1. Outside is a masterpiece, Bowie’s greatest work in fifteen years, and barring a nanotechnological rebirth, will be his greatest work in the remaining sum of human years. (Sadly, I don’t believe Blackstar finishes as well as it began.)
But it’s exhausting. “Heroes” charges you up, this album drains you dry. The occasional pop song (“I Have Not Been to Oxford Town”, “Strangers When We Meet”) falls like a sweet berry between filth-stained cobblestones of industrial metal, avant-garde jazz, spoken-word interludes, and atonal ambiance. Sometimes the music seems to be reaching too far, and I feel I’m becoming lost. But when the next chord change hits, things always fall back into place.
Some parts I still don’t understand: in particular, the album concept. Something about ritualistic human sacrifice, a private detective, and characters called things like Algeria Touchshriek and Leon Blank. References are made to the “world wide Internet”, and Richard Preston’s alarming 1994 nonfiction book The Hot Zone. Something seems to have happened to this world, an event that Bowie won’t allow us to know. We’re peering through the window, guessing. We’re outside.
Maybe there’s not even a single concept. Like Diamond Dogs, Outside is a musical patchwork quilt, assembled from the wrack of a few different projects. In 1994, Q Magazine asked him for a “week in the life” type diary. Bowie felt that his real life wasn’t quite as exiting as they were probably hoping, so he wrote a fake diary by one Nathan Adler (this diary is reprinted in Outside’s liner notes). Two years earlier, he’d re-united with Brian Eno, and attempted to form a kind of avant-garde supergroup (much of their work eventually saw release on the internet as the Leon Suite.)
In addition to Eno, Bowie has his most powerful lineup in years. Carlos Alomar is back (holy shit!), as is Reeve Gabrels, whose rhythm tracks are distorted to near Static-X levels. Mike Garson makes a very welcome appearance – if you liked the middle fifty-five bars of “Aladdin Sane”, Bowie just gives him six kilometers of rope on this album. He just lays down solo after solo, on track after track, shredding Bowie’s chord progressions with hailstorms of chromatic notes.
The internet, or “information superhighway” (as it was ponderously called in 1995) is a big influence here. Outside seems married to it, somehow. Here’s a David Bowie FAQ from 1996 or so: it’s interesting to read Bowie’s fascination with computers (the digital art accompanying the Q Magazine story was created by him, somehow). Soon BowieNet would exist.
Picking out great tracks is hard, but I really like four. They come in groups of two, each positioned next to each other on the tracklisting (ignoring a segue).
“A Small Plot of Land” is aggressive, ear-bleeding jazz, paying tribute to Scott Walker and nearly upstaging him. “Hallo Spaceboy” is an industrial dance experiment that makes “Pallas Athena” sound like “All of the Dudes”. “Thru’ These Architects’ Eyes” riffs of Thomas Aquinas’s idea of God being an architect, and takes the album to new, celestial heights. And closing track “Strangers When We Meet” is powerful, dark, and tuneful. A perfect song to end on.
Some Bowie albums are best without their context. Outside is best with it. It’s flotsam from a confused and turbulent time in human’s history, when zero started to became one. Bowie was much better than average at predicting the future, but here we see him caught up amidst manifesting predictions – society unease and turmoil, and a digital pantokrator set to pave over humanity with silicon wafer. The album was meant to have a sequel, called Inside. This never materialised, but the wheels of time still turn, and soon we will see Inside for itself.
So obscure it hardly exists: The Buddha of Suburbia is a quasi-soundtrack to the BBC serial of the same name, based on a book of the same name, written by an author of not the same name (he’s called Hanif Kureishi – “Mr Buddha of Suburbia, Esquire” would be a bad name, although perhaps not as bad as “Zowie”.)
On my first listen, I hated the first song so much that I didn’t listen to the rest for a long time. This was a mistake: “The Buddha of Suburbia” might be adult contemporary glurge, but everything after it is fascinating, and much of it is good.
It’s Bowie’s scrapbook circa 1993, filled with doodles. It’s his most disjointed studio album if you consider it one, the hyped-up penny arcade chiptune of “Dead Against It” is followed by the adventurous world music of “Untitled, No. 1”, which is followed by about six minutes of gentle fuzz and crackling sounds. Some tracks are reworks of the TV show’s music, while others are new. A proper soundtrack to The Buddha of Suburbia still hasn’t surfaced, and likely never will.
The book, from what I remember, was about being a mixed-race Britain, separated from both white and Indian. The songs all exist alone, and can’t be discussed in relation to each other.
“Sex and the Church” is a house track that prefigures Black Tie White Noise. It makes its point – my main problem is that it’s incredibly overlong, and only has about two ideas.
“The Mysteries” is Bowie’s first ambient track since 1981. It sounds similar to Brian Eno’s Ambient 1: Music for Airports, which was created to be both “interesting and ignorable”. An organ builds ominously, like a cloud that never causes rain. Again, it’s very long, but it’s an intriguing experiment.
“Ian Fish, UK Heir” is an anagram of “Hanif Kureishi”, and it’s an even stranger ambient piece that evokes peaceful unlistenability. Sometimes hints of melodies appear in the suffocating carpet of fuzz.
“Untitled, No. 1” is loaded with exotic instrumentation, and Bowie sings in another made-up language. Why no title? Scott Walker released an album in 1984 called Climate of Hunter where most of the songs had no names, they were just “Track Three” and such. This was intentional, he felt that titles would overbalance the songs like poorly-weighted boats – the listener would focus overmuch on the title instead of the lyrics. There might be a similar logic here, as “Untitled” certainly seems too broad-reaching to be pinned down the way “Warszawa” et al can. Chris O’Leary thinks it’s supposed sound like a painting, which is another credible interpretation.
The standout is “Strangers When We Meet”, although you’d never know if you only heard the Buddha version, where the fluffy production robs it of its power. It appears in a much stronger form on 1. Outside, and I still consider it a track from that album.
The final song is “The Buddha of Suburbia” again with Lenny Kravitz on guitar or something. It continues to suck.
In 1967, David Bowie’s recording career began…and didn’t.
Well, it depends. What do you consider a beginning? Metallica’s first album is Kill ‘Em All, but that’s just a Diamond Head imitation. Their signature sound emerged on Ride the Lightning. That’s their beginning. The first Mad Max movie came out in 1979, but it’s just a violent exploitation film: the series truly starts with Mad Max 2. Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series begins with hallucinatory fragment The Gunslinger: but the story only truly takes shape with book 2, the Drawing of the Three.
First efforts are usually flawed efforts, contaminated by inexperience, self-doubt, and outside interference. They’re not “real” starts, any more than Michelangelo’s first cast-off lump of clay was his first sculpture. David Bowie probably existed by 1969, and certainly by 1970. But in 1967, the cards were still falling. Whoever this is, it isn’t him. Not yet.
David Bowie is musically bizarre in light of his later albums: fourteen show-tunes for shows that never existed. It never misses a chance to be quirky, chirpy, and naff, the songs are bedecked with organ and keyboard parts, and Bowie (who had just turned twenty) does a fine job of sounding like an elderly sex pest.
It draws aesthetics from music hall, a venerable tradition that was fading in the 1960s, and is now utterly unendurable to modern listeners. I have never met a person who likes music hall. Have you? Do they exist? I’ve met people who claim they’ve seen aliens, but the elusive music hall fan still avoids me.
Music hall featured (and relied upon) stage shows and live performances: it may have been the the 19th century’s equivalent to the music video. The album suffers for its lack of a visual element, and feels a bit flat. No doubt Bowie had planned out short films and mime performances and dancing bears for each one, but then the album flopped. The songs are like colorful little parrots, their plumage covered by a dropcloth. We can hear them well enough, but they’re less charming without their bright feathers.
The music is mostly in good order. Even at twenty, Bowie knew how to put a song together. “Love You ‘Till Tuesday” strides into its chorus with a ritardando that made me say “nice” out loud in the middle of an empty room, which was embarrassing. “Sell Me A Coat” is a catchy ohrwurm, hand-tailored for the single release it never received.
The lyrics are a high point, although they’re definitely more interesting than good. Music hall was “low” entertainment, attracting people gate-checked out of polite society, and it played music to match. Bowie takes full advantage of this and just lets it all hang out, writing anything that will scan, no matter how stupid or awful or anti-social.
“We Are Hungry Men” is a humorous science fiction dystopia about a dictator’s solution to overpopulation. I laughed at the line about people being allotted a cubic foot of air to breath, although the part about China someday having “a thousand million” people didn’t age well.
“She’s Got Medals” is Bowie’s first song to deal with transvestism (“Passed the medical! Don’t ask me how it’s done!”), and “Little Bombardier” takes a nasty turn into pedophilia. The closing track is a spoken-word piece called “Please, Mr Gravedigger”, which tightrope-walks between being ludicrous and genuinely horrific.
There’s a lot of filler and half-songs (and quarter-songs), and I won’t pretend I want to hear things like “Come and Buy My Toys” ever again, but the songs are so diverse it hardly matters. They’re presents under a tree: if you don’t like one, you try your luck with another.
Bowie did the same thing – you can see many possible futures for him, refracted in the facets this strange, strange album. A mime? An actor? A vaudeville hoofer? A hippy? The genius who wrote Hunky Dory? I’m glad he chose the future he did, because it easily could have gone another way. In June 1967, an album came out that would change the face of pop forever. This, however, is not a review of The Beatles Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, but the first David Bowie album.
Black Tie, White Noise is legendary, and not just for having a punchable album cover. When it came out in 1993, it marked Bowie’s return from the wilderness – his first solo album in six years. Just try holding your breath for six years – I bet you can’t do it. You probably won’t even make it halfway.
Bowie spared no effort in trying to tank it. He re-united with Let’s Dance producer Nile Rogers, who recounts baffling self-sabotage inside the studio. A potential smash hit (the Madonna-ripping “Lucy Can’t Dance”) was demoted to a mere bonus track. The final tracklist seems to emphasize the artistic and non-commercial songs, particularly a piece composed for David’s wedding to Somali fashion model Iman.
BTWN is a cold, funky dance record. They pulled 70s disco out of cryogenic suspension, partly thawed it, and added some 90s production elements. The album contains the snappy, bright Cheiron Studios sound that was all over the charts at the time, along with sampled beats and grafts from jazz and swing. At first the album’s sonics impress (as Let’s Dance‘s did), but soon you want to hear distorted guitars, and roughness, and humanity. BTWN is too clean. Actually, it’s germophobic.
A couple of the songs connect with me. “They Say Jump” delves into societal pressure through the metaphor of Bowie’s half-brother Terry, who had committed suicide some years before. It’s the closing parenthesis to “The Bewlay Brothers”. “Nite Flights” is a cover of a Scott Walker song, adding lots of air to what was already a large and generous-sounding arrangement. And “Pallas Athena” is a furious and crushing dance track, woven out of thudding drums and stentorian vocal samples.
The title track is a self-conscious aping of “Fame” from Young Americans. Carlos Alomar’s riff is replaced by a funky slap-bass part, the descending “fame”s at the end replaced by ascending “yow-yow-yows” at the beginning, John Lennon replaced by someone called Al B Sure! (whose career spiraled the drain after doing this collaboration). The half-rapped ostinato (“Black! Tie! White! Noise!”) is quite good, although I could do without the “crankin’ out the white noy-oy-oise” chorus.
The lyrics are McCartney’s “Ebony and Ivory”: a guilty white guy talking about how mankind is a beautiful rainbow, with a black musician dutifully playing Br’er Rastus in his minstrel show. I always dislike these types of songs, mostly they’re never as brave as they think they are. “I’m a face, not just a race!” Bold words in 1993. The lyrics reference the Rodney King riots, but still end with all the usual cliches of black and white man holding hands and becoming one. You know what I’d like to hear? A song that’s about how different we are. That maybe black and white aren’t the same, and we need to come to terms with that in whatever way we can. It would be career suicide, but at least it would be a fresh take on things.
The rest of the album is unmemorable. What artistry it has overwhelmed by a driving sleet of digital breakbeats and pad synths. Bowie’s vocal melodies are slender things, unable to support the weight of the arrangements. To be blunt, I don’t need to listen to Bowie for 56 minutes straight, nor do I need to hear about his wedding. The tacky “modern” elements just emphasise how little of the old Bowie is present on the album.
Comparisons can be drawn to another album, twenty years earlier, when Bowie was also newly married. But where The Man Who Sold the World became a classic, Black Tie, White Noise is sadly the first of many inconsistent and often uninteresting 90s efforts.
There was a fool-me-once quality to Tin Machine’s debut. Overlong, overloud, “artistic” in all the wrong ways, initially it had strong sales (unlike the bass and drums, which had rather the opposite), but the singles gained no traction, and it soon slid from the charts. When Bowie presented EMI with a follow-up, the label refused to release it.
Tin Machine II was finally issued in 1991 by fly-by-night Japanese label Victory Records. This time, nobody indulged Bowie’s vanity project. The press it received was scornful, and the album stalled out at #23 on the UK charts. For six months the band stubbornly toured it to thousand-seat venues, Bowie rapidly burning through his savings in the process. By the end of the tour, Hunt Sales’s drug addiction made it intolerable to go on, and by 1994 the band was over.
It’s a shame, because II is better than I. Time had forged the band into something stronger than their parts: Hunt Sales no longer buries the songs under drum fills, Reeves Gabrels has dialed back the noise, and David shows up with some of his best songwriting in half a decade.
Opener “Baby Universal” is a star witness in the case that the Machine deserved to exist. Driving and punishing: this song has no fat or wasted moments. Curiously, this was written in the earliest days of Tin Machine, before the Sales brothers joined the project. Bowie delivered his best work in a narrow set of circumstances: him and a collaborator, alone. Aside from the Spiders, he rarely benefited from a full band.
Other cuts like “You Belong in Rock and Roll” and “Amlapura” also present David’s maligned new project in a more positive light. The lyrics go to dark places, particularly “Shopping for Girls”, which is about Reeves Gabrels’ encounters with child prostitutes in Thailand (for an article, natch). They’re more diverse: the guitars shimmer and splash rather than just grinding like a rusty gate, and the songwriting has a bit of dynamism to it: it’s flowing water, where TMI was a series of stagnant and scum-encrusted pools.
Which is not to say TMII belongs with the best Bowie albums, or the mid-rank. “One Shot” is just obnoxious, laughably oversung by Bowie, with awful Europop “wooo-hoo-hoo” backing vocals from Tony Hunt. Astonishingly, this was a single. Perhaps Victory wanted their customers to have a beer coaster. “Stateside” is musical irrelevance personified. “A Big Hurt” is an unconvincing dad-rock take on hardcore punk.
The direst moment is “Sorry”, a musical head cold with Hunt Sales on vocals. He sounds terrible, the music meanders, and the whole thing prays to be on a floor of a cutting room variety.
Just as TMII seems to be gassing out, it delivers the greatest song in the band’s existence and the best thing David Bowie wrote in ten years. “Goodbye Mr Ed” is a threnody sung in the ruins of rock. Bowie’s vocals are both haunted and disaffected: the sound of a man demon-haunted for so long that terror has yielded to weariness. The massive ritardando capping each chorus has almost heart-freezing power, and the song ends with a crazy free-time jam from Gabrels and the Hunts. This time, it doesn’t sound comical or self-indulgent.
It wasn’t enough. Tin Machine II flopped, what little attention it got mostly revolving around the dicks on the cover. Bowie didn’t know it, but the 1991 was going to kill his band. Nirvana’s Nevermind (containing a more polished edition of Tin Machine’s noisy sound, and ironically, another cover with a dick) would come out in a few months, and instantly make Tin Machine seem tired and irrelevant. The grunge movement reshaped the musical landscape, burying artists like Tin Machine like fossils in the rock stratum of history. Faced with young and hungry bands from Seattle, there was nowhere for Bowie to go except the door.
Sometimes people survive trauma, only to die in their beds or in an ambulance. Tin Machine ambled on for a few more years, but the death blow happened in 1991. Tragically, that’s the year they made an album proving they deserved better.
David Bowie’s career resembled a story, and in 1983 the story became an outright cliche: he hit triple cherries with Let’s Dance, his career ascended to never-before-seen heights, he flew too close to the sun, his albums became confused and over-calculated parodies of themselves, his old fans rejected him, his new ones moved on past him, everything was falling down around him, he starred in a big budget Fraggle Rock adaptation or something, etc, etc.
Tin Machine was supposed to fulfill the “triumphant comeback” part of the story. Back to the basics! No more synths, and no more selling out! Here comes Bowie, fronting a rock band! If that sounds wonderful, here comes the pain: Tin Machine’s 1989 debut is absolutely awful. It isn’t a reinvention, it isn’t a return to form, and compared to his derided mid 80s work, it’s actually worse in many respects.
The album is smug. This is hip, happening music for hip, happening people, and you can imagine it sneering at the records you’re shelving it with. Twenty years earlier, Bowie wrote “Join the Gang”, a song inspired (in part) by his exclusion from London’s counter-cultural artistic cliques. If they’d known he had this record in him, they’d have ushered him in through the VIP entrance. Tin Machine I is straight outta Gangland.
As mention, Tin Machine’s “hook” is that it’s a band. As with Eminem’s D12, you’re not supposed to notice that it contains one of the biggest stars in music (the cover underscores the point, with Bowie occupying the least amount of space out of the four). His bandmates are Tony and Hunt Sales (of Iggy Pop fame) on bass and drums, and Reeves Gabrels on guitar. Gabrels would eventually become the Ronson and Alomar of the 90s: Bowie’s trusty hired gun, and collaborator on many great songs. Here? SKREEK SKRAWK REE WEEDLE WEEDLE KERRRAAAANGG. There – you’ve heard his entire performance.
Hunt Sales is just irritating, pounding songs into the ground with flurries of 16th note snare fills. On some tracks (particularly the coda of the first one) his drumming approaches outright aural sabotage. TMI‘s music was written in a spontaneous, quasi-improvised fashion: for this to work, the four members need chemistry, and the low-grade telepathy of sidemen who have worked together for a long time. None of that intuition is on evidence here. It’s a three legged race, everyone tripping each other up.
The album’s problems become manifest as soon as “Heaven’s in Here” starts choogling away. Loud, noisy, and boring, it’s one of the worst songs on the record. “Tin Machine” sees Reeves yanking an interesting melodic idea from the upper frets, and Bowie follows it up with…nothing. “Take me anywhere!” How does the cut-out bin sound? “Prisoner of Love” is Dire Straits made dull and nondescript: it’s the musical version of a paving slab. “Crack City” is dumb (in an ironic nod-and-wink way), rocking out with a hard-edged riff and a pretty powerful chorus. Apparently the lyric is based off Nassau, where part of the album was recorded.
Health check: we are now nineteen minutes in, and have heard two good riffs and one good chorus. You call that a comeback? This is pathetic. Those junk Bowie bonds had a better rate of return. Scary Monsters gives you twice as many inspired ideas five minutes after you drop the needle, and at least Never Let Me Down offered up “Time Will Crawl” by now!
“I Can’t Read” is interesting, because it contains all the things that make Tin Machine insufferable (Reeves overplaying, Sales overdrumming, noise instead of coherency)…but it ends up being captivating. Bowie’s vocal is as raw and ugly as a half-bandaged wound as he ponders writer’s block (a topic addressed in “Sound and Vision”, although the two songs have no other similarities). At the end, he comes apart entirely. I don’t know how much of it as an act, but it’s a powerful moment.
The rest of the album blunders and crashes to its conclusion, offering up the occasionally highlight. “Bus Stop” is energetic and fun as hell – an uncharacteristic brush with hardcore punk. “Working Class Hero” can fuck right off. It joins the rare class of songs I literally cannot listen to because they make me angry (the class valedictorian is “Yassassin”, with “God Knows I’m Good” as salutorian and “The Buddha of Suburbia” third in class).
The reason I dislike alt-rock (a style that TMI is heavily inspired by), is that it holds the listener in contempt. You don’t play Nirvana’s In Utero, you’re condescended to by it. It’s smart, you’re dumb, now here’s ten more tracks of underproduced fuzz so you get the point. Bowie’s music was always clever, but it never tried to be better than the listener. “Sweet Thing” and “Warszawa” invited you to understand then. TMI is fifty-six minutes of Bowie and company gurning and giving you the finger.
All the excesses of the grunge era are here, several years too early. Bowie didn’t even fully succeed in escaping his pop persona, after EMI sulkingly released the album with stickers advising buyers that it was made by the guy who did Let’s Dance.
David Bowie (it is known) often used characters, such as Ziggy Stardust, The Thin White Duke, and The Other One.
Here, in 1987, we see the debut of his shortest lived and most controversial character: Suck Man.
Suck Man’s origins are shrouded in mystery. He appeared once on this album, and then never again. David himself never spoke about him, and some Bowie historians claim he never existed at all. But by carefully listening to this album (from another room, wearing a HAZMAT suit) I can now reveal his full, tragic story.
Who is Suck Man? Essentially, he is the sad remains of a once successful rockstar, haunted by his glory days. He has no grasp at all on what his fans want or what might sell, so he’s trying to do everything at once. French horns? Here you go! Rapping? Yeah, he can do that too! Guitar solos? You bet! How about french horns, rapping, and guitar solos all at once, thrown together in a way that doesn’t make sense?! Imagine a whole album like that?! W…Wouldn’t that be wonderful?
Suck Man is not a malicious figure. He’s sad, and pitiable. He clings to your ankles, begging for your acceptance. He’ll do anything. He just wants to be loved. If only he could be a hero again, if just for one day.
Never Let You Down is extremely bad, but at least it’s not bad in a boring way, like Tonight, or in an insufferable way, like Tin Machine I. It has entertainment value. There are songs I’ve listened to more than legit good Bowie tracks, and that’s saying something. The most obvious things wrong: the ridiculous production and arrangements. These aren’t songs, they’re crime scenes. The gated snare drum is obnoxiously loud. The backing singers are hideously overbearing. Bowie’s vocals vacillate between R&B and proto-Britpop. The album really does sound like 2 or 3 Michael Jackson tracks playing over the top of each other, all out of step.
It actually contains a little bit of good music – maybe more than Tonight did. “Time Will Crawl” has a cool, slinky saxophone line and a set of strong musical ideas. The Iggy Pop cover “Bang Bang” cooks nicely and ends the album well. Both these songs have twenty things shoved into them that don’t work and which I outright hate, but I see the skeletons of good music inside the layers of cancerous blubber.
Midway through the burnout of this musical Hindenburg, we get “Glass Spider”, which is not the worst song, but certainly the most embarrassing. Baby spiders have lost their mommy. Suck Man practically gift-wrapped this track for you. Not only is this track on the album, he actually titled the accompanying toured, and it was the second track. For God’s sake, at least Paul McCartney had the decency not to subject us to a “Wonderful Christmas Time” tour!
Suck Man also likes socially conscious lyrics. This was the era of Live Aid and Hear ‘n’ Aid, where every rockstar wanted to make a difference. Don’t ever play this to a former African child soldier. The gated snare will trigger PTSD flashbacks to AK-47s in the trenches of Sudan.
The rest of the album is ghastly. You listen in morbid fascination. Believe it or not, there’s an even worse track (“Too Dizzy”) that Bowie took off the record out of shame. Imagine being too bad for Never Let You Down – it’s like playing Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out and getting KO’d by Glass Joe.
“Transition…” – David Bowie, “TVC15”, Station to Station
He was right to muse on it, because transition is interesting. Not medical transition (though that must have intrigued him also), but philosophical transition. Ship of Theseus. Lumpers vs splitters. Much of philosophy is based around the question “when does a thing become something else?”
Is transition a continuum, like day becoming night? Or can it be quantified into discrete steps? Historians have spent countless hours wargaming World War II, trying to isolate the point where Hitler definitely lost. Was it 1940, when the Luftwaffe was crushed in the Battle of Britain? 1941, when the United States entered the war on the Allied side? 1942, when Stalingrad held? When was the final moment that Germany could have won World War II, and after which, they absolutely couldn’t? And how thinly can we slice the bratwurst? A month? A day? A single second?
Aladdin Sane is an exposition of transition. We see Bowie at a cracking point, where fame was becoming overwhelming, a burden. He invented a new character, a guy with worms filling his brain and white-ants eating his bones, but his confusion was no fiction. Over the next year his backing band would either leave or get fired, unable to handle his egomania and drug abuse. The paranoid Berlin years have their genesis here.
Musically, it’s fierce and punishing: along with The Man Who Sold the World, this is the heaviest thing Bowie ever recorded. But it has an experimental side that, again, seems like a preview trailer for Berlin. Transitions. Beginnings and ends.
We see both sides of the album, right out of the gate. “Watch That Man” is a loud party song – Bowie (perhaps in character, probably not) is at a party, noticing scenes of glitz and glamour and pronouncing them merely “so-so”. Maybe it’s not even that. Maybe it’s about to become a nightmare.
“Aladdin Sane (1913-1938-197?)” is the end stage of that party. The song is dominated by a 45-bar avant-garde jazz solo by pianist Mike Garson. Surely Bowie’s brilliance was becoming impossible to deny by now. Damned well nobody else was doing stuff like this in 1973. What’s the meaning of the dates in the titles? 1913 was the year before World War I. 1938 was the year before World War II. Does this mean that Bowie thought that the third World War would happen in the 70s? And did it?
“Cracked Actor”, “Jean Genie,” and “Let’s Spend the Night Together” are homages to or parodies of the Rolling Stones. The guitars crush and maul, and his vocals sound both inspired and exhausted. “Time” sees a new influence popping up: Jacques Brel, who he discovered via Scott Walker. “The Prettiest Star” is a lovely song: it was originally his failed second single, here remade with Ronson’s guitars and some added backup vocals.
The album overflows with great music, but two songs overshadow the others.
The first is “Panic in Detroit”, anarchic and violent, a track which burns with the guttering energy of a trash fire. The female backing vocals pull its genre way from rock, making it sound as indeterminate as any riot. The second is “Lady Grinning Soul”, a delusive opium dream made music. I like it every bit as much as “The Bewlay Brothers”, which means Bowie scarcely ever wrote a better song.
Aladdin Sane is far tighter (and a good bit better) than Ziggy Stardust. The Mick Jagger meets Jiminy Cricket character of Ziggy Stardust evolved into Aladdin Sane, a manic guy caught between two transition points and being torn apart by fame. The trip is finishing, and the come-down has begun. This is 3am insomnia, the album: paranoid, anxious, and still unable to sleep.
David had a remarkable talent for throwing fragments down at random and having them form a complete picture. Diamond Dogs is a fractured album with mismatching halves (the first a concept about a post-apocalyptic gang that rides around on rollerskates, the second an abortive attempt at a stage musical version of Orwell’s 1984) but it ends up being one of his most complete-sounding records.
The halves feed each other, and bleed onto each other. The post-apocalyptic tracks form an optimistic beachhead, which the 1984 side effectively quashes. First the fire, then the flood. I’m reminded of Harlan Ellison’s A Boy and His Dog: gaudy adventures in the wreck of the Earth, with a grim final page.
The title track is probably the worst song: it sets the tone, but doesn’t get out of the way when it should. Why is it six minutes long? It’s the most blatant homage to the Rolling Stones Bowie ever wrote, and one of the last. Sometimes I skip it.
“Sweet Thing/Candidate/Sweet Thing Reprise” is a genius-touched epic, farmed from William S Burrough’s technique of cutting up lines and reassembling them (again with the happy accidents). Bowie’s singing is wonderful, and the mood established by the scrambled lyrics are delirious scissored photographs of urban decay. The three tracks are curiously interchangeable, they all seem to work fine on their own, or in any order. Maybe their positioning is itself a cut-up.
Then “Rebel Rebel” opens with its scorching signature guitar riff, played by Bowie himself. This was his first studio release without Mick Ronson, and he seemed eager to upstage his former axeman. There’s interesting production elements going on in “Rebel Rebel”. Rock guitarists typically lay down two guitar tracks side by side (one panned left, the other right.) Bowie, it appears, only recorded one, panned dead center. This gives his tone a sharper, more brittle sound (compare “Rebel Rebel” with “Watch that Man” or “Hang Onto Yourself”), it cuts rather than bludgeons. It’s a great riff, however it was recorded. There’s a legendary story about how tennis legend John McEnroe (fresh off of Wimbledon), attempted to play it in his hotel suite, and botched it so badly that Bowie himself overheard from the room below, and banged on the door to correct him.
As with “Diamond Dogs”, “Rebel Rebel” feels gaseous. There’s a perfect ending point at 3:30 that Bowie blows right past, continuing for another minute. Rock DJs soon got into the habit of dropping the axe at three and a half minutes, and soon Bowie was doing the same (as you can hear yourself from the version on Reality, for example). Some of David’s songs (eg “Breaking Glass”) grew longer with time: this one grew shorter.
Then the 1984 half of the album begins, which is the stronger side. The songs work marvelously, whether alone or together, and there’s no pacing issues evident.
“Rock ‘n Roll With Me” is the last dance before the war begins. “We are the Dead” is a descending vamp through parlous gray madness, with none of “Rebel Rebel’s” optimism. The tinkling organ sounds aggressively and effectively fake – the sort of musical instrument they’d have in Oceania.
“1984” is a fascinating funk rock experiment, quite similar to the music on Young Americans. Then the album’s greatest track arrives, the astonishing “Big Brother”. “Chant Of The Ever Circling Skeletal Family” ends the album in primitive violence. The sudden, jarring end (in the middle of “Brother”) is particularly effective.
There’s still another story to Diamond Dogs which has nothing to do with apocalypses or Orwell: David succesfully staying in the game as an artist. At the time, the glam genre he’d hung his hat on was falling to pieces. For the first time, T-Rex’s new album was not a top 10 hit, and they never had another one. Mott the Hoople had failed to follow up “All the Young Dudes”. Was Bowie next? Would he join the rest of the glam rockers in obscurity, paved over by uncaring history?
Happily, Diamond Dogs was the album that achieved escape velocity, breaking free from Planet Glam. He left his old style behind, revealing that it had needed him more than he neededit. This is more than an album. It’s the sound of David fighting for his life and winning.
“Great” is a landmine in the English lexicon. It means “eminent or important”, but has picked up a secondary meaning of “qualitatively favorable”. Hitler was a great man, and Hitler wasn’t a great man. Both of these statements are true; sometimes important things are not good and vice versa.
Let’s Dance is great. The album broke Bowie in the United States, and it’s clearly one of the most important things he ever did. Soon Bowie would be on the run from its shadow, trying to recreate it and failing (Tonight), then unsuccessfully circling back to what he had before (Tin Machine). But time has diminished Let’s Dance, and made its weaknesses more apparent. You might say it’s dancing on feet of clay.
The songwriting is very smart (absolutely to a fault). The title track opens with harmonised vocals stepping upwards in thirds, a postmodern reference to the Beatles’ “Twist and Shout”. “China Girl” contains a pentatonic major melody that suggests the famous Oriental Riff. Everything’s allusions and callbacks, Bowie trying to fill dance-floors while remaining palatable to theater types.
The production glitters like diamonds. Cubic zirconium, maybe, but for a few minutes you’re having too much fun to notice. Nile Rodgers’ mix is all edge and cut, meant to decapitate dancers through a club PA. A careful listen reveals that the mid-range frequencies are scooped away, turning the album into a flashy but hollow facade. It’s all highs and lows, and lacks substance. There’s little guitar (why pay Stevie Ray Vaughan for his time and then not use him?), and when it appears it sounds thin and weak.
Side A contains all the hits, plus the forgettable “Without You”. Side B is the more uncertain and interesting one. “Richochet” puts its snare on the 1 and 3, giving it a staggered rhythm that sounds “off” even though it’s perfectly on. The lyrics are portentous enough for the drums to sound like bomb blasts, with Bowie’s vocals a robotic call to take shelter. Not a great track, but you finally see some struggle from Bowie, which is a relief on an album as mercilessly polished as an Apple tech demo.
“Cat People” is a remake, “Criminal World” a cover, but both come off fairly well in Nile Rodgers’ hands (although “Cat People” loses its mystery and rushes to the climax too early). “Shake It” is a disposable dance song that pads out the minutes, and then the album’s over. It’s shocking how fast the Let’s Dance ends, and how little music you’ve heard.
There was nowhere to go after Let’s Dance. It annexes itself with sheer power, the way nuclear warfare ends the need to its existence. Let’s Dance is exterior and nothing else: an amazing exterior, nothing really has depth or stays with you. Low grows stronger every time I listen to it, and Let’s Dance grows weaker.
The album is like its production job – a big but empty musical souffle. It was a monster that Bowie never needed to fear: he was better than it, always. Let’s Dance is great album, but I cannot say that it’s a good one.