INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
The Guardian DECEMBER 3, 2014 - by Jeremy Allen
DAVID BOWIE: TEN OF THE BEST
If you don't want to wade your way through Bowie's new 3 CD set, here's his career distilled to nine of his own performances, and one song he gifted to another band.
1 SPACE ODDITY - When David Bowie hit No 5 in 1969, he must have thought he'd finally made it, but his inability to follow Space Oddity with another song that captured the nation's imagination would see him drift back to outsiderdom for a few years yet. In modern times, artists signed to major labels are rarely afforded the luxury of even three strikes before they're out, which is in sharp contrast to the many years a young David Jones spent as a second-rate Anthony Newley impersonator, trying on different styles and attempting to figure out what it was he wanted to do. His first hit in 1967, The Laughing Gnome, was a novelty single that still causes him embarrassment, and then his first bona fide smash came two years after that, given a massive leg-up thanks to its topical subject matter. Long time producer Tony Visconti passed over the opportunity to work on Space Oddity to Gus Dudgeon, calling it "a cheap shot, a gimmick to cash in on the moon landings" (though he recently admitted regretting his earlier sniffiness). There was certainly more than a hint of opportunism, but the song has maintained devotion, and is arguably Bowie's most famous song, thanks to the epic sci-fi production, catchy close harmonies, intriguing narrative and the all-too-human dialogue between Major Tom and Ground Control that drifts closer to pathos with each passing minute. The handclaps don't do it any harm either. The disappointment of falling out of the public's affections so quickly after such a long wait must have hurt Bowie, but also galvanised him, and he soon learned the importance of communicating a strong concept. Within three years that notion would foment into a pop apotheosis. It was called Ziggy Stardust.
2 THE BEWLAY BROTHERS - What, no Life On Mars? If choosing ten tracks from the career of David Bowie is difficult, then trying to isolate a best moment from Hunky Dory is impossible. Life On Mars?, written as a kind of riposte to My Way and in many ways more overblown, was not for nothing voted greatest all-time Bowie song by readers of Digital Spy in 2012, though it loses points here because its lyrics are largely gibberish. Not that The Bewlay Brothers doesn't keep us guessing with its poetic abstraction and folky weirdness, but it's somehow an altogether more cohesive conundrum. There are moments that creep into the hinterland of childish nightmares, the line about frightening "the small children away", and the disturbing nursery rhyme sing-songiness of the conclusion ("Lay me place and bake me pie / I'm starving for me gravy...") which unsettles as much as it astounds. It was more or less written and recorded over the night of July 30, 1971 with producer Ken Scott, according to Nicholas Pegg's The Complete David Bowie, and the singer once said people could "read whatever in hell they want to read into it". Some have come with a theory that it's about Bowie's relationship with his schizophrenic half-brother Terry Burns, and his own fears of mental illness. Terry committed suicide in 1985, a subject written about later on 1993's Jump They Say.
3 MOTT THE HOOPLE: ALL THE YOUNG DUDES - If Bowie's own career hadn't been entirely rebooted yet in May 1972 (it was still another six months before Ziggy would fall to Earth), then the gift of All The Young Dudes to a floundering Mott The Hoople was the first salvo in a sideline career that saw him bequeath Lazarus-like extra lives to old favourites; his amazing restorative powers would raise American rock'n'roll legends Lou Reed, and later Iggy Pop, from their slumbers. Mott The Hoople had actually split up, or were in the process of doing so, when the call came with the offer of a new song Bowie had just written. His benevolence saw these builders in blouses take his glam rock teen manifesto to No. 3 in the charts, their biggest hit. "Speed jive," croaked Ian Hunter, "don't wanna stay alive when you're twenty-five". It was a song that was clearly dangerous, and with a line like "man I need TV when I got T.Rex", it was dangerously sarcastic, too. Bowie recorded a glut of rollicking glam rock classics: Drive In Saturday, The Jean Genie, Diamond Dogs and Suffragette City to name just four, but none were more exuberant than All The Young Dudes, and certainly not Bowie's own version, which was lacklustre in comparison.
4 ROCK'N'ROLL SUICIDE - Again, how do you even begin to decide on just one track from The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars? Rock'n'Roll Suicide just about gets the nod for its sheer ambition. It begins with a simple acoustic strum, takes in horns, a compound duple time signature that gives it a waltzy feel and a whiff of the old French chanson thrown in along the way, and a mesmeric finale of orchestration and Bowie screaming "You're not alone!" at the top of his voice. Though just three minutes long, it creates the illusion that it's at least twice that length. As the final song on Ziggy, it is a timeless, bravura piece of songwriting to conclude one of the finest collections of songs ever thrown together. Ziggy was the Bowie incarnation that resonated most with people, and at times during the cocaine madness he even admitted he became frightened Ziggy was taking him over. The character had to go, and while many were shocked to see him killed off so soon, it was probably best for Bowie's sanity that he dispensed with him after just two albums, The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars and Aladdin Sane. Ziggy was essentially a rock opera that was bound to end tragically, and the clues were all there in the lyrics for anyone paying close enough attention.
5 YOUNG AMERICANS - If Bowie knew all about breaking through with concepts pertinent to his audience, then he had to resort to writing about things that would be familiar to a US audience to score his first hit across the Atlantic (even if some of those things weren't entirely flattering). Young Americans peaked at No. 28 on the Billboard chart and included a Richard Nixon name-check, as well as alluding to Joseph McCarthy and also the civil rights movement in the lyrics. To be fair, Bowie's obsession with American soul music went much deeper than just the desire for a hit. The musical transition from Diamond Dogs was a dramatic one, and all achieved in the space of eleven months. Bowie's "plastic soul" period was a fine approximation of contemporary R&B with a soupçon of gospel, aided by American musicians that included backing singer Luther Vandross, Sly & The Family Stone drummer Andy Newmark, and Puerto Rican guitarist Carlos Alomar, who, on meeting Bowie, described him as "the whitest man I've ever seen". David Sanborn's saxophone break at the beginning may be one of the coolest and most iconic in pop, while near the conclusion Bowie cheekily slips in words borrowed from A Day In The Life by his pal John Lennon. The ex-Beatle appeared on the follow-up single Fame and Lennon's stardust propelled Bowie towards his first US No. 1.
6 ALWAYS CRASHING IN THE SAME CAR - "Heroes" might well be the populist choice from Berlin-era Bowie if you had to nail down just the one song, but Always Crashing In The Same Car is a more nuanced and enigmatic beast. Moody and paranoiac at the outset, it then develops a sense of motion, a Ballardian union of man and machine that borders on the sexual. The song was inspired by Bowie writing off his Mercedes in a Berlin parking lot while under the influence ("I was just goin' round an' round / The hotel garage / Must have been touching close to 94"), but there's surely little doubt the voracious bookworm would have read Crash - which came out in 1973 - by then. The culling of The Spiders seemed cruel, and giving Mick Ronson the boot utterly ruthless, and yet Bowie proved himself not for the first time (and certainly not the last) a canny operator where collaborators were concerned. Guitarist Ricky Gardiner's solo here is one of the most evocative and breathtaking of Bowie's oeuvre, standing shoulder to shoulder with some of Ronson's greatest moments. If Low was an album of two halves, with the latter part swathed in ambient compositions made with Brian Eno - all produced by Bowie and Tony Visconti by the way - then Always Crashing In The Same Car was a track that attempted hardest to bring together the worlds of pop and the avant-garde.
7 ASHES TO ASHES - Bowie struck lucky once again with a familiar figure, scoring his second Major Tom-themed No. 1, and if Space Oddity concealed a clandestine metaphor about heroin addiction, then in 1980 we find Tom way down in the hole, "hitting an all-time low". By invoking the character that kickstarted his career, Bowie seemed to be drawing a line and moving on from one of the most productive decades of work by any artist in pop history, and if that was indeed the case, then he was going out on a (strung-out) high. For readers of a certain age, it's difficult to disassociate the music with the startling, spooky video, recorded at popular suicide spot Beachy Head, and featuring a young Steve Strange and three other Blitz kids plucked from obscurity when Bowie dropped in on the nightclub one evening in 1979. Another clue Bowie was looking backwards was in the makeup he wore in the promo, harking back to his days under the tutelage of mime artist Lindsay Kemp, but Ashes To Ashes - one of his most beautiful and frighteningly original works - also gave birth to the new romantic movement. It should also be noted it wasn't short on new musical techniques either; it's surely the most moving song to ever feature slap bass.
8 MODERN LOVE - Presided over by Bowie and Nile Rodgers, 1983's album Let's Dance sold in the region of seven million copies worldwide, making it Bowie's most successful album to date. While it subsequently spent time in the wilderness, rejected by many because of its '80s production values, a reappraisal was all but inevitable and has coincided with a renaissance in Rodger's career and an outpouring of love for the unprecedentedly successful producer/guitarist. Modern Love bursts with the kind of ebullience that was more characteristic of another stateside-straddling British solo singer - Elton John - at the time, and it's not difficult to imagine how it might sound with Elton's vocal over the top. While we'd now moved into an era where the certainty everything Bowie touched would become a stone-cold classic was behind us, Modern Love, with its sassy, sophisticated brass and nod to the call and response stylings of Little Richard, is just that. Director Noah Baumbach included the song almost in its entirety in 2012's Frances Ha, and the moment Greta Gerwig is shot running in black and white to that frenetic beat and those familiar spoken words "I know when to go out, and when to stay in..." is one of the most exhilarating scenes in recent cinema.
9 ABSOLUTE BEGINNERS - If his re-emergence in early 2013 following a ten-year interregnum was spectacular, then Bowie always moved in mysterious ways. In 1985, a group of session musicians working with Thomas Dolby at Abbey Road studios were handed letters from EMI requesting they work with a "Mr X". You'll be unsurprised to learn that Mr X turned out to be yet another nom-de-guerre for Mr Bowie. Players on the sessions included Steve Nieve on keyboards, Kevin Armstrong (guitarist with Steve McQueen-era Prefab Sprout), and Rick Wakeman, who added Rachmaninov-style flourishes of piano throughout. It also featured Bowie's most iconic sax break since Young Americans. The track, written for the movie of the same name, came together quickly according to those involved, and as well as being one of Bowie's best songs, it arrived in isolation during one of the more forgettable periods of his career. Heartbreakingly romantic and optimistic, it tipped a fedora to the 1950s in homage to the writings of hip cat Colin MacInnes, though the film would turn out to be an overbudget turkey of huge proportions.
10 WHERE ARE WE NOW? - It wasn't just that the song was great, but it was also about how it arrived, from out of nowhere on a bleak January morning in 2013. Rumours had persisted about Bowie's health, and many assumed he would never make another record. And then there it was, a single video uploaded to YouTube, proof that Bowie was back and he meant business. Among all the topical cavalcades and the shitstorms, this song represented a genuine moment of unbridled joy for his fans, a distillation of all their hopes into one song, hopes that he might one day return with something we could fall in love with again. Here the Thin White Duke took the opportunity to look back again, this time at his Berlin years, and the unashamed fragility in his voice was all too much for some people. The old master had outfoxed us again, and the mind boggled at how he'd managed to keep this operation a secret (with military precision and signed contracts threatening to sue anyone who opened their mouths, that's how). If Bowie had influenced the new romantics and the glam rockers and the punks, then here he was again shaping popular culture, with everyone from Beyoncé to Skrillex and most recently U2 following his lead by releasing music onto the internet without prior announcement and a preceding PR campaign. Each had their own variations and gimmicks, but it was Bowie who did it first. Rihanna may be next. The Next Day followed Where Are We Now? a few months later, and finally we had a new Bowie album that could genuinely lay claim to being his best since Scary Monsters. It was certainly his best since Let's Dance.