Popdose JULY 29, 2009 - by Anthony Hansen


He's been dismissed as insincere, overrated, pretentious, and unoriginal. He's also been praised as a visionary, a genius, and one of the single most important musicians in the history of rock music. He's made an entire career out of defying expectations, changing his style and image on what is sometimes an album-by-album basis. In his "classic period" alone he went from being a brainy, introspective singer-songwriter to a flashy glam-rock idol to a cocaine-fueled funk enthusiast to an aggressively left-field purveyor of experimental rock. All this in little over a decade, each phase spawning virtual legions of imitators. He almost single-handedly revived the careers of Iggy Pop, Mott The Hoople, and arguably one of his own biggest influences, Lou Reed. He was one of the first rock artists to openly flirt with bisexuality and play with gender roles, giving a lot of insecure and sexually confused teens in the macho '70s a rock idol they could call their own. His back catalog is dense and divisive, and to pick one album that sums him up is nigh impossible.

The point is, he's David Bowie, and depending on which variation of David Bowie you encounter, there's no guarantee that you'll like what you hear. The best of his material, however, retains a freshness and relevance that counters any dismissal of his talent as mere trend hopping. So here it is, folks - hot on the heels of the most pompously reverent-sounding introduction I've ever written, part one of the Popdose Guide to David Bowie.


If this album had been released today, it would've been all acoustic guitars and glockenspiel, the singer would have an American accent, at least one song would've been used in some pretentious Garden State rip-off, and Pitchfork would've given it a 9.65 (or whatever dumb-ass decimal system they use to rape the mere concept of music criticism). As it stands now, it just sounds like the weirdest children's album ever made. I understand that Bowie's aiming for British music-hall whimsy here, but come on - it sounds like a fucking kids' record. This is not without its charms, of course - only David Bowie would write a cheerful-sounding ditty with the lines "I have prepared a document / Legalizing mass abortion / We will turn a blind eye to infanticide" (that would be We Are Hungry Men). So, yes, there's that. There's also Love You Till Tuesday, a song so joyously retarded sounding that Syd Barrett actually slammed it in a record mag while he was still lucid. Essentially, this is Bowie's novelty album, and let's all be thankful he never tried anything like it again.


After quickly realizing that pretending to be Anthony Newley wasn't getting him anywhere, Bowie switched gears and reinvented himself as a soft-headed folkie balladeer. Naturally, Space Oddity is a significant improvement over the last album, aided greatly by the fact that it includes one of Bowie's best songs ever. That's right, it's the title track, a gorgeously over-orchestrated song about an astronaut who deliberately strands himself in space, thus establishing one of Bowie's most important lyrical devices: the alienated character study. The other highlights of this album are a couple of sweet ballads about his recent ex (An Occasional Dream and especially Letter To Hermione), and... well, that's about it. There's nothing bad here, per se, but a lot of it sounds underwritten, like Bowie was too excited about some of his admittedly clever arrangement ideas to bother writing really solid material. Or maybe he wasn't able to yet. Well, that was about to change really soon, lemme tell ya...


My Lord, this is one fucked-up album. Sort of like early Black Sabbath, but with the bong hits replaced by a coupla philosophy textbooks and science-fiction novels. Dark, sludgy hard rock for the intellectuals and pseudo-intellectuals among us, essentially. You can thank new axman Mick Ronson for the "rock" aspect of that, and thank David and producer Tony Visconti for the overarching creepiness. Bowie's finally come into his own as a vocalist, gleefully singing of blatant homoerotica (The Width Of A Circle), crazed Vietnam vets (Running Gun Blues), and omnipotent robots (Saviour Machine) with a theatrical flair that would come to define the best of his '70s work. Of course, everyone knows the title track thanks to Kurt Cobain, but would you believe that everything else on The Man Who Sold The World is just as good? I'm not gonna slap any more hyperbole on it - Bowie's winning streak begins here.


Though he doesn't completely abandon the dark themes of The Man Who Sold The World, Bowie's definitely in a much more cheerful mood this time around. Piano is now the dominant instrument, catchy hooks and singable melodies are everywhere, and we even get a cute song written for his newborn son, Kooks. Of course, it's quickly followed by the darkly existential ballad Quicksand, but such is the ambiguous nature of Hunky Dory. Bowie is still an earnest young man with a lot on his mind, but this time he subverts the darker side of his lyrical obsessions to emphasize his strengths as a pop songwriter. As it turns out, he has quite the knack for it: Changes, Oh! You Pretty Things, and Life on Mars? are all stone-cold classics, all with deeper lyrical connotations that can even be downright troubling when analyzed too closely. Of course, it's still possible to put your brain in neutral and sing along, something that separates Hunky Dory from the more challenging fare on The Man Who Sold The World. It's also one of the most sincere, down-to-earth, and immediately likable albums he's ever made, so those looking for an easy way into Bowie's back catalog would do well to pick it up.


Some praise this as Bowie's masterpiece. I dunno about that. Speaking as a recovering Bowie obsessive, I simply see it as one of many great albums he put out during this period. However, one can easily argue that it represents the culmination of everything he'd done well up to this point: the hard-rock crunch and teasing sexuality of The Man Who Sold The World synthesized with the undeniable pop hooks of Hunky Dory, all with an inscrutable new concept about some alien rock star named Ziggy who comes down to a pre-apocalyptic Earth to... oh, never mind. Let's focus on the songs, 'kay? There's an abundance of classics here, starting with Moonage Daydream, perhaps the best look-at-me-I'm-awesome statement ever set to rock music, on through to the breathless, adrenalized crunch of Hang On To Yourself and Suffragette City, and Bowie even finds time for a coupla lighter-waving ballads like the touching, Marc Bolan-inspired Lady Stardust and the self-mythologizing title track. It all culminates with Rock 'N' Roll Suicide, one of many tracks that reminds you you're listening to a Big Important Rock Album, one of the best, one for the ages, etc. Hey, maybe Ziggy Stardust is Bowie's best after all. Who knows? Not me.


Ziggy gets schizophrenic. I'd argue that the songs here are every bit as strong as on the previous album (if not stronger), but the stylistic inconsistency means it doesn't exactly hold together. To be fair, Bowie himself was exhausted at the time, burnt out on perpetual touring and riding high on a wave of drug-fueled paranoia. That same paranoia creeps into a lot of the lyrical content, with Drive-In Saturday, Panic In Detroit, and the title track all portraying a world on the verge of total catastrophe. However, we also get some loud, sleazy glam-rock goodness in the form of Cracked Actor and Jean Genie, so there's at least some semblance of the fun, decadent vibe that permeated Ziggy Stardust. Still, what this album really feels like is a party spinning wildly out of control, casual flirting turning to kinky sex and mild intoxication giving way to a full-on drunken stumble. All this and a couple of straight cabaret numbers make this one of the most fascinating (and baffling) albums from Bowie's "classic era."

PIN UPS (1973)

A throwaway, to be fair, but not without its charms. It's essentially an album of covers performed by the latest variation on the Spiders From Mars band, with the most notable shift being the addition of Aynsley Dunbar on drums. Some songs work better than others, but they at least blow through them with the kind of breezy, carefree enthusiasm that's so rarely associated with Bowie. Having said that, there's nothing particularly revelatory here, and the few attempts at reinventing the songs usually wind up being more than a little embarrassing. So, if it's more straight-up rock from the Spiders you want, pick this up. But make sure you get those last coupla albums first. The single was Sorrow, and just for kicks, there's a version of Pink Floyd's See Emily Play that's damn near ruined by the "wacky" pitch-shifted vocals.


Having gotten all the fun and mirth out of his system with Pin Ups, Bowie ditched the Spiders and made his darkest, dourest album since The Man Who Sold The World. The album's concept is loosely based around George Orwell's 1984, but most of the time any kind of narrative cohesion takes a backseat to the abstract, unsettling imagery of the lyrics and the coldly abrasive, proto-punk-ish music. It's rough going, but there are some absolute gems here, from the ambitious Sweet Thing/Candidate/Sweet Thing (Reprise) suite to the darkly dystopian visions of We Are the Dead and Big Brother. Rebel Rebel is also a highlight, though the upbeat feel (and tuneful guitar playing) make it stick out like a sore thumb. Much more characteristic of the album's overall feel is the title track, a musically murky, corrosively sarcastic vision of the future that features what may be the best intro to any Bowie song: "This ain't rock and roll - this is genocide!" Indeed.


Well, this must've been... unexpected. With Young Americans, Bowie temporarily ditched his dark side, intentionally off-putting song arrangements, and rock music altogether and reinvented himself as a newly americanized soul crooner. Huh? One can hear the genesis of this transformation on the otherwise wretched David Live album, but here it comes into full bloom, with a chorus of soulful backing vocalists, actual full-blown string arrangements, and David Sanborn, thankfully using his saxophone powers for good and not evil. This album also saw the introduction of Bowie's new guitarist, the almost superhumanly funky Carlos Alomar. While all these elements work in the album's favor, this feels more like an intermittently successful genre exercise than any kind of standout in Bowie's discography. It's a perfectly enjoyable listen from beginning to end, but this one of the rare albums where Bowie immerses himself in the style so thoroughly that it's hard to tell these are even his songs. That said, the John Lennon collaboration Fame is one mighty fine slice of disco-funk, and the title track boasts one of Bowie's most frenzied vocal arrangements, matching what may be one of the densest and most distinguished set of lyrics he's ever penned. However, both of these songs can be found on various compilations, so you may want to save this one for later.


Call it "Young Europeans," or soul music without the soul - a detached, icy take on funk music that shows Bowie's burgeoning interest in krautrock and avant-garde music. It also features the screeching rock guitars of one Earl Slick, and some of the slickest and most sterile production of Bowie's entire career. By their powers combined, you get Station To Station. The cliche is to call this Bowie's "transitional" album, an assessment which is actually quite accurate. Halfway between the '70s soul stylings of Young Americans and the sonic experimentation of his work with Eno, this album nevertheless stands on its own merits. Of the six songs, two are ballads, two are straight funk-rockers, and one is the delightfully odd TVC 15 (about a TV eating Iggy Pop's girlfriend). Which leaves the title track - all ten scorching minutes of it, from slow buildup to ecstatic climax. The return of the thin white duke, as he himself puts it. This is one of those songs that Bowie fans speak of in hushed, reverent tones, and the album on the whole is widely regarded as one of his best. Unlike my backpedaling on Ziggy Stardust, I'm still going to maintain that Station To Station is just one of many strong albums from this era, but it did mark the beginning of what I consider to be the strongest phase of his whole career.

LOW (1977)

So one day, David Bowie blew his nose and claimed to have seen some of his brain come out. It was at this point that he decided to quit cocaine, leave Los Angeles, ditch his increasingly scary obsessions with fascism and the occult, and try to figure out where the hell he went wrong. Low is essentially the sound of someone letting themselves hit bottom so they can rebuild their lives from the ground up. It's also one of the most restlessly experimental rock albums ever made, from the massive treated drum sound to the harsh synths to the unconventional, minimalist song structures through to the all-instrumental second side. Brian Eno's presence definitely adds to the overall quirkiness, but this is very much Bowie's show, his usual detachment giving way to a much more human expression of loneliness and vulnerability. For example, though few knew it at the time, Always Crashing In The Same Car is about an aborted suicide attempt, though it also works as a metaphor for the drug addiction that had caused Bowie to flee LA in the first place. There are also some more general statements of emotional isolation, but ultimately the story is told mostly through the music. In fact, the instrumentals outnumber the vocal tracks here, with Warszawa and Subterraneans both featuring wordless chanting that communicate depression and despair better than any "real" set of lyrics ever could. To this day, I can't name a single album that truly replicates the sound of Low, only the innovative spirit. It's a queasy-sounding album from a sick man trying to heal himself, the sheer joy of creation carrying him through.

"HEROES" (1977)

So how the hell do you follow up on an album like Low? Well, if you're Bowie, you de-emphasize sonic experimentation in favor of more structured songwriting, and maybe tell Eno to give Robert Fripp a call. That's right, it's Fripp, Eno, and Bowie - the ultimate art-rock tag team! Fripp's guitar work on this album is tremendous, adding greatly to Tony Visconti's thick, swampy production sound and an already discordant and chaotic set of songs. Half the time Bowie has to sing his lungs out just to be heard. Of course, he's also singing his lungs out because he really means it, which brings us to the title track. Possibly the most overplayed, overcovered song Bowie ever did, "Heroes" is nonetheless an incredibly powerful song about love and bravery in the face of insurmountable odds. All I'm gonna say is, if this song does not move you in any way, shape, or form, you are not human. There's another Bowie classic on this album, though, one that isn't quite as widely recognized: I'm talking about the snarling, bloodthirsty monster of an opener that is Beauty And The Beast, probably the most menacing and aggressive rocker Bowie ever wrote in his prime. Truth be told, there's a wealth of great material here, but it'll probably take a few listens to really sink in. This is a dark, dense, difficult album - Low's angry, ugly, defiant little brother. It's also, like Low, one of the greatest rock albums ever made.

LODGER (1979)

The fact that Bowie exchanged Robert Fripp for ex-Zappa sideman Adrian Belew on this album speaks volumes. Even more song oriented than "Heroes", Lodger is also funnier, less cohesive, and much, much weirder. By trying to cram his most experimental impulses into the restrictions of the three-minute pop-song structure, Bowie winds up with some of the most jarring material of his career, and not all of it works. Red Money, for example, is a half-assed rewrite of Iggy Pop's Sister Midnight, and a lot of the material on the first side falls flat. The rest is all aces, though, from the Talking Heads homage of D.J. to the frankly unsettling account of spousal abuse found in Repetition. There's also African Night Flight, which sounds like a precursor to Eno's work with David Byrne on My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts, and Boys Keep Swinging, a song where all the band members switch instruments to make one of the most ironically lunkheaded odes to male privilege ever written. Though it often gets dismissed for not reaching the lofty peaks of Low and "Heroes", Lodger is an album with a quirky charm all its own.


The end of Bowie's "classic period," Scary Monsters is the sound of him getting the residual ugliness of the last three albums out of his system once and for all. Guitars shriek, drums pound, synths buzz, and Bowie's voice drips bile and sarcasm at nearly every turn. This is the relentlessly harsh rock album that "Heroes" threatened to be, with the lyrics now returning to the doomsday dystopia of The Man Who Sold The World and Diamond Dogs, the difference being that it's no longer an imagined scenario but a reflection on what's happening right here, right now. It's not just the lyrics that press this point, either - this is some of the most visceral and urgent-sounding music of Bowie's career. It's also Bowie's most blatantly new wave-ish album, and for all its harshness, it's still the most accessible, downright commercial thing he'd done since Station To Station. The hit here was Ashes To Ashes, a haunting, melancholy follow-up to Space Oddity, where he admits to being sick of wearing masks and playing characters, a theme that carries over into Teenage Wildlife, a gloriously over-the-top anthem that shows him rejecting his status as a disposable pop icon and taking the piss out of the new-romantic movement he helped inspire. The other hit here was Fashion, one of the most monstrous slabs of sarcastic ugliness to ever set itself to a disco beat. Like I said, Scary Monsters is a pretty confrontational album, but it makes a fitting coda to one of the most intriguing runs of albums by a single artist. It'd be three years before Bowie would gather the strength to return to the limelight, by which point things had changed quite significantly.