Like a lot of people, I grew up with the music of David Bowie providing a soundtrack for my life. The first song of his I heard was Starman.
Appositely enough, I heard it leaning back on my radio, in the early hours of the morning, not knowing what time it was. Anne Nightingale played it and I loved it immediately. There was something about Bowie’s voice, the catchy melody and the single note guitar solo that combined so compellingly that I became an instant Bowie fan – and have been one ever since.
When a new album came out, I bought it. Ziggy Stardust was my first Bowie album, followed by Aladdin Sane – still one of my favourites, along with Station to Station, David Bowie, Low, David Live, Scary Monsters and 1: Outside. When Aladdin Sane came out, I bought it, loving the music – although Watch That Man had been mixed strangely and always sounded muddy to me – and liking Bowie’s eye-patch/pantomime image change.
Pin Ups was okay – one or two good covers, but I thought Sorrow, the single, was the weakest track. The next album, the brilliant Diamond Dogs, was excellent, especially Big Brother, When You Rock and Roll With Me, Rebel Rebel and Candidate.
Then came Young Americans. Strangely, I liked Across the Universe the most, and the title track next.
David Live, despite adverse criticism regarding its sound quality, is a wonderful, powerful live album. During this phase of Bowie’s career, I bought Hunky Dory and David Bowie. On the former, my favourite tracks were (and still are): Oh You Pretty Things, Kooks, The Bewlay Brothers, and Queen Bitch, particularly its opening guitar riff.
On the latter (now called Space Oddity, after the first track) the best track is Cygnet Committee, which is one of Bowie’s best songs.
After those came Station to Station, and if there’s a better Bowie album, then I’m not sure which one it is. It rocks. It’s so powerful, it’s amazing. Five long tracks, no real hits, except for the dubious TVC15, but it’s the title track, Wild is the Wind and Word on a Wing that make Station to Station so compelling.
And then there was Low and then Heroes – parts one and two of the so-called Berlin Trilogy, produced by (contrary to urban myth) Tony Visconti and not by by Eno. Low is excellent, especially the instrumentals. Heroes, the title track, is Bowie’s epic.
The instrumentals on Low and Heroes are excellent too. The only thing that spoils Heroes is the last track, which is in the wrong place. It should be put just before the instrumental tracks. Try it. It improves the album no end.
Lodger wasn’t like Low or Heroes. The songs are good, but I didn’t – and still don’t – understand what it was or what it was trying to do. I like Look Back in Anger, but that’s about it.
Stage was a superb live album, but Scary Monsters was so amazing that Stage got overshadowed. Up the Hill Backwards, Ashes to Ashes, the title track and Fashion, are all brilliant.
When the World Falls Down from Labyrinth is excellent, as are: This Is Not America, Baal, Under Pressure, Absolute Beginners, That’s Motivation, and Little Drummer Boy/Peace on Earth.
And then there was Let’s Dance. It’s an amazing Bowie album. The title track, China Girl, Modern Love and Cat People are the best tracks, although the slower version of Cat People from the film soundtrack album is a much better song. I like Loving the Alien, Blue Jean, Tonight and God Only Knows from Tonight, but it’s not Bowie’s best album. It’s not his worst either. That dubious honour goes to Never Let Me Down, the Bowie album that let everyone down. Bang Bang is okay. Day In Day Out is not as good as everyone says. Never Let Me Down is the one Bowie album to avoid. It’s no good. The three Tin Machine albums are – contrary to popular opinion – very good. The first album is great; the second has some great tracks on it, particularly a souped-up cover of Roxy Music’s If There is Something. The Live Oy Vey Baby is a good live album that showcases a good live band. It works for me.
Then there was Black Tie White Noise. It got great reviews and deservedly so. Miracle Goodnight is brilliant, as are I know it’s Gonna Happen Some Day, and the cover of Scott Walker’s Nite Flights.
One of Bowie’s best albums is The Buddha of Suburbia. A mix of songs and instrumentals, it’s lovely. It was followed by 1: Outside, another excellent album, with classic tracks such as Heart’s Filthy Lesson and Strangers When We Meet. Earthling was the next album, but I only like Little Wonder from it.
Hours is a soft and gentle album, and the last to feature guitarist Reeves Gabrels. There are heavy moments on it, none more so than on The Pretty Things Are Going to Hell, a brilliant track. It was Bowie’s last good studio album.
All Saints was a collection of previously-released instrumentals, and is a good album. Heathen is okay, but apart from a great cover of the Pixie’s Cactus, it’s just Bowie being pretty good, but not amazing. He’s a bit less amazing on Reality – not bad, after all, even Bowie couldn’t sink lower than Never Let Me Down, but Reality is not classic Bowie. It’s reasonable Bowie, but that’s all.
Finally, a few I’ve missed mentioning are Bowie at the Beeb, an excellent, wonderfully comprehensive live collection from a man at the height of his musical powers. If you’re lucky you’ll get the bonus CD with a fairly recent live performance at the BBC Radio Theatre. I’ve also skipped Live Santa Monica 72, Christiana F. and The Man Who Sold the World, which are all superb. The title track of The Man Who Sold the World was covered by Nirvana on their excellent Unplugged album.
Okay, that’s my quick round-up of the music of David Bowie. I grew up with it and I’m still growing up with it and still listening to it, but I think Bowie’s best music has already been recorded. Not that he needs to write another note; he’s contributed hugely to his culture, and has made many people happy. I’d like to be wrong. I’d like him to bring out a new album as great as Station to Station, Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, David Live, Young Americans, Scary Monsters, 1: Outside, The Buddha of Suburbia or Hours, but I don’t think that’s going to happen. However, I’m happy to wait and be proved wrong.
Written June 17th, 2008/Revised July 27th, 2010
© R J Dent (2010)