Tonight is widely regarded as the album where Bowie musically fell apart. It is widely regarded correctly.
It puts its best foot forward with “Loving the Alien”, which aspires to be next David Bowie Classic. Yes, move over “Heroes” and “Rebel Rebel”, it’s time for “Loving the Alien”. Does it live up to its ambitions? What do you think? Of course it fucking doesn’t! The production is smothering, the arrangement uninspired, the melodies rancid. The pre-chorus tries to build, but there’s nothing to build from, nowhere to build to. Guitars and glockenspiels and xylophones lurch upwards in awkward quintuplets…then the chorus arrives, at which point everything goes crash on the floor.
The lyrics attempt a grand statement about peace and unity but come off as another white millionaire wondering why all those brown people in the desert don’t try not killing each other. Seven minutes later, the song ends. It’s self-conscious, tries too hard, and just isn’t good.
He phones it in for the rest of the album, and the line’s engaged. “Blue Jean” is catchy and comes off well, although the xylophonist deserves a beating. The rest of the songs just suck, unless you like Phil Collins. The only saving grace is that Bowie is barely on it.
Let’s get that out of the way, too. He plays no instruments, the tracks are propped up with backing vocals and guest performers, and only two tracks are solely credited to him. Five covers on a nine track album, if you please, padding it out to a whopping thirty five minutes. This is the second shortest Bowie album ever released (after Lodger). You could put the entire thing on a 33RPM record, and have enough space a quarter of Aladdin Sane, or “Station to Station” in its entirety. Is Tonight a serious release? It feels more like a posthumous album. It’s as if Bowie died in 1983, and his label went fishing through his rubbish bin for tapes.
I have no more words to say. It’s like reviewing a box of empty air. Call me crazy, but I actually expect David Bowie albums to have David Bowie on them.
Scary Monsters and Super Creeps is Bowie’s Except Album, meaning it often appears along with the word “except”. “Bowie sucked in the 80s, except for Scary Monsters“. “Bowie was never good when he tried for mainstream success, except for Scary Monsters“, and so forth.
It’s also often spoken about in the same sentence as “scary” and “monsters”. Though that’s less surprising, since that’s the name of the album. It would be strange to talk about the album without mentioning its name, although it would be a fun challenge to do so (and also without identifying it another way, such as “the Bowie album from 1980”). Kafka led a man to the executioner’s block without ever mentioning his crime. Could you arrange words in such a fashion that a reader understands the music, without ever actually being made aware that the album exists?
Scary Monsters is about decay. Not decomposition, not morbidity, just…things falling apart, in a general sense. It’s an album about the crack in your ceiling, and the verdigris embroidering your bathroom floor. All the things you’ve been meaning to fix, even as they advance to an event horizon where it’s not worth the bother.
Bowie assembled some of the finest guitarists to ever set plectrum to string, and made them play sloppily. Vocals are deliberately flat, or mangled oddly in the mixing room (the heavy tremolo rattling the chorus of the title track both disturbs and fascinates). The lyrics discuss fashion and aging, yet they all seem to be about the House of Usher. The building is tumbling down, we’re caught inside it, and we can never leave. Bowie sings about disillusionment and weariness, his voice cracked and broken. None of his albums – not even Aladdin Sane or Outside – evoke this kind of genteel neglect.
“It’s No Game, Pt 1” opens the album in thuggish fashion. Someone took the song, punched it around, and gave it a black eye. Fripp’s guitar part swirls like stagnant water, the drums kick out at you, and it’s interrupted by outbursts of Japanese female vocals, as though someone spliced in the hourly Harajuku traffic report. Although this is the closest solo Bowie ever went to punk rock, it’s cerebral and calculated beneath the blood: more like Public Image Ltd than the Sex Pistols.
Other tracks document various vanishing trends in Bowie’s music. One of the last great Bowie epics (“Teenage Wildlife”) can be found here, as can shorter but equally memorable cuts like “Up the Hill Backwards”. Be sure to get the version with the bonus track, “Crystal Japan”, which was written to score a TV ad for a sake company (of all things) but dredges up strong memories from the Brian Eno years.
“It’s No Game, Pt 2” is a slower and less enthusiastic reprise of the first part. There’s an old Hollywood joke: at eight in the morning you’re shooting Citizen Kane, at eight in the evening you’ll settle for Plan 9 From Outer Space. This song captures that kind of exhaustion and weariness, freezing it under glass.
This album has a reputation as a Bowie threw away most of his artistic pretensions and went fishing for hits. Happily, he caught one (“Ashes to Ashes”). Even more happily, the reputation is wrong: he didn’t throw his artistry very far after all. There’s louche experimental moments all over Scary Monsters. This is the rarest thing: an artistically successful commodity. It’s also one of his most consistent and listenable works. Clearly, the future was bright. He would not put a foot wrong in the 1980s.
It’s a counter-intuitive idea to write books for the people who never read them, but it’s working for Mr Reilly so far.
Ice Station is a famously fast-paced thriller novel that seeks to be a movie on paper. Like all of Reilly’s work, it barely exists as literature: it’s a screenplay with cover art and an ISBN number. The typical paragraph is one line long. The typical adverb is “suddenly”. Descriptions are sparse and visual. There’s comic book sound effects whenever someone has their head blown off, which is often.
The book stars US marine Shane Schofield, as he fights for control of an Antarctic research station. A metal object has been discovered in a 100 million year old layer of ice: it could be an alien spacecraft. Since nobody “owns” Antarctica, a number of foreign nations are attempting a snatch and grab mission to seize the discovery.
We get about sixty pages of backstory (meaning, Reilly setting up dominoes so they fall in the most destructive way possible), then the action begins and never stops. You could probably build a new research station from all the ejected bullet casings that get spent by the end of the novel. The story’s so addictive and streamlined that it’s hard not to read in one go. In fact, Matthew Reilly experts say that the average person reads at least seven Reilly novels per year in their sleep without realising it.
The obvious movie cliches appear: a nerdy scientist who plays Captain Exposition, a cute little girl with a pet, a traitor on the team, a rushed romantic subplot, etc. Reilly doesn’t know how to write anything except action, but it’s amazing action. A high-speed hovercraft chase and a tense battle in a killer whale infested pool particularly stick in the memory. There’s nods to Tom Clancy, Michael Crichton, and the X Files in all the right places.
Reilly’s plotting is often cited as incompetent, but it’s actually entirely competent – it’s just geared to something other than making perfect sense. Basically, whenever “cool” clashes against “logically plausible” (or “physicially possible”) cool wins. This is the Rosetta Stone to making sense of Ice Station.
For example: Schofield breaks a rib in this story. In the real world he would have great difficulty accomplishing some of his later feats in the story (such as swimming hundreds of meters), but that’s irrelevant. Reilly is the God of Cool, and sometimes he allows the mortals in his universe to break the laws of physics. Schofield needs to keep doing cool stuff, so he does it with a broken rib.
It would be funny to read a “self aware” hero who knows he’s in a Reilly novel (think Scalzi’s Redshirts). He’d try to stay alive by doing the most outlandish and ridiculous things possible. He’d dash to the nearest pet store and buy a cute dog. In fact, he’d wear body armor made of cute dogs stapled together. A bullet would never come near him again. He’d hire a plastic surgeon to make him look like an A-list Hollywood actor (Schofield’s physical description is a dead-ringer for Tom Cruise).
A realistic depiction of the story’s events would also make an interesting novel. Legally, Antarctica is not an ownerless waste, it’s a condominium – jointly owned by twelve nations. If an alien spacecraft was discovered, nobody would send special forces to capture it. Such a “capture” would be worthless – a huge metal object can’t realistically be transported or removed by twelve guys with guns, and it would stay in Antarctica, no matter who wins the shootout.
In Ice Station a group of bad guys hatch a plan to free the spacecraft (if that’s what it is) by detonating thermonuclear charges, creating a new iceberg with the spacecraft inside it, and steering the iceberg north to their sovereign territory. But then it would be pretty obvious what’s going on, and since the Antarctic treaty forbids the detonation or testing of weapons, you might as well declare war with half the world.
This is my favorite of Reilly’s novels. It’s efficient, the prose is as tight as the wires in a Hong Kong action movie, and it avoids the goofy GI Joe cartoon feel that spoils some of his later work. You don’t need spaceships to fly, and this novel proves it.
The eye sees by transmitting light from the retina to the optic nerve, and then to the brain. The problem is, the optic nerve runs in front of the retina itself, blocking a sliver of light. In order to see, you must have a blind spot.
The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars is my blind spot. It’s the only Bowie album I like and yet don’t “get”. Musically, it has some of his best work. Conceptually, all the stuff about fake rockstars and androgyny and the world ending in five years seems bizarre and unnecessary, like you’ve invited a friend to stay the night and he’s brought along a U-haul full of childhood toys. It must have struck a nerve (optical or otherwise) at the time: Ziggy Stardust launched his career. But in the 21st century, he’s shadowboxing at targets I cannot see.
Not only did Ziggy not need to be a concept album, maybe it wasn’t meant to be one. It’s rock and roll’s dirty secret that most “concept albums” are retroactively branded as such long after the album is finished (the most famous one, Sgt Pepper, has no concept at all that I can detect). It’s true that many (or perhaps most) of Ziggy Stardust‘s songs don’t tie back into the main story, and the ones that do are jumbled out of order. The most persistent through-line is that Bowie likes writing songs with the word “star” in the title.
The album helped put glam rock on the map, but it’s also a preview screening of Young Americans: lots of soul and jazz moments pop up, sometimes improving the album and sometimes detracting from it. “Five Years” and “Soul Love” are a bit too long and musically subdued to work as album openers, particularly in the second case, where the dominant instruments are hi-hats and congas. “Moonage Daydream” is the first legitimately great song, with a bombastic introduction and a hallucinatory chorus. “Starman” is charming and irresistible, and sounds very much like a song left over from the Hunky Dory sessions.
Unlike the front-loaded Hunky Dory, Ziggy Stardust‘s best moments happen on side B. “Lady Stardust” is an powerful piano ballad, “Hold on to Yourself” an energetic homage to Ed Cochran’s “Somethin’ Else”, and “Ziggy Stardust” sports an instantly memorable main riff, built around a minor 2nd hammer-on with the pinkie finger. Bowie would work with more skilled guitarists than Mick Ronson, but few if any had his taste and discernment. Every note Mick played meant something.
“Suffragette City” is the album’s greatest song, a fierce and pummeling broadside against the Rolling Stones. While “Starman” points to his past, this points to his future: it would have fit anywhere and everywhere on Aladdin Sane. “John, I’m Only Dancing” is a nice curate’s egg if you have the Rykodisc remaster, with a strong chorus and funny queerbaiting lyrics, although I prefer the cut from 1973.
No doubt Bowie-ologists find more in Ziggy Stardust‘s concept than I have, whether it actually exists or not. Take the name “Ziggy”, a strikingly unusual name that would be worth 19 points if it could be played in Scrabble and seems pregnant with meaning. Is it an abbreviation of “syzygy” (a planetary conjunction or apposition, which would reinforce the cosmic theme)? But David eventually admitted that it meant nothing. He just wanted a name that began with Z, and found one in a list of names.
But Bowie was always someone who could turn pewter into gold, and even unremarkable ideas can seem irresistibly clever if sold right, which in the end is the rockstar’s true calling. Ziggy Stardust deserves its place at Bowie’s masked ball, even if that place isn’t quite at the head of the table.
Torture. Moral issues aside, does it work?
You have a man in your care, with a fact in his head. Can you torture it out of him? Maybe. But he hates you, because you’re torturing him, so he might tell you the fact in an incomplete or misleading way. And couldn’t you have gotten the fact from him using another method? Consider Knightian uncertainty: you don’t know what you don’t know, and a well-treated prisoner might divulge additional facts that he didn’t have to. A tortured man never will.
Defenders of torture, of course, have a slam-dunk defense of their art: that it created David Bowie’s Station to Station.
It contains the greatest Bowie song ever (“Station to Station”), the greatest Bowie lyric ever (to be discussed), the greatest Bowie pop song ever (“Golden Years”) and the greatest opening chord on a Bowie song ever (Carlos Alomar’s Am7 on “Wild is the Wind”). I advise listening to this album soon and often. It’s amazing. But do be advised: it was created through torture.
It was created during a horrific period of Bowie’s life, where the drugs begin taking the man. Alone in a mansion in Benedict Canyon, Hollywood, he went insane. It’s all there in the biographies: storing his piss in jars, seeing UFOs, to see his spectral aura, exorcising Satan from his swimming pool, believing that the Rolling Stones were sending him messages in their album covers. Some of these might be myths, or embroideries on the truth. Bowie himself is no help. He says he doesn’t recall making Station to Station at all.
Did he create Station to Station? The album isn’t a pathetic drooling mess of needle injection sites and discarded cocaine twists, as most “druggie” albums. It sounds tight and professional, brightly mixed, with some of his best top melody singing. This is the work of a man at the peak of his power.
The title track is, well, a perfect song. It runs for ten minutes, and you want it to keep going. Train noises are heard, wandering across the stereo field. The train is moving, and we’re not on it. The blurring steel hammer disappears over the horizon, and a loping 2/2 alla breve vamp takes its place. It sounds tight and smouldering on the record, but gigantic live. One of the downsides of the whole Bowie-being-dead business is that he won’t ever play “Station to Station” again. Listeners are free to imagine him in their bedroom, miming to the song while wearing a dress, but somehow it’s not the same for me.
Halfway through, the song erupts, blasting out lyrical and sonic incalescence. “Once there were mountains on mountains!” Cmaj, Dmaj, Emaj, Amaj, Emaj, F#min. The great lyrical moment happen here: “It’s not the side-effects of the cocaine! / I’m thinking that it must be love.” Listen to his difficult, strained delivery, and these two lines crackle with the energy of broken power cables. The world turns beneath him, mountains collapsing to rubble. Just for a moment, David Robert Jones from Brixton is Zeus, hurling thunderbolts. His mind sounds smashed to pieces, reassembled, but somehow stronger and purer than it was before. This signals the final shift in “Station to Station”. The band spins out of control, as if a life-rope’s been cut, and the remaining five minutes are spent in a long vamp built from repeated declamations of “it’s too late”.
Contrary to popular belief, Station to Station has other songs. “Golden Years” is an extremely catchy and well-realised single. The performances aren’t quite as tight as, say, Low (listening to the vocals in isolation reveals that he’s a bit loose with his timing) but the total effect is one of sublime perfection. “TVC15” and “Stay” are similar in tone: jittery, anxious, and funk-driven. “TVC15” is apparently based on a nightmare Iggy Pop had of a TV swallowing his girlfriend. “Stay” is Carlos Alomar earning his paycheck, featuring a jagging main riff with a ninth note thrown in there. The words of the chorus are near incomprehensible word salad: a good evocation of a man who has turned his mind into an MC Escher painting. “Wild is the Wind” ends the album on a plangent note. A jazz ballad, with a wonderful misty and distant feeling.
“He put all of his effort into his art” is a cliche vapid, but it takes on a darker shade: we’re not supposed to put all our effort into one thing. We’re supposed to have lives. We’re supposed to be normal.
I once read a French horror comic (I can’t remember the name) about a race car driver, with a special bond to his vehicle. With his fuel running out, and the great race of his career on the line, the vampiric car sucks his blood out of his veins and burns it, winning the race and hurling a corpse across the finish line. That sums up Station to Station. The stunning artistic heights were achieved at great personal cost to Bowie. It’s a thumbscrew and a rack on a vinyl LP.
Albums cathartic to artists are often dull to listeners, and this is the reverse: another Station to Station might have killed him. After making this album, Bowie fled Los Angeles. As if he himself was the demon in the mansion, and he’d performed his own exorcism.
This book arrived bedecked in heraldry as The Next Harry Potter (every children’s book released 2000-2005 was officially The Next Harry Potter, just as every modern David Bowie album was “his best since Scary Monsters”). It doesn’t live up to that, and doesn’t want to: it’s something else entirely. It hardly feels like a book for children. The action is fast and kinetic, the writing is as taut as the wire-work in a Hong Kong action film, and the concept is pretty clever: a mixture of Lord Dunsany fairytales and Die Hard.
The plot sounds outright stupid in summary: like it was created by a desperate screenwriter in the 8th season of a show. “There’s a twelve year old supergenius called Artemis Fowl, and he’s also a criminal mastermind, and has a scary bodyguard who kicks ass like Bruce Lee, and he discover fairies exist…wait, don’t go! They’re high-tech fairies! They have gadgets and guns! He kidnaps one and holds it for ransom, but then the fairies stop time, and…yes, I DID past the office drug test. Stop asking!”
But the book is better than its synopsis, too. There’s storytelling ideas at work here that I haven’t ever seen attempted before or since (even in the book’s own sequels). Want another book like Artemis Fowl? Go to your local bookstore, find the fiction section, look up “Colfer” under the Cs, and purchase Artemis Fowl again. Now you’ve got two copies, and that’s the best you’re going to do. Sorry.
The plot is essentially a kidnap and ransom story, but Colfer’s masterstroke is in the details: particularly centering the story on its villain. Later books would turn Artemis into a good guy: they soon devolved into repetitive, uninteresting capers where Artemis and his fairy pals go gallivanting off to bust the Villain of the Week, and I got bored of them. In the first book, Artemis is genuinely sinister and unpleasant, and a great character. Hell for the company.
Here (as in many places), the book takes cues from Die Hard: that movie developed its villain to the point where he stole the show – you wanted to find out exactly how Hans Gruber would pull off this ridiculous heist, with all the odds stacked against him.
Colfer kicks it up a notch by pitting twelve year old Artemis against a supernatural police force who can do anything from make themselves invisible to removing memories. Of course, the fairy police are as bumbling and bureaucratic as Die Hard’s LAPD, sometimes almost comically incompetent. And they are bound by magical rules – if they enter a dwelling uninvited, the instantly lose their magical powers. And when you’re a guest in someone else’s house, you have to obey the host’s commands. This makes life interesting when the host decides you can’t leave.
The book becomes a fascinating conflict between an almost omniscient race of fairies…and a really smart, really evil kid. That adds to the rising drama: it’s genuinely unclear who will win at the end, and again we see the necessity of Artemis being a bad guy. Nobody would write a children’s book where the hero loses. But a villain…?
Artemis Fowl has flaws (some of which would metastazise like a cancer and kill the later books in the series), and often succeeds more on shock and awe tactics than amazing writing. Tip: read it very fast. That way you won’t have time to think about the finer details.
Details such as how the fairy cops are called the Lower Elements Police Recon, or LEPrecon (leprechaun!). That gets a laugh, but why do fairies use English words, when they’re explicitly described as having their own language? And how did “leprechaun” (a word dating back to the 17th century), come from “recon” (a military abbreviation of “reconaissance” that apparently dates back to the 1940s, if Ngram viewer is correct)?
Artemis apparently possesses magical powers of his own, such as when he uses a household magnet to unscrew a screw (magnetic torque can’t operate on a uniform substance such as a metal screw). This is also one of those books where a character translates a text in an ancient language, and it comes out in perfect rhyming English couplets. Sometimes Colfer just loses track of his own rules. A “bio bomb” is described, which explodes and turns living tissue into “a cloud of radioactive molecules”…but a group of characters journey into the fallout zone of one expecting to find bodies.
The Artemis Fowl books never gained the mass fame of the Harry Potter series. In my opinion, they’re collectively not as good. Harry Potter had an arc that continued from book to book, but Artemis Fowl didn’t even feel like it needed a sequel. The premise was fully explored, and afterwards there was nowhere left to go. The kid-friendly trappings held it back a bit: it feels like a story for grown-ups at its core, and it would have been improved by a bit more of an edge. Marketed wrong, promoted wrong, and developed wrongly by its own author, in isolation Artemis Fowl is an extremely good piece of work.
Action! Adventure! Uncomfortable ethnic stereotypes! The Story of Dr Dolittle has everything you want in an early 20th century children’s book.
This book (the first in a series) introduces John Dolittle, a scatterbrained doctor with the ability to talk to animals. The first few Dr Dolittle titles follow a predictable format: Dolittle goes adventuring, gets into trouble, animals rescue him in a funny or interesting way, all of this happens again about ten or fifteen times, and then the book ends. As Lofting grew in sophistication as a writer the books focused more on the animals themselves, with the human characters vanishing entirely for long periods.
There’s surprising philosophical acuity in the Dr Dolittle stories. Wittgenstein said “If a lion could speak, we could not understand him”, and Hugh Lofting goes on a long walk with this idea: humankind is cut off from the animal world by language, and it’s our fault. Animals are always talking, constantly sharing thoughts and ideas, and we refuse to listen because we think we’re above them. The Dolittle books get very didactic on this point, and the latter ones feel written by a temporally displaced PETA activist. Often they verge on expressing outright contempt for humanity.
We have a good guess as to where this antipathy comes from: the Flanders trenches.
The Dr Dolittle tales started out as letters, scribbled and sent home from the front. Lofting’s traumatic wartime experiences hang over the Dolittle tales like a flag’s shadow: never touching the story, but always present. The Great War was a bad one, the industrial revolution alchemizing the battlefield, and a generation of writers witnessed entrails slithering out of bullet and bayonet wounds, faces melting like wax before mustard gas, dreadful mobile hospitals where the crying never stopped and the ground stank for weeks after. Hugh Lofting was struck by the gallantry of horses and mules, and embarrassed at how little his fellow humans could do for them. In retribution he created John Dolittle, a physician capable of giving them the care they never received in real life.
Other writers for children – JRR Tolkien, AA Milne, CS Lewis – also served in the war, and were influenced in various ways. Tolkien rejected modernity altogether. Milne tried to wallpaper over reality with fantasy and whimsy (is it sweet or disturbing that he named his son “Christopher Robin”?). CS Lewis retreated into spiritual nihilism: nothing matters because the world shall soon dissolve like snow; the sun forbear to shine. Hugh Lofting became a misanthrope.
He believed that humanity was a mistake, that we do not deserve our place on the planet. As the Dr Dolittle books progress, they get blacker and angrier, increasingly given to polemics about humanity. I never finished Dr Dolittle and the Secret Lake, it was too depressing. Lofting’s disgust becomes a suffocating hand, strangling his own stories until they die.
But that’s many decades away. The Story of Dr Dolittle is delightful read, with only tiny shades of future despair.
As with the best children’s books, it makes one ask questions about its world. For example, when does the story take place? The opening passage says that it happened “when our grandfathers were little children”, and the parrot Polynesia (who claims to be either one hundred and eighty one or one hundred and eighty two years old) describes seeing King Charles II hiding behind an oak tree, an event that happened in 1651. This dates the book to no later than 1832, and makes aspects of it anachronistic – John Dolittle wouldn’t be able to vaccinate the monkeys, for example.
There’s clues that the book might be set even earlier – the doctor is menaced by Barbary pirates, who had been pacified for over fifteen years by that point. But that would throw still more story elements out of date: such as an Italian organ grinder with a monkey. The monkey in question later tells stories passed down by his ancestors about “…lizards, as long as a train, that wandered over the mountains in those times, nibbling from the tree-tops.” This was interesting. People in 1920 knew about dinosaurs, but apparently didn’t know they lived in a different period to primates.
The story’s…dated handling of race might discomfort the modern reader. John Dolittle ends up at the mercy of an African tribe, whose prince, Bumpo, wishes to become a white man. In return for freedom, the ever-resourceful John Dolittle uses medicine to bleach the prince’s face.
Well, make of that what you want. My two krugerrand: Bumpo’s desires are abnormal and are described as such in the story (one character calls it a “silly business”, and another thinks he looked better as a black man). And given that skin-lightening is now an industry worth tens of billions of dollars (with over 70% of Nigerians using some sort of skin-lightening product, according to WHO), it’s clearly not an idea that sprung wholesale out of Hugh Lofting’s evil, racist brain. Sometimes black people want to be white in real life.
The book’s imaginative, but sometimes I wish it went a little further. The episodic “adventure / problem / escape” format can get repetitive, and there’s fascinating possibilities left unexplored. Long chunks of the book involve the doctor trying to bring a rare beast back from Africa – a “pushmi-pullyu”, which has a head at each end of its body (think Catdog). The Doctor plans on exhibiting the animal as a sideshow, thus saving himself from financial ruin. Hello? You can talk to animals, idiot! There should be a thousand easier ways to earn money. Couldn’t an army of mice steal the crown jewels? Couldn’t paper wasps make molds of the locks to the Bank of England? Couldn’t sharks and whales patrol the sea floor, looking for salvage? If the Doctor used his head, he’d be running the British Commonwealth within twenty years.
But those things would be amoral. That’s the problem with John Dolittle: he’s too saintly. I wish he had a Moriarty: someone who shares his zoolinguistic powers but uses them for evil, not good.
The Dr Dolittle series enjoyed a good run, but it doesn’t seem to be remembered alongside Winnie the Pooh and Alice in Wonderland. Perhaps the racial elements make the books unsalvagable. Although in 1998 it was loosely adapted into a big budget Hollywood comedy starring Eddie Murphy. If you’re a fan of the latter, then let me finish this review in a way you’ll understand. “If you’re suffering symptoms of boredom, then this doctor has the prescription for you!!!”
Despite being heralded as the last of “the Berlin Trilogy”, the sequence of albums Bowie while in tax exile, it sounds nothing like Low or “Heroes”. Whereas those were singular canvasses full of sound, this is just a collection of songs – some from Bowie’s top shelf, some from the bottom, and one from the wastebasket beneath it.
There’s a odd disunity within Lodger, it’s if nobody was quite sure of what they were doing. Maybe they weren’t. It’s no secret that the creative partnership of David Bowie and Brian Eno was falling apart by this point: Eno’s “compose in 17/8 while standing on your head and gargling noodles” tricks were growing irritating, and weren’t producing usable material. One stunt involved the backing band switching instruments. Another involved Eno drawing eight random chords on a blackboard and then having the band play whatever one he pointed at. Entire days were wasted in this fashion, producing nothing but countless hours of garbage. After Lodger landed on the charts with a desultory thud, Bowie chose not to work with Eno for his next release.
Which isn’t to say Lodger doesn’t have moments of greatness, which it does. But for the first time since Bowie landed in continental Europe, it has failures. Not lots of them, but they’re hard to ignore, particularly when one of them is up there with the most awful songs he ever wrote.
But let’s start with the best part: the three leading songs. “Fantastic Voyage” is a flamboyant, sashaying piece that reaches back to his Station to Station sound. Its lyrics connect mental illness and cold war paranoia. It’s a simple matter: we all have bad days (the Thin White Duke could attest to this), but national leaders have bad days, too…and they have the ability to destroy the world. This is the flaw in the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction – it relies on everyone in the world being rational and sane. What happens when nuclear weapons end up in the hands of a lunatic? The line “learning to live with someone’s depression” is darkly mocking. When the bombs start to fly, we might not need to learn.
“African Night Flight” is a paranoid freakout. It sounds a bit like a 33 RPM record of “Aladdin Sane (1913-1938-197?)” played at 45 RPM by mistake. Panicky, compelling stuff. “Move On” takes chords from “All of the Dudes” (a potential megahit that Bowie foolishly gave away in 1974 to nearly-forgotten glam act Mott the Hoople), and reverses them, turning a pop song into fascinating avant garde pop. As with “Heroes”, the lyrics seem laid on with a trowel, as if he’s parodying what a typical songwriter would write.
“Yassassin” is four minutes of drizzling shit. I can’t find words for much I hate it. It’s like middle school, when your teacher decides you need a dose of capital-c Culture and you get dragged off to see a kabuki show or something. Fuck off. I don’t want culture. I don’t want to broaden my horizons. Throw this song in the bin.
Side two begins with the musically average and lyrically excellent “DJ”. Bowie is at his cruelest and most sardonic here, he’s an egocentric disk jockey who thinks he’s king of the dance floor (“I got believers!” he crows). But as with Rupert Pupkin in The King of Comedy, we soon realise there’s something very wrong with him. DJs tend to be a bit “off”: they’re all performance, all illusion; no matter how full or how sweaty the dance floor gets, other people wrote the songs they’re playing. The crowd is grinding to Lady Gaga and Beyonce, not the guy behind the stacks, but many DJs lose sight of that. It’s a trade that attracts delusional narcissists.
“DJ” paints a picture of a man dangerously lost to fantasy, the real world slipping past his fingers like a shiny black record. He’s “(at) home, lost my job”, but that’s okay. It’s “realism”. Getting fired builds street cred, and he wouldn’t have it any other way. He says “I’ve got a girl out there, I suppose”…why are the last two words there? A repeated line in the chorus is “can’t turn around, can’t turn around”. Why can’t he turn around? Perhaps if he does, he’ll see that he doesn’t have quite so many “believers” as he thought. Perhaps he has no believers at all. Maybe it’s all an illusion, and he’s just a pathetic failure with no job and no girlfriend, spinning discs to an audience of nobody in his apartment. The song ends with the word “believers” skipping on its final two syllables. “Leave us…leave us…leave us…”
“Look Back in Anger” is a good track, inspiring Oasis and rendering them irrelevent in three minutes and eight seconds. Soon after, Lodger starts running into engine problems again. “Boys Keep Swinging” is fun and bouncy, but doesn’t stay with you. Nudge-nudge, wink-wink gaybaiting in the age of Jerry Falwell and Save Our Children doesn’t seem shocking, just hack. Then we get the ham-fisted “Repetition”, an unpleasant song about a man punching his wife around.
Album closer “Red Money” is a decent reworked track from The Idiot, although it sounded better with Iggy Pop singing it. More to the point, it’s now the second piece of old rope on a ten track LP (third, once you realise that “Boys Keep Swinging” has the same chords as “Fantastic Voyage”). Remember how Low and “Heroes” needed to make weight with covers and cast-offs? Oh, wait. They didn’t.
One can be too hard on Lodger. It’s another strong album, with lots of classic Bowie moments. But it was promoted wrong by RCA Records, and continues to be promoted wrong by fans to this day. It is not of a company with the two albums before it. The real Berlin Trilogy (according to to Bowie-ologist Chris O’Leary) is The Idiot (an Iggy Pop album hijacked at gunpoint by Bowie, and if you disagree you’re deaf), Low, and “Heroes”, with Lodger being a couple of footnotes. I agree, except “Yassassin” is a turd smear.
“Heroes” doesn’t equal the height of Low, but it’s an incredible album in its own way. Bowie created astonishing work in Berlin, and “Heroes” carved his name even deeper in the wall.
The opening track is snaky and serpentine, with Bowie spelunking down to the lower end of his range (“…gone wrong” slides to C#2, one of his deepest studio notes). “Heroes”‘ songs fall into two categories: the ones that make sense on their own, the the ones that make sense as part of “Heroes”. This is one of the former.
By contrast, track 2, “Joe the Lion”, is the latter. I can’t listen to it without the rest of the album: it sounds agitated and broken and gives the listener no relief at the end. But it does provide effective contrast for the krautrock-infused nostalgia of the next track: it’s like driving over a broken road, which changes to smooth blacktop.
The title song is the obligatory classic, which has survived overplay through massive sonic depth. There’s much to discover inside “Heroes”, between Carlos Alomar’s fill-in lines and Brian Eno’s electronic squawks. The song’s like an infinitely unfolding sheet of paper, containing yet more scribbles inside each unfurled fold. The lyrics are broad, and on the page sound faintly mocking, although no trace of this comes through on the record.
Functional harmonists describe music as a journey made of chords. When you listen to the tonic chord containing the key signature, you’re at home (in the Beatles’ “Yellow Submarine” this chord underlines “in the town…”). The subdominant chord is like leaving home to go on a journey (“…where I was born…”), the dominant chord is like arriving at your destination (“…lived a man…”) and then you might go home again back to the tonic (“…who sailed to sea.”).
Maybe my ear is bad, but little of “Heroes” makes sense when analysed in this fashion. There’s nothing that sounds like home, or a journey, or a destination. Notes swirl like squid ink, sometimes coagulating into chords, more often becoming pure texture. Even interesting. The album’s explorative nature is irresistable, even when it leaves the listener behind.
“V-2 Schneider” opens with air-tattered wailing, reminiscent of London during the blitz. The V-2s (German “Vergeltungswaffe”, “Retribution Weapon”) were long-range ballistic missiles, fired across the English channel at London, where they killed an average of two limeys per missile. The other side of the story was the 12,000 forced laborers who died in the production of the missiles. As with many purported Nazi superweapons, the V-2 was far more lethal to its builders than its targets. “Schneider” is “Florian Schneider-Esleben”, one of the founders of Kraftwerk: Bowie finally removed the letter c from his covert krautrock borrowings, making them overt.
“Sense of Doubt” is very dark, featuring a piano microphoned so that every note cleaves space with the power of an axe. A glittering synth line is introduced, as black as polished anthracite. I assumed this was Brian Eno’s work, but the song credits only Bowie. Much of the Berlin trilogy’s instrumental work was creating through procedural experimentation – the composer(s) drawing a card with instructions on it (“Use an unacceptable color”) and trying to attach a song to that scaffold. This isn’t unlike the process used by the Oulipo group to write books – although the Oulipists have yet to produce their Berlin Trilogy.
Traces of life stir in the shadow of this track. “Neukoln” is Bowie going “hey, remember when I used to play the saxophone?” and pairing it with yet more brutalist sonic architecture. His expressiveness seems like a plant weaving through cracked concrete.
The pattern of songs/ambience was used before in Low, which is part of why I prefer it. Even at its best, “Heroes” is retracing his own path, not forging a new one. The only difference is the final track, “The Secret Life of Arabia”, which is actually a song again. Maybe there is a journey to “Heroes”, but instead of in the chords, it’s in the songs. But there’s no sense of home when you follow those twinkling stars, just oddness and neurotic experiments. Or has home changed while you were away?
Keeping up with the Jones. After an artistically creative and personally devastating period in LA (full-cream milk, red peppers, and cocaine are a balanced diet, right?), Bowie went into hiding in Europe. Low is meant to meant to suggest “keeping a low profile”. He failed. Keeping a low profile would necessitate a bad album, and Low is simply unforgettable.
They “There’s old wave, there’s new wave, and there’s David Bowie” In a record store, they might say “there’s David Bowie, then there’s Low”. Nomimally the first of the so-caled “Berlin Trilogy” (despite parts of it being recorded in France), Low doesn’t quite sound like anything else he’s done.
Side A has songs, bending punk rock, art rock, . Bowie has seldom written better songs, and Eno’s technical wizardry makes the music seem otherwordly. This is most noticeable on “Speed of Life”, which has varispeeded delay that sounds like strobing flashes of light hitting the Hubble telescope from a distant cosmic object.
The songwriting is sparse and free. Entire songs are threaded together with simple ingredients: a single hook, or rhythm, or texture, but are all the more impactful for it. Lead single “Sound and Vision” has no words until the halfway point, and they’re just minimalistic automatism. No references to the Kabbalah or homosexuality. Just Bowie looking at blue light through his window, waiting for ideas.
“Be My Wife” surprises with familiarity, jarring you with a conventional verse/chorus pop song. Bowie was so good at being fake that there’s often a creepy, uncomfortable sense that he’s dropping the mask and momentarily sharing real feelings, knowing that nobody would ever know. The harmonica-driven instrumental “A New Career in a New Town” spins away the remaining grooves much as “Speed of Life” began them: in adventurous fashion.
Side A is an amazing achievement for Bowie, for Eno, and for rock. It is also Low’s worst side.
Side B deeply, profoundly well-realised, a haunting exploration of sound. It’s ambient music made jagged and broken, like a priceless Qianlong Vase smashed on the floor, allowing the viewer to find whatever beauty they may in the fragments.
People often refer to it as “the instrumental side”, which isn’t right, as only “Art Decade” lacks lyrics and vocals. But they’re brilliant, unforgettable pieces of music, and showcases just how much atmosphere Brian Eno could evoke with tape loops and a one-finger melody.
The dominant ambient piece is “Warszawa”, evoking a city of rust and memories, ancient fumes pouring from its skin. Futuristic Minimoog lines counterpoint church bells and religious chanting in a strange, brutal language from another world. It’s six minutes long: hermetic, cthonic, and almost impenetrable upon first listen. You have to peel it back like a palimpsest, and I’m still not sure I fully get it. David Bowie used to play this live. As a set opener, no less.
“Warszawa” was written by a four year old. Well, the first three notes, anyway. David needed to attend court to square away some matters from the Los Angeles fiasco, leaving Brian Eno to try and come up with something. Tony Visconti’s four year old son wandered into the studio, discovered the piano, and plonked out three notes – an A, a B, and a C. Suddenly inspired, Brian Eno dashed to the boy’s side and completed the melody. I don’t see Visconti’s son credited in the album booklet. The tyke should sue.
The album’s remaining pieces gently come down from this crescendo. “Art Decade” is chilly and still, its melodic ideas frozen like images under glass. “Weeping Wall” has very busy instrumentation, its elements sometimes clashing and other times working in harmony. “Subterraneans” is deep, slow, and forbidding. If the album was a day, this would be the deepest watch of the night.
There’s bonus tracks, too, if you get the right version of the album. “Some Are” seems like a marriage of the two halves of the album, while “All Saints” is extremely harsh – industrial ambient rock as corrosive as drain cleaner. I’ve heard rumors that “All Saints” was recorded a long time after Low, and indeed, it sounds very different in its production approach. You get a remixed version of “Sound and Vision”, which belongs in a bin.