust:  The Motion Picture in October of 1983, partly to capitalize on the massive success Bowie was having with Let’s Dance.  When has a record label not tried to make money off an artist, and to boot, I’m sure they were kicking themselves for losing Bowie to EMI, and all the units of albums he was shifting for them with Let’s Dance.  Of his two releases in 1983, give me the live Ziggy album any time.

For a man used to following his own muse, the massive success of Let’s Dance both amused and confused Bowie.  While on his Serious Moonlight tour, he started the process of writing his next record.  It didn’t go well.  When Tonight was released in September of 1984, his newfound public were expecting Let’s Dance, part 2.  They didn’t get that.  Instead they got strange news from a distant star.  Of the 9 songs on the album, 5 of them had been performed by other artists prior to appearing in Bowie form on Tonight, even if 3 of those 5 were Bowie co-compositions from Iggy Pop albums.  It’s an inconsistent album, with a terrible cover of the Beach Boys (“God Only Knows”), a duet with Tina Turner (the title track), a duet with Iggy (“Dancing With The Big Boys”), and a couple of bona fide gems (“Loving The Alien”, “Blue Jean”).  Bowie now had the mainstreams ear, so a clearly pop-leaning song like “Blue Jean” climbed the charts.  A side effect of having the mainstreams ear was that even a weird song like “Alien” was an unlikely hit.  Tonight is just strange.  It’s like Bowie got the success and adoration he’d always craved, but then decided against it, but was stuck.  Commercial interest or artistic integrity?  That’s what you find on Tonight – a bit of both.  It’s like a lounge act doing David Bowie – if they only knew Iggy Pop’s Bowie compositions.  Bowie really seemed directionless here, and this is only reinforced by the pair of songs he wrote solely by himself.  The album was co-produced with Hugh Padgham, the man who helped pioneer the big gated drum sound you all know from “In The Air Tonight” by bald singing drummer Phil Collins, so don’t blame him.  While time has, in retrospect, been kind to Tonight, it still sounds like a man grasping to re-evaluate his place in the pop landscape after conquering it a year previous.  It was a cash-in album that used a lot of the same band members as on Let’s Dance, and Bowie tried to capture a lot of that ‘brand’ of sound as well, because that’s what his new fans expected.  For a man who was accustomed to making left turns with no forethought, this new pandering to a temporary audience seemed out of place. Be careful what you wish for.  It’s a good thing EMI didn’t saddle us with a cash-grab of its own in 1985.  Dance was supposed to be a remix album of songs from, of course, Let’s Dance and Tonight.  The plan was (wisely) dropped.  A few sleeves were produced, but it was never committed to vinyl or cd, so the world may never know if was good or not.  Most remix albums are not, so there’s my two cents on it.  Lastly in 1984, RCA released their back catalogue of Bowie albums on that ‘new’ medium of compact disc.  The albums weren’t mastered for the new digital medium and sounded garbage.

The world didn’t get a new Bowie album in 1985, a rare first for a man so used to putting out an album every year.  The world did get “This Is Not America“.  Better than most of the Tonight album, this song with Pat Metheny, for the soundtrack of the movie The Falcon and the Snowman, is a much stronger song than almost anything off of Tonight – of course, Bowie only needed to write words, not music, in this instance.  Not so good (and not better than the Tonight album…not better than pretty much anything else you can think of) was his hyper-goofy, hyper-homoerotic, hyper-commercial, boring, trite, ill-conceived cover of the song “Dancing In The Street“, a duet with Mick Jagger.  Bowie had long been a fan of The Rolling Stones, covering “Let’s Spend The Night Together” on Aladdin Sane (and having a lot of the same album get sonic comparisons to some of the Stones’ work), so doing a duet with Jagger probably appealed to him.  The original plan was to have the two performers singing live via satellite from two separate stadiums in support of Live Aid charities.  The satellite uplink would have caused a time delay making the vocal performances seem off-kilter.  Instead, the two met in a studio and recorded their take on Dancing In The Street.  The video, when viewed now, looks ridiculously homoerotic – but it was the mid 80’s, a lot of videos looked that way at the time.  Prince, anybody?  Despite this, the song went to #3 in the US Charts, and all the money raised did go to a worthy charity.  I’m OK with garbage if the proceeds help the needy.

The world didn’t get a new Bowie album in 1986, either.  Well, not really.  1986 was more of an acting year for Bowie, with a little music thrown in on the side.  First up, Bowie appeared in Absolute Beginners in April of 1986, the title song of which is the only good thing about the movie.  You’d think a movie with Patsy Kensit, Bowie, Ray Davies, and Sade would at least be competent, but it was an all-singing, all-dancing mess.  Absolute Beginners might have been DOA, but his next project certainly was…not.  Labyrinth released in late June of 1986 and starred Bowie, a young Jennifer Connelly, and a bunch of muppets.  It’s a ridiculously silly movie, and I’ve only ever seen it the once, so I can’t say how well it holds up.  I know many of the stills from the movie show Bowie (as Jareth the Goblin King) and his massive crotch bulge.  Like I said, the mid-80’s were a homoerotic time.  Bowie also contributed 5 songs to the soundtrack, all of them are utterly terrible, featuring a cream of the studio crop of musicians and slick 80’s production.  It’s the slick 80’s production that do the songs in.  To round out 1986, Bowie contributed another soundtrack song, for the animated film “When The Wind Blows“, of which he sang the title track.  It’s a good tune, and a good film, with additional soundtrack contributions from Roger Waters.  Bowie’s tune was sung by him, with all instruments played by Erdal Kizilcay, a man who would figure prominently in Bowie’s musical vision for the next decade.  Kizilcay first got noticed by Bowie during the recording and producing of Iggy Pop’s Blah Blah Blah record, of which Bowie had a hand in (because of course he did.)

1987 saw the release of the first ‘new’ David Bowie record in 3 years, Never Let Me Down.  It’s also one of Bowie’s most maligned records.  Many felt it continued his brash commercial direction, but I think it’s actually a decent record that suffers from that mid-80’s syndrome known as overproduction.  A lot of bands fell prey to slick, studio-controlled recordings, with no errors,no spontaneity, and no space to breathe in, where the performances were concerned.  Bowie was no exception.  The album is awash with superfluous synthesizers, backing vocals, and drum machines.  The songs themselves are well written and show a depth of character Bowie hadn’t exhibited since Scary Monsters at the beginning of the decade.  “Day-In, Day-Out”, “Time Will Crawl”, “Zeroes”, “Shining Star” (featuring Mickey Rourke)…really most of the songs show sparks of brilliance.  However, again, production (by Bowie and David Richards) really makes everything a dayglo nightmare of excess.  It’s more of this, more of that, no subtlety or nuance.  It prominently features new kid on the block Erdal Kizilcay, with performances from old standby Carlos Alomar, and lead guitar by some guy named Peter Frampton who had an annoying song called “Baby I Love Your Way” become a big hit for himself and a million other people.  He is a good guitarist though.  It sold better than many of Bowie’s earlier records (at the time).  This may be because by 1987, a lot of people had gotten a cd player, and, having familiarity with Bowie as a name, wanted to pick up his latest on that ‘new’ cd technology.  I know it was my first Bowie cd, and perhaps that’s why I rate this album higher than either Let’s Dance or Tonight, because I played it A LOT during my last year of high school.  So, either it grew on me in a way it didn’t for most people, or the songs are strong.  I believe it’s the latter.  That’s not to say there aren’t some mis-steps, lyrically.  Bowie tries to keep up with ‘the kids’ with the line “she’s in the pocket of a…homeboy!” on “Day-In, Day Out”, and the whole pre-song discussion about the Glass Spider (from the song of the same name) is interesting but silly.  Apparently, the vinyl and cd editions feature separate mixes already…I have both (well, I have the vinyl, not sure I still have the original cd).  Later versions on disc have the song “Too Dizzy” removed as Bowie never really liked the song.  “Too Dizzy” was the only song on the album he co-wrote with Kizilcay, and their relationship became strained about the time the first reissues of this cd started popping up, so there might be more to it than ‘not liking the song.’  Parlophone (who now owns Bowie’s entire back catalog) have been providing a new mix of a classic Bowie album on their retrospective box sets that have come out the last 3 years…if they do an 80’s box set for 2018, maybe someone can remix Never Let Me Down and take out some of the superfluous instrumentation.  It might be a new take on a divisive sound.  Bowie embarked on an ambitious tour to support the album in 1988 (appropriately called the Glass Spider tour, named after the album cut and featuring a huge spider as it’s centerpiece on stage), which would see Bowie really mix up his back catalogue in terms of arrangement and presentation.  This did not go over well with reviewers, who already disliked the source material for a lot of the live performances and called the presentation overblown and pretentious.  As the tour progressed, Bowie replaced many of the new songs with older, more well-loved songs from his back catalog.  Still, the tour made money, and was a theatrical spectacle.  It should have strengthened the David Bowie brand.  What happened next would shock everyone, except, perhaps, himself.




If There’s Someone In Charge, Then Listen To Me

David Bowie in Vasarely's workshop

In 1976, Bowie took a drastic step that would further cement his legacy and alter the musical landscape forever.  Bowie took a washed-up garage band singer named Iggy Pop under his wing and told him that he could help reinvent himself, and resurrect his career.  But Iggy had problems with heroin the same way Bowie had problems with coke.  So, they both made the decision to decamp to Berlin.  Berlin in the 70’s was a bohemian, depressing place.  The cold war was in full swing, the shadow economy was strong, and the sense of trepidation was high.  Bowie and Pop shared an apartment in Berlin’s Turkish district, and both became very interested in the electronic dance music of groups like Neu! and Kraftwerk.  Inspired, Bowie and Pop fled to France to begin tracking Iggy Pop’s (ostensibly first) solo album, The Idiot.  Recording then continued at Musicland in Germany before being mixed by Bowie’s frequent collaborator Tony Visconti at Hansa Tonstudio by the Berlin Wall.

Side Note:  when I visited Germany four years ago, my first stop was to tour the Hansa Tonstudio, as it was (and still is) a legendary recording studio that has seen, apart from Bowie and Pop, groups such as Depeche Mode and Wire record using it’s space and equipment.  I was shown a rusting stairwell that has amazing reverb, where DM recorded some vocals.  The large studio ballroom has been converted in an elegant dining hall, but the multi-bus plug-in rack still exists behind a very fine velvet curtain.  The smaller studio downstairs has a very cool control booth, and they apparently have a room far upstairs full of vintage keyboard equipment.  With drool running down my cheeks, I was very politely (yet forcefully) told that said room was forbidden to enter.

The Idiot was many moves away from Pop’s previous hard rock sound, and in a way, was the template for Bowie’s forthcoming Bowie album.  It was a different album that took chances with it’s cold, Kraftwerk-synth + funk soundscape.  Bowie could always backtrack and take a safer route for his next planned album.  Bowie was pleased with the results though, so much so that he held the release of the album back until he could release his own ‘take’ on the material (it should be noted that Bowie wrote, recorded, co-produced, and played keyboards on The Idiot.  He also had Pop signed to his management company.  It was largely recorded by Bowie’s backing band of the time.  Except for some of Pop’s lyrical writing contributions, and vocals, swap out Bowie’s voice and it’s a Bowie record).  The album starts off with the near industrial “Sister Midnight” (pay attention to this song) before segueing into the drum-machine led “Nightclubbing”, a song covered by The Human League, and most famously by Grace Jones, who made it a sizable hit single.  The rest of the album follows the cold industrial landscape of the first two songs.  The Idiot may not have a household-ready cache of hits that the average music fan would recognize, but, aside from Grace Jones’ cover hit, it does include a little tune called “China Girl” that Bowie himself would make a huge smash in 1983.  It seems Pop is the bridesmaid instead of the bride.

So, while The Idiot was in the can and ready for release, it didn’t actually come out until March of 1977.  Instead, while Pop cooled his heels waiting for his album to come out, Bowie took a cast of frequent and new collaborators into the studio and recorded the Low album.  It was the first of what would come to be called his “Berlin Trilogy”, because, as the legend states, the albums were recorded in, reflections of, and influenced by, Berlin.  Truth, however, is not always so kind as legends.  Low was mostly recorded in France, with only some of the mixing and recording done in Berlin.  Regardless of this, Bowie was firmly ensconced in Berlin when the album was released.

As a direct response to his cocaine addiction and recovery, Low is, in many ways, reminiscent of how Bowie was feeling at the time.  Stressed, drained, plaintive.  It was also in large part inspired by his rejected soundtrack work for his film The Man Who Fell To Earth, where the electronic landscapes would have fit in perfectly (whenever I watch the movie now I’m still amazed the director chose folksy, acoustic guitar inspired tunes).  This electronic music only enforced these feelings of isolation.  Much of the planning work was done in collaboration with Brian Eno, who provided invaluable synthesizer and effects processing production to the proceedings (it must be remembered that effects racks and synthesizers were not the commonplace pieces of equipment that they are today, and that, often, a specialist was needed to not only operate but provide guidance on ‘special effects’ in a studio.)  For me though, what really stands out about the Low album – looking back on it in hindsight, because I grew up in an era of synth-pop – are the drum sounds.  They’re big and booming, but not in the Phil Collins gated way (of “In The Air Tonight.”)  No, they’re artificial, reverberating, and…squidgy?  Sure, squidgy.  This effect was achieved by Tony Visconti’s (back again, producing the album) new acquisition, an Eventide Harmonizer.  There are a lot of different versions of this machine available now, but in 1977, Visconti owned the second unit to roll off the assembly line.  It produced an amazing effect, listen to the drums on “Sound & Vision” (or any song on the first side of the Low album) for an idea.  The whole production is clean, sparse, almost hollow in a way.  Low at the time was an anomaly.  Consisting of 5 vocal and 6 instrumental pieces, critical reaction was divided.  Some called it pretentious, avant-garde noodling.  Many (especially within his record company) wondered if this whole keyboards and no-vocals thing was such a good idea.  While side 1 contained a mix of vocal and instrumental tunes (including such recognized instruments as guitars and drums), side 2 was all instrumental, with mostly keyboards and occasional primitive drum machines, and the biggest ‘hit’ from the album is the already mentioned “Sound & Vision”.  It wasn’t about to set the world on fire.  Hindsight has generally been much kinder to Bowie’s first full-on foray into electronica.  And while I really like this album a lot, it was about to get overshadowed by Bowie’s very next release(s).  Yes I said releases.  Pay close attention.

No time to rest though.  After Low dropped in January of 1977, The Idiot dropped in March of the same year.  Pop went out on a brief tour of the album, and brought along one Mr. David Bowie as his keyboard player.  While on tour, Pop started writing material for his next record, along with Bowie.  After the short tour ended, the duo, along with Pop’s road band, decamped again to Hansa studios, this time not only to mix, but to record the album within its confines.  Produced by Bowie, Pop, and Colin Thurston, with contributions from Bowie’s regular guitarist Carlos Alomar, along with Tony and Hunt Sales on bass and drums, respectively, along with Bowie playing keyboards, and Pop singing, the album Lust For Life appeared in late August of 1977.  Tony and Hunt Sales are the sons of actor Soupy Sales, and will reappear in the David Bowie story over a decade later.  You know this album.  Everyone know this album.  The title track was most famously featured in the film Trainspotting, and song “The Passenger” has been covered by both R.E.M. and Siouxsie & The Banshees.  Perhaps the strangest thing about the album is that album cuts “Tonight” and “Neighborhood Threat” both reappeared in 1984 as part of Bowie’s “Tonight” album.  Lust For Life is much more ‘rock’ than The Idiot, and was released in the UK’s punk year zero, where it fit in quite well with the new crop of releases from punk’s angry young musicians.  In many ways, Pop was considered an ‘elder statesman of punk’, due largely to his work with his band The Stooges.  So, while he may have played guinea-pig on The Idiot for ‘new’ sounds that Bowie wanted to try out, Lust For Life, despite Bowie once again writing, producing, and performing on the album, was much more an Iggy Pop affair.

Right after Bowie finished his duties on Lust For Life, he essentially stayed put in Hansa studios, called in his backing band, and laid down the skeletons for what would turn out to be his best known album from of his Berlin Trilogy.  “Heroes” was recorded in only two months, and while it did keep some of the trappings of Low (a nearly-instrumental side 2), it, like Lust For Life, was more ‘rock’ than Low.  This was primarily down to Robert Fripp, King Crimson guitarist (and wifebeater t-shirt lover) extraordinaire, who was flown in at Eno’s suggestion to lay down lead guitar parts.  The album was recorded in a highly improvisational style, with Eno’s Oblique Strategies (a cut-and-paste style of writing and arranging) being employed to compose many of the instrumental parts.  The album was Bowie’s reaction to the Cold War, seeing as how his view from the window of the studio was of the Berlin Wall, with West Germany underfoot and East Germany within view (including a Soviet guard tower.)  Despite this, the album maintains a generally more positive vibe than Low, although from reading the lyrics to most of the cuts you wouldn’t get that impression.  Really, it’s only the title track “Heroes” that is mostly upbeat, and it’s a great track.  Everyone knows it, it’s been played numerous times as the soundtrack to…everything, and it’s been covered equally as many times.  But the original is where it’s at.  6 minutes of buzzing synth, reverb-drenched guitar, and a front-and-center vocal performance that demands attention.  It’s the culmination of what Bowie was trying to do in Berlin, both for himself and in search of new ways of making music.  Again, Tony Visconti produced, and his Eventide Harmonizer brought a lot of depth to the recordings.  The whole album deserves multiple listens, side 1 especially, but check out “V-2 Schneider” on side 2, named in honor of Floridan Schneider from the German band Kraftwerk, a big influence on both Low, “Heroes”, and The Idiot.  It should be noted that Bowie’s record company, RCA, had no belief in either Low or “Heroes”, and did much less promotion than they had for Young Americans or Station To Station.  It’s down to Bowie’s tenaciousness and belief in his work that it was taken to heart by fans as it has been.

Taking a very brief break, in March of 1978, Bowie hit the road for a world tour.  These performances were eventually compiled into a double-live album called Stage, a much more satisfying affair than his previous live album (David Live).  The band featured a violin player, a synth player, a pianist, as well as his usual trio backing band (Alomar, Murray, Davis) plus lead guitar whiz-kid Adrian Belew (who would go on to join Robert Fripp of the “Heroes” album in a new incarnation of King Crimson.  He managed to join Talking Heads as an unofficial band member prior to that though.  Those Talking Heads albums would be produced by one Brian Eno.  Small world).  The tour concluded in December of 1978.

I said that Bowie recorded what most call his Berlin Trilogy, yeah?  Well, album number three in the trilogy was started during the world tour, at Mountain Studios in Switzerland (made famous by Deep Purple in their song “Smoke On The Water”.  The studio is located inside a casino, which also holds a theatre, which caught fire a day before the casino closed for the season.  Deep Purple would have had the whole casino to record in, but it was destroyed by fire, and so they had to use a mobile recording studio.  It was repaired by the time Bowie went in there to record.  Queen also recorded 6 albums there).  The album was eventually completed in March of 1979 at New York’s Record Plant studios, and was called Lodger.  Once again it featured Bowie’s core band, plus the extra players from his recently concluded world tour, along with, once again, Brian Eno, who again laid out Oblique Strategies for the composing of tunes.  Lodger continues with the themes of paranoia and isolation and turns them up to ten.  Even the cover image echoes this, with a crumpled Bowie appearing to be held under glass, like a bug.  People often complain about the muddy quality of the Lodger album, and they would be right to.  Despite Bowie’s fame and money, while in NY, he and producer Visconti (back again) couldn’t find a more suitable studio to record in.  They were all booked up!  The Record Plant is more of a ‘tracking’ studio, meaning it lacked a lot of the technological equipment to help make a fully fleshed out recording.  However, it’s not the recording that makes Lodger a bad record.  It’s generally weak in overall performance and arrangement.  Lyrically, it’s pretty decent.  Every song on side 2 has a complex lyrical theme, ranging from sexual inequality, domestic violence, and ‘small’ famous people.  Side 1 song (and single) “Yassassin” also has a strangely paranoiac feel, despite being the title being Turkish for “Long Live”.  Maybe it’s Long Live in Misery.  I remember DJ being shown on fledgling video channels, and it is probably my earliest visual view of Bowie.  I’d heard his stuff plenty of times (especially Young Americans, which, reflecting its American roots, was played a lot on mainstream radio), even if I often didn’t know who he was at the time (let’s not forget that when Lodger came out, I was 9).  DJ made him a visual ,as well as auditory, presence.  Side 2 song “Boys Keep Swinging” has been covered by a multitude of performers.  The Associates made it the A-Side to their first single, without asking Bowie’s publishers’ permission.  Despite this, Bowie said he much preferred their version to his own.  Copies of the single start at about 135 dollars, and it’s not been repressed.  Other notable cover versions exist by Susannah Hoffs, Heaven 17, and Duran Duran.

No amount of covers can save the original release if it’s not gripping though – and that’s the problem.  Lodger seems like a castaway album, a leftovers album, it just seems to lack…spark.  I’ve tried, I’ve really tried to give this album a chance.  I’ve listened to it in jumbled order, on various occasions, I’ve even listened to the 2017 Tony Visconti remix on vinyl…and stuff comes close…sometimes…but not close enough.  It feels lifeless and dull in too many places.  Critics felt the same way, calling it a second-rate album.  Time has been kinder, of course, with many now claiming it’s one of his finest.  That always seems to be the case with late pop stars, you get to re-evaluate the work and make a new decision on it.  Or, like with Low and “Heroes”, you can look at the wider pop landscape through the lens of the past, and see how influential all three of Bowie’s Berlin Trilogy albums were to the future of pop music.  Keyboard rock became a thing, and that’s in no small part down to Bowie’s belief in the work he was doing at the tail end of the Seventies.  But even he seemed to be tiring of his new direction by the time Lodger came along, as it wasn’t an austere synth landscape anymore, instead featuring lots of ethnic instruments and bringing clean guitars back into the mix.  Despite how Lodger turned out, the man wrote, produced, and performed on 5 ‘new’ (plus one live) records in less than 3 years.  All of them are now classics, or at least (in the case of Lodger) are spoken of fondly.  That’s an amazing achievement in and of itself.  While Bowie may not have kickstarted the Seventies, beginning with the Ziggy Stardust album, he certainly left an indelible mark as both a performer, creator, and innovator upon the musical landscape of the decade.

One last thing.  Remember Pop’s “Sister Midnight”, the song that started Bowie’s whole Berlin period?  The one I told you to pay attention to?  It makes a reappearance on Lodger, slightly altered, as “Red Money”, the final track on the album, wherein Bowie sings ‘project cancelled’, as if he was telling us (and himself) that it was time to set off on a new course.  That new course would be the 1980’s, and I doubt even Bowie was prepared for what he had in store for the listening public.

He’s Quadraphonic, He’s Got More Features

Bowie Station
(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…



He’s Everybody’s Token, On Everybody’s Wall


Two years ago today, a mere two days after his 69th birthday, David Bowie died.  He worked in secret on one final album, entitled Blackstar, which dropped on said 69th birthday.  And then he was gone.  Bowie died of cancer; this is not totally surprising given how much he smoked during his lifetime (although it was liver, not lung, cancer that finally took his life).  His legacy hardly needs repeating.  Multiple albums spawning numerous genres.  A few choice film roles, tailored to his…unique sensibilities.  Paintings, which, for the most part, remain unseen.  Photographic images and costumes that defined ‘rock musician’ for a decade or more.  Invaluable assistance to artists he deemed worthy (Lou Reed, Iggy Pop, Mick Ronson).

Bowie’s recorded output during the 1970’s alone would have ensured him a place in rock history.  The man made Glam rock a household phrase (as discussed on this very blog yesterday), he dabbled in singer-songwriter, and he took the disparate strands of German electronic sounds, merged them within a rock framework, and created ‘new wave’ music.  Unlike with Glam, where Bowie was on the forefront but not necessarily the originator, it’s harder to argue that his “Berlin trilogy” of albums ‘Low‘, ‘Heroes‘, and ‘Lodger‘ weren’t the first albums to be ‘new wave’.  Follow up (and his first lp of the 80’s) ‘Scary Monsters‘ was also ahead of the curve (bands like Duran Duran, Flock of Seagulls, The Cure, and others would all take bits of this electronic and icy sound and incorporate it into their works).  And then he did an about-face, and put out the bluesy, poppy, open and accessible Let’s Dance.  Boy howdy do I hate that album, and it’s follow-up, Tonight.  It’s funny…whenever I meet a self-professed Bowie fan who claims “Let’s Dance” as their favorite album, I wonder if they even know of any other Bowie works.  Don’t get me wrong, if you want to like “Let’s Dance” go ahead, I won’t stop you, but…c’mon…dig deeper.

My personal reservations aside, making a concessionary pop album thrust Bowie into the spotlight in ways even he wasn’t aware would occur.  After Let’s Dance, Tonight, and Never Let Me Down, Bowie once again upset his newfound popular status quo and…joined a rock band.  And then he recorded an updated ‘plastic soul‘ album, harkening back to his mid-70’s Young Americans period.  Then he made 1. Outside, which was supposed to be a part of a new Berlin trilogy’ with Brian Eno, however, whether it was Bowie’s restless nature or the largely tuneless, unlistenable mess that was Outside, he never followed up on this.  Further albums saw him exploring jungle and electronica, soft-rock, art-rock, and jazz-rock.  Bowie never stopped moving, right up until his death.

So, while he wasn’t always the originator, he was always an innovator, and it’s clear he was always searching and questing.  Bowie could have rested on his laurels before he even made “Let’s Dance.”  He could have retired comfortably, never to be seen or heard from again (seen…let’s not forget the 1986 film Labyrinth which brought the world…Bowie’s bulge.  Yikes), yet he kept on going.  What compels a man?  His legacy was secure.  But that wasn’t enough.  He wanted to keep giving to the world.  And I (as part of the world), thank him for that.  Wherever he is now (Life on Mars?, maybe), he’s probably still curious, and still communicating with his new world in ways that few of us ever do while we’re on this world.  To paraphrase Tommy Lee Jones from the film Men In Black “No, David Bowie didn’t die, he just went home.”  Come visit anytime you want, David.

You’re the Blessed, But We’re the Spiders From Mars


It’s day 2 of David Bowie Week.  Bowie Week at the Fault rolls on!

Fact:  David Bowie didn’t invent glam rock.  While no musical ‘movement’ is ever created by any single person, most movements are brought to prominence by a single person/group/or scene (“scenes” are a much bigger thing in smaller countries – like the UK – or within self-contained areas, like NYC with their ‘punk’ scene).  Marc Bolan and his band T. Rex transformed themselves from hippy songsters (not unlike Bowie himself on the Space Oddity album) into something electric, rocking, and grooving, especially on their second release as T. Rex (having wisely ditched the Tyrannosaurs Rex moniker), Electric Warrior.  Was this the first glam rock album?  I don’t know, I wasn’t there (I was 2), and the likelihood is that many groups were playing around with a harder-edged, rock-with-a-groove sound that what would eventually codify around a scene of youth with a penchant for ridiculous getups; youth that flirted with androgynous styles, likely for ‘shock’ value.  This would ultimately become known as ‘glam rock.’  T. Rex was a major player, with the aforementioned Electric Warrior album being released in 1971.  Another release, The Slider, followed in 1972.  Also in 1972, an art-rock group called Roxy Music released their self-titled debut album.  While more melodic and reliant upon woodwinds and a still fairly novel instrument called the synthesizer instead of guitars, Roxy Music nonetheless became a staple of ‘glam’ with their fanciful outfits and beerhall-tunefulness, and fit in nicely to a burgeoning scene that was beginning to form amongst London-based youth.  If you want to know more about glam rock (and you should – for it’s the Fault’s belief that glam rock was as important a youth-cult movement as 70’s UK-and-US based punk rock, if much more maligned and less fondly remembered), click that link.  You’d be surprised at some artists that began as (ostensibly) glam acts.  Kiss, Sparks, Abba (??? Yeah – tell your girlfriend that ABBA is a glam band), and the New York Dolls (ok, that one’s not surprising) were all considered glam rock when they started out.  Hell, even Elton John got pegged with the ‘glam’ tag for a period.

Needless to say, David Bowie was an observer and regurgitator of cultural fads.  His first three albums (discussed on this very blog yesterday) did good jobs of aping current styles of the day, with only Hunky Dory being an album where Bowie was finding his voice.  But now the pieces were in place.  The band from Hunky Dory (minus Rick Wakeman) was road-seasoned and ready, Producer Ken Scott was at the helm again, and Bowie was set to unleash a set of killer tunes upon a largely unsuspecting public.  The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars wasn’t only a mouthful of an album title, it dropped (in the UK) on the same day as Roxy Music’s self-titled album (that would be June 16, 1972).  For a record buyer (of which I’m definitely one) that would have been a great day for new music!  Bowie began work on Ziggy in November of 1971, with a couple of the songs having appeared (in different form) in May of 1971.  However, unlike his previous three albums, which were an amalgamation of the sounds of the day filtered through Bowie’s unique lens upon the world, Ziggy, if it owes a debt to anyone, owes a debt to T. Rex and their Electric Warrior album.  However, it would be foolish to dismiss Ziggy as an Electric Warrior ripoff.  What Bowie brought to the table was a willingness to push boundaries, a live show built as much upon theatre as musicianship, and a desire to break through.  Break through how?  Well, today, you’d not think twice if an artist said they were bi-or-homosexual (at least I hope you wouldn’t.  Enjoy the music, who cares what they do behind closed doors?), but when Bowie, during a promotional appearance on television said “I’m bisexual and always have been”, the puritanical English press of the day went nuts!  Everyone wanted to either crucify, vilify, or exalt Bowie.  As a showman, it was a brilliant piece of theatre.  On stage, Bowie would pretend to fellate lead guitarist Mick Ronson during Ronson’s elaborate guitar solos.  This only further enraged (or enlightened) the public.  Bowie became not only a household word, but an icon, someone to be spoken of around the dinner table.  He was constantly on TV, and his tour to promote the album went through the UK, the US, Canada, and Japan.  The tour lasted 18 months, and during this time he even managed to record and release another album called Aladdin Sane (we’ll get to that later).

Outrage isn’t enough though.  What about the songs?  Isn’t that why we’re here?  Yeah, it is.  In that regard, you’re in luck.  Ziggy Stardust ranks among the best albums of the 1970’s, and also as one of the best albums of all time (the album, in 2017, was selected for preservation in the National Recording Registry, being deemed “culturally, historically, or artistically significant” by the Library of Congress.)  No, David Bowie didn’t invent glam rock.  He DID popularize it, and he did promote it on TV and live on stage, and he largely built his reputation off of this particular album (he would be a footnote if he didn’t have the talent to make stunning music long after the glam rock Ziggy fad had died, but that’s for later), and he was smart enough to capitalize on his newfound popularity.  But none of that would have mattered without the tunes.  Each of the 11 tracks is a Bowie original (with the exception of “It Ain’t Easy”, written by Ron Davies), and each stands as a stunning piece of writing and performing individually.  What sets Ziggy apart is that each song, when taken in context with the rest of the album, is supposed to become part of a larger whole, to tell the story of a bisexual alien trapped on earth (hmm…Bowie would revisit the alien trapped on earth motif later, as an actor).  Concept albums are a tenuous thing at best, with a lot of stretching of credibility to make certain songs fit into the larger story.  In this respect, Ziggy is no different.  What is different, is that each song on Ziggy can stand proudly, loudly, as an individual, ass-kicking composition.  You don’t need to know the larger conceit to enjoy “Five Years”, “Starman”, “Lady Stardust” or my personal favorite (and a song I want played LOUD at my funeral), “Rock N Roll Suicide.”  Every song is great and rewards you the more often you listen.  I can’t say enough good about this album.  Needless to say, to have been a teenager lucky enough to see one of the Ziggy performances during 1972-73, that would have been wonderful indeed (I’ve often said if I had a time machine, I’d neither use it for good nor bad.  I’d use it to go back in time and see bands at the height of their powers, sometimes more than once.  Bowie would be on the list on numerous occasions).

Look, I could babble on about how good this album is.  If you’ve heard it, and own it, throw a copy on and listen to it right now.  If you don’t own it (WHY DON’T YOU OWN IT), shame on you.  Here.  Thanks to the Youtube uploader for knowing what’s great.  However, that doesn’t excuse you if you don’t own it.  There are various CD editions to choose from, as well as a fresh vinyl remaster you can pick up at your local store for 20 US dollars (this wouldn’t be a blog about, amongst other things, record collecting, if I didn’t tempt you to buy a record).  You might be taken aback by the sparse production upon first listen, but remember, 1972 was a different time.  Things sounded different then.  The expectations were different.  The question, for me, for anyone, for an artist’s work, is, does it hold up, does it push through, does it resonate in spite of the limitations of the time?  Does it excel because of excellence in composition, performance, resonance?  For me, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars does.  It’s campy, it’s paranoid, it’s menacing, it’s rocking, it grooves, it moves.  IT ROCKS.  Everything comes together and works.

Side Note:  along the way, during the 18 moth Ziggy Stardust tour, Bowie gave us the Aladdin Sane album – famous for the Bowie ‘lightning bolt’ look known to, well, everyone).  Indeed, many people see Aladdin Sane as “Ziggy, part 2”, coming so quickly as it did after the release of Ziggy.  June 1972 for Ziggy, April 1973 for Aladdin.  YOU try writing and releasing two classic albums within the space of a year.  Bowie week is supposed to only last a week, I may not get to Aladdin Sane in as much detail as it deserves – but don’t get me wrong, you’ve heard the album, or at least the hits.  “The Jean Genie”, “Panic In Detroit” – these are well-known songs (at least amongst people of a certain age).  However, if you want the prime cuts from Aladdin, look to the two haunting ballads, “Aladdin Sane (1913-1938-197?)” and “Lady Grinning Soul.”  These songs deserve more recognition amongst the wider public.  They’re haunting, grand, and menacing.  While Aladdin Sane was never going to be as good as Ziggy, it’s a decent album in it’s own right.

David Bowie didn’t birth glam rock, but he gave glam rock a face and a voice, and when, eventually, Bowie retired his Ziggy persona, he took the glam rock cult with him.  It would limp along for a couple years afterwards, but the bands that survived would eventually discover new identities to inhabit, much like Bowie himself was about to do.  Ziggy might have been the androgynous, bisexual alien in ridiculously campy outfits and platform heels, replete with makeup, menace, and dourness, that made David Bowie a household name.  It wouldn’t be his last costume, but it was likely his most famous and well known.

The Width of A Circle

Bowie Birthday

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.