The incredible songcraft of David Bowie: a personal selection.

Posted: January 24, 2016 in david bowie, Uncategorized

 

bowie black and white

‘Can’t help thinking about me’– David Bowie with the Lower Third (1966)

Only 19 at the time, this early Bowie song is a little gem. It is of course locked into its period, has a ‘swinging London’ vibe about it, but this song shows how easily Bowie could mimic a certain type of pop style. The chord patterns or harmony of the song change from major to minor –rather like the Beatles ‘I’ll be back’ -and end up in unconventional places, before finally resolving the tension on the chorus, which is a Mod/Soul cry from Bowie, in his best ‘R’n’B’ voice.

The song shows that Bowie was a quirky songwriter from early on, with a good instinct for interesting song structures. The lyrics are somewhat perfunctory to the melody, but get the message across – a little bit of kitchen sink melodrama from Bowie.

 

‘London Boys’ – David Bowie (1966)

Bowie struck out solo on this incredible one off song that has a unique ‘lonely city’ atmosphere about it. Bowie’s emerging skill as a storyteller is evident here – about a young man who goes to London for the bright lights and thrills and ends up disillusioned. Lots of young people poured into the capital in the 60s, looking for a taste of the fab life. This is a theme explored in films like ‘Georgy Girl’ and ‘The Knack (and how to get it)’

Writer Charles Shaar Murray called this song Bowie’s ‘first great song’ and I am inclined to agree with him. Bowie piles on the pathos in his best ‘Anthony Newley’ voice as the melody moves up to the climax of the song, perfectly complemented by a woodwind arrangement that mirrors and reinforces the despairing mood of this remarkable song.

 

‘Wild eyed boy from freecloud’ (‘Space oddity’, 1969)

‘Space Oddity’ was of course a great song, but let’s focus on other lesser-known songs that show Bowie’s rapid development as a songwriter from that album of the same name (actually called ‘Man or words, man of music’ at the time)

Another ‘story song’, this song has a magical atmosphere to it, a kind of charming naiveté with a stagey sense of drama that would become part of the Bowie palette as a songwriter. Indeed, you can imagine this song as part of a West End show – something that Bowie had entertained the thought of at the time, claiming to be a writer rather than merely a singer and keen to not be seen as just another singer songwriter in the Paul Simon mould.

‘The wild eyed boy from freecloud’ showcases Bowie’s exploration with different shifts of mood. Orchestration – somewhat over-ornate in places – ‘answers’ Bowie’s strident melody in a voice that can be called ‘actorly’.

This is a song by an artist eager to be seen as someone who can write songs that expand on the pop form into conceptual ideas – a very post Sgt.Pepper thing. Bowie also had another influence to colour his music – Scott Walker – whose solo albums Bowie was a big fan of. Indeed, this song could easily have been covered by Scott and one can’t but help wonder if it ever crossed Bowie’s mind too?

 

‘After All’ (‘The man who sold the world’, 1970)

This weird waltz time song from ‘The man who sold the world’ conjures a spellbinding atmosphere, as Bowie casually strums a chord pattern that moves up the scale to a minor chord resolution that again, resolves nothing, as Bowie appears trapped in the endless cycle of the harmonic structure. One of his most intimate vocals, Bowie intones a tune that is very Jacques Brel in its mood and has a pessimistic air about it with enigmatic lyrics that paraphrase Aleister Crowley. Bowie also foreshadows his glam rock persona in the lyrics ‘we’re painting our faces and dressing in thoughts from the sky’. ‘After all’ is one of Bowie’s more enigmatic and compelling songs.

 

‘Quicksand’ (from ‘Hunky Dory’ 1971)

Bowie has said that on Hunky Dory he wanted to really prove himself as a songwriter and in many ways it is his most songwriterly album, with ‘Life on Mars’ of course, being the show stopping centrepiece.

‘Quicksand’ ends side one of the album – the songs preceding it, leaving the listener almost breathless with the skill and scope of the songs.

‘Quicksand’ starts in a very plain almost Neil Young type of way, with a wispy vocal melody that brings to mind the voice of Ray Davies of the Kinks. Bowie’s lyrics are dense and quasi-poetic, giving the ‘heads’ a lot to pore over; the words rich with occult and pop culture references. The tune is one of Bowie’s most beguiling, leading to the incredibly inventive and original major to diminished chord rise on the ‘don’t believe in yourself’ coda, that spirals off and ascends to a climax that somehow finds its home key again. The song also changes key twice without you hardly noticing, a trick only really subtle songwriters can manage to pull off without sounding gauche and corny.

Bowie turned another corner as a songwriter on this album and on this song: as a songwriter who could hook the listener in and then surprise them with strange harmonic twists.

 

‘Queen Bitch’ (‘Hunky Dory’, 1971)

Bowie’s easy appropriation of another artist’s style is evident on this song, a wry and accurate homage to the Velvet Underground.

‘Queen Bitch’ takes the three chord trick from Lou Reed’s ‘Sweet Jane’, speeds it up and then takes a very Bowie diversion on the bridge leading up to the chorus, which moves up a tone to a different key, before sliding back down to the verses which are in the key of C major. The lyrics are very Lou Reed – impassively sardonic and ‘street-jive’ and then Bowie camps it up on the chorus: ‘She’s so swishy in her satin and tat/ and her frock coat and bipperty bopperty hat/oh god I could do better than that!’

The song even ends on a ‘Uh-huh!’ and a dry laconic ‘you betcha’ perfectly imitating the off the cuff utterances of Lou Reed. ‘Queen Bitch’ is a song that comes in wraparound shades and would not have sounded out of place on ‘Ziggy Stardust’, which Bowie already had in mind before he had finished ‘Hunky Dory’.

 

 

‘Soul Love’ (from ‘The rise and fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars’, 1972)

After the opening dramatic mise en scene of ‘Five Years’, ‘Soul Love’ comes in; almost throw away in the doo wop chord cycle often favoured by Bowie’s friend, Marc Bolan. Except Marc Bolan would never have written the exhilarating bridge that leads to the chorus, or rather, the non-chorus, of the song.

A total surprise to the ears when first heard, the harmonic shifts are Bowie’s ‘surprise and tease’ method now mastered and he is able to give a fresh twist to a clichéd chord cycle.

The way the chords shift from minor to major on the ‘all I have is my love of love and love is not loving’ line has a great emotional pull to it and despite Bowie’s assertions that Ziggy Stardust was the most ‘plastic of rock stars’ and a creation of Warholian artiface, there is an authentic emotional resonance to his songs that contradict this. To put it simply, Bowie could write a great tune that moves the listener.

 

‘Moonage Daydream’ (‘The rise and fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars’ 1972)

After ‘Life on Mars’ this is often cited as being a great example of the classic Bowie/Ronson musical partnership. The version of this song recorded earlier for Arnold Corns is almost like a camped up limp-wrist gospel song, with a strained and off pitch vocal. When Bowie recorded it again on the ‘Ziggy’ sessions, (nailing the vocal in one take!) Mick Ronson toughened the song up, giving it a great Who-like power chord structure that turned the song into something else entirely. Let us also not forget the superb contributions of the other Spiders from Mars – Trevor Bolder and Mick Woodmansey who also excel on this recording.

The song starts with a tight power chord D, moving to an unusual F sharp, then moving through B minor, a passing A major to E major. This is a rock song with a very Bowie chord structure, a different kind of heavy rock style, one that came to characterise the sound of the Spiders from Mars: rock songs with unusual and interesting harmonic structures.

Mick Ronson’s celestial echo-plex guitar on the play out of the song is stunning; the space rock vibes and the emotive anthemic chorus makes this one of the album’s outstanding tracks.

 

‘Rock n Roll Suicide’ (The Rise and fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars’, 1972)

Coming after the Stooges-like blitz of ‘Suffragette City’ on ‘Ziggy Stardust’, this is a song that is one of the most brilliant (just under) three minutes of Bowie’s songwriting so far.

It starts in C major, moves to a dramatic E major and the melody perfectly matches the dramatic swoop of the harmonies, or chord changes. Starting off in an almost conversational way, Bowie’s voice builds on each verse, reciting some of his most powerful imagery in the lyrics. The melody is an inverted kind of gospel blues, with a Dylan-like phrasing. The drama of the song builds to the ‘Oh no love! You’re not alone!’ part and then the song in the last 30 seconds moves off into a totally astonishing harmonic roller-coaster climb that depicts the emotional desperation of the Ziggy character Bowie plays throughout the album.

The ‘gimme your hands…cos you’re wonderful’ play out must be one of the most evocative and powerful refrains ever recorded. The song ends on a great brief Mick Ronson guitar line and then, a quick sweep of strings and it’s gone, like a dramatic curtain coming down.

There are many highlights on the ‘Ziggy Stardust’ album, and ‘Rock n Roll Suicide’ ends the album on an even greater high. Any doubts about Bowie as a unique and great talent surely must have been dispelled with this song alone.

 

‘All the young dudes’ (given to Mott the Hoople, 1972, recorded by Bowie during the Aladdin Sane sessions)

The confidence surging through Bowie, the electric assurance of stealing the pop moment in 1972, and staking his claim as a great talent, is here on this song. A casual Dylan-like vocal delivery, a ‘whiter shade of pale’ Bach-like descending chord progression is almost too ordinary for Bowie. But then the song takes a great turn on the bridge leading to a chorus that echoes the verse chords, but throws in a totally unexpected G minor chord on the second part of the chorus hook. Again, Bowie playing with cliché and giving it a twist; ‘All the young dudes’ has a hymn-like anthemic vibe to it and is as catchy as hell with it too, but cool and never crass.

 

Aladdin Sane (1914, 1939, 197?) (‘Aladdin Sane’, 1973)

Bowie was seemingly fixated with dooms-day scenarios in his early 70s work, and this song is another imagining of a character on the edge of a world or society that is breaking down. The cryptic speculation of an imminent war in the song title brackets was a reflection of Bowie’s pessimistic state of mind. Was it a literal war, a psychic war, or a war to keep his sanity? Such was the ambiguous question marks over a lot of Bowie’s songs from this period. He was now a figure who projected intrigue; a strange and sexually provocative rock star. The cover shot of Bowie with the lightning flash across his face is one of the most iconic images of the era.

This song was something completely new from Bowie at the time, a song that has no real precedent in his work up to this point. Its melody: wistful and drifting around two notes, is built around spectral chord changes that give the song an eerie atmosphere. The chorus shifts into another key, moving up and down in tones giving it a see-sawing feeling; perhaps Bowie trying to evoke a feeling of the character’s mind breaking up.

The song has a lengthy section of improvised piano by the rather brilliant Mike Garson, who gives the song a strange, unhinged atmosphere. (The hypnotic two-note passage brings to mind the drone experiment of the Kinks’ ‘See my friends’)

’The random notes must have thrilled Bowie; microtones and percussive discords create a jazzy chaos until Bowie floats back into the mix with the chorus refrain, like a ghost from the imagined battlefield in the song.

‘Aladdin Sane’ is yet another milestone in Bowie’s compositional skills and is an example of how even with commercial success, he was willing to take musical risks. This is what made Bowie so much more than another singer songwriter rock star: he had a genuine hunger for surprise and discovery and was willing to push his songs into unchartered extremes.

 

‘Time’ (from ‘Aladdin Sane’, 1973)

There is something about this track that is so of its time – the film ‘Cabaret’ had presented a powerful image of Berlin in the era when Nazism was on the rise: one that was wicked and lewd, with drag queens and the garish and brash character of Sally Bowles, drinking and screwing her way through life in a devil may care, decadent swagger. Bowie as usual, was sucking it all in and ‘Time’ could be something right out of ‘Cabaret’ – a bawdy, camp and existential meditation on mortality and how time is going to eventually get us all – ‘demanding Billy Dolls and other friends of mine’ alluding to Bowie hanging out in New York with proto glam punks the New York Dolls.

Although the songs on ‘Aladdin Sane’ were  written while touring America, and tracks like ‘Watch that Man’ and ‘Jean Genie’ have a strong blues rock flavour to them, Bowie brought a melancholic northern European atmosphere to the album with this track and the title song, as if determined to assert his European identity and not get too sucked into Americana.

The stagey delivery of ‘Time’ is backed by the strident avant jazz piano of Mike Garson whose voicings enhance Bowie’s camp and melodramatic delivery.

‘Time’ is Bowie in dramatis personae, delivering a tune that builds to an exasperated climax. Bowie is now branching out as a songwriter, refining his growing skill for infusing rock with a different voice, subverting the macho cock rock of straight denim and boogie audiences of the time – especially in America, who didn’t quite know what to make of this Anglo-pansexual rock star.

 

Lady Grinning Soul (Aladdin Sane, 1973)

The final track on the album is a totally bewitching song that has all the elegance of a John Barry tune, the verse chords shifting in a flamenco style; a perfect bookend to the first song on side two, ‘Time’.

Bowie sings in a voice he would later display again in ‘Wild is the wind’, shifting up and down the vocal register, slipping into falsetto with ease. The chorus, starting with the line ‘and when the clothes are strewn’ is a totally unpredictable harmonic shift and Bowie takes the listener into the aural equivalent of a maze. The effect is almost disorientating but nonetheless, thrilling.

The harmonic structure is once again, strange and inventive, as Bowie ends the song on the repeated line ‘she will be your living end’, the chords moving up and down semi-tones and shifting from major to minor, now the composer’s signature and recognisable as a ‘Bowie move’ in the harmonic colouring of the song.

 

‘Candidate/Sweet Thing’ (from ‘Diamond Dogs’ 1974)

As with ‘Time’, Bowie now could now summon a dramatic conceptual piece at will. This second track on ‘Diamond Dogs’ is astonishing in its scope, starting with Bowie crooning in a lower register than he’s ever displayed before, with a melody that has an alluring and Sinatra-like phrasing to it. The song builds to a climax, with Bowie at the top of his range, singing a tune that recalls the style of Leonard Bernstein in its dramatic sweep. This is no ‘West side story’ though; this is Bowie in dystopian mode, in an imagined city where mutants stalk the streets. ‘If you want it, boys, get it here, thing’ being one of the strangest lyrical refrains hitherto. The whole atmosphere of the song invokes a doomed romantic encounter, with the music then morphing into a change of tempo, Bowie becoming more and more desperate as the melody finally gets swallowed in a sweeping change of key, ending in a chugging noise of industrial grinding guitar and robotic rhythm.

‘Candidate/Sweet Thing’ is Bowie on glam Broadway, a show tune for the mutant pop generation who were by now, expecting nothing less than more weirdness from Bowie, who never takes the easy listening route.

 

‘Can you hear me’ (‘Young Americans’, 1975)

In 1975, Bowie did one of the most audacious volte face movements in his career – he ditched the Glam and went Soul, complete with image make-over and songs that were pitched at the American R’N’B market. It was as radical a move as any in his career and his music over night became unrecognisable from the Bowie of ‘Ziggy Stardust’; even Bowie’s singing style was different.

‘Can you hear me’ is one of the most straightforward songs on the album, so deftly crafted in the style of a slow groove soul song, it almost could be Gladys Knight or Al Green. Bowie intones a lyric that is carried by a great tune that has a slinky and intimate atmosphere to it. Bowie had been listening intently to the music of Philly Soul – big at the time – and in particular, the music of Barry White. This is Bowie at his most authentic as a soul man; an example of his genius for assimilating a style quickly and making it sound like he owns it.

 

‘Station to Station’ (Station to Station 1976)

The epic track that opens the album of the same name is an astonishing piece of music and a track that can be described as having three distinct sections to it. The song’s verse melody (‘the return of the thin white duke, throwing darts in lovers’ eyes’) is one of Bowie’s most strange and original tunes, moving from C minor to G major, then to a totally unexpected F sharp to D major, with Bowie crooning in his recent ‘Sinatra/Scott Walker’ lower tenor voice. Bowie sings throughout with total conviction, the harmonic structure shifting beneath his soaring melodies to give an unsettling feeling, reflecting Bowie’s fractured state of mind during this period. The counter melody played on an organ on the last repeat of the ‘return of the thin white duke’ refrain gives the song a sinister feeling, this is music that shows Bowie’s compositional skills developing into cinematic textures, soon to be fully realised on the instrumentals on ‘Low’. The musical ambition of this track signals another startling musical change from Bowie.

 

Word on a wing’ (From ‘Station to Station’, 1976)

His record company were thrilled that Bowie had finally broken America in a big way, with ‘Fame’ from the ‘Young Americans’ album reaching number one. Then, as if to confound his record company and his new found ‘soul’ audience again, he relocated to Europe and went back to his European muse – with just enough of a trace of the new ‘funky Bowie’ in the mix. ‘Station to Station’ was and is an incredible album. It only has six tracks on it, but every one of them is great.

One of the great tracks is ‘Word on a wing’, a song that is almost like a hymn in its opening gospel simplicity until it takes unexpected harmonic turns and ends up in a totally different place to its home key. All of this happens without the listener really noticing, as the song comes across as so natural and deceptively simple; an illusion that masks a harmonically complex structure. Bowie sings as if he is lost in some spiritual crisis, addressing his creator: ‘Lord, I kneel and offer you my word on a wing’…then with the agnostic line ‘and I’m trying hard to fit among your scheme of things’ but finally offering that he is ‘ready to shake the scheme of things’ – a phrase with more than a hint of dramatic irony about it, as Bowie was about to embark on the most radical and experimental phase of his career so far.

‘Word on a wing’ is a classic Bowie ballad, the kind that only he can do and get away with, and the melody is one of Bowie’s best, shape shifting and turning new corners almost all through the song.

 

‘Always crashing in the same car’ (‘Low’, 1977)

Like ‘Young Americans’, the album ‘Low’ was another Bowie turn that few expected. It was not well received when first released and some critics bemoaned its lack of lyrics and proper songs; one side dedicated to instrumentals. However, those critics soon had to admit they were wrong – ‘Low’ is now regarded by many as one of Bowie’s best albums.

Of the songs on the album, ‘Always crashing in the same car’ is probably the most accessible but that is not to say it is ordinary. The song hangs on a ‘retro doo wop’ chord sequence, echoing ‘Drive In Saturday’ but then, as if to lure the listener with the comfort of familiarity, Bowie twists the song form into new shapes, gradually reaching a phrase where Bowie stops singing and lets the guitar carry the melody, snaking and spiraling where the vocal might have been. The music here is almost sarcastic and deliberately going for a kitsch effect, as if Bowie is taking the piss out of his own song.

The song is half spoken, with a tune that is as ambivalent and as deadpan as the lyrics. The song is remarkable because it is Bowie taking a form, deconstructing it and reshaping it into something new and something that is the indefinable ‘essence of a Bowie song’, making something so normal on the surface sound weird, but never alienating the listener. Bowie’s new songs on ‘Low’ have pop hooks, but they are never obvious nor conventional.

 

‘Warzsawa’ (‘Low’ 1977)

What a surprise side two of ‘Low’ was at the time. No artist as popular as Bowie had ever had the nerve to devote a whole side of an album to instrumentals but by now, it should have been a given that Bowie was not an artist to do anything in the conventional way. This track is a collaboration with Brian Eno but has an unmistakable Bowie presence all over it. Eno apparently layered the doomy sounding single notes while Bowie was away from the studio and Bowie was thrilled with the results when he came back; immediately setting to work on the track.

The piece is almost glacial in its slow moving ambience; creating a soundscape of a Europe haunted by the Holocaust. The simple melody that comes in after 16 or so bars of synthesiser drones, is very reminiscent of Kraftwerk: a tune that is linear and precise, with no American blues influence whatsoever. This is music from the ‘european canon’ Bowie sang about on ‘Station to Station’.  The  harmonic textures shift from major into minor (again, a distinctive trademark of Bowie’s composing) until Bowie comes in singing with his wordless vocalese, creating bleak and mournful textures. At one point, his harmonies hit a discordant cluster, not unlike ‘Lux Aeterna’ from the ‘2001: a Space Odyssey’ film soundtrack.

‘Warzsawa’ is not only a great track on an album, it is one of the late 20th Century’s greatest pieces of contemporary classical music. Yes, it really is that good, and composer Philip Glass thought so highly of it, he recorded a version of it with an orchestra.

 

‘Sons of the silent age’ (‘Heroes’, 1977)

1977 was an incredibly fertile period for Bowie as any fan knows and he kept that fire going for at least the next three years. The album ‘Heroes’ of course has the magnificent title track, but let’s praise another track that is not often given the time of day.

‘Sons of the silent age’ comes right at the end of the album, almost like it is an after thought and it’s an example of Bowie bringing that aforementioned ‘essence of Bowie’ to the proceedings again. The song anticipates the gothic vibe of some forthcoming new wave or post punk, with a melody and vocal phrasing that could be The Psychedelic Furs except they didn’t yet exist.

The chorus is an unexpected mood shift; whimsical, and slips into pastiche in its use of the cliché ‘baby I will never let you go’…it is Bowie the arch pop ironist, elevating the form to pastiche or denigrating it, depending on your point of view. ‘Sons of the silent age’ is not a great song, but it is a very good one and shows that Bowie has long since been so confident with the traditional song form, he can turn it on its head when the mood takes him and even mock it.

 

‘Fantastic voyage’ (‘Lodger’ 1979)

This low-key opening track to ‘Lodger’ is a great song and shows that Bowie has lost none of his skills for traditional song craft. The harmonic structure of the song starts off quite conventional but then turns into a minor key shift, casting a cloud of doubt over the songs relaxed and upbeat opening bars.  The tune Bowie sings is one of those that only Bowie crafts; a melody that lures you and then takes you off somewhere else, somewhere you don’t expect. One of the most conventional songs on the album, but again, far from ordinary, ‘Fantastic Voyage’ is an often overlooked gem because it is so unassuming.

Boys Keep Swinging (Single and ‘Lodger’, 1979)

One of my favourite Bowie singles, this song makes this list because it is an example of Bowie throwing caution to the wind and using the Brian Eno ‘Oblique Strategies’ cards to bring about a spontaneous musical moment. The cards were designed to help musicians and artists – anyone really – to take decision making out of their hands and let the messages on the cards lead or prompt the creative idea. Hence, Bowie got the ‘Reverse Roles’ instruction, so had the band playing instruments that were unfamiliar to them.

The song itself is a wry, knowing throwback to the Ziggy to Diamond Dogs era Bowie – a rock song, that of course, coming from the post ‘Heroes’ pen of Bowie, is elliptical and very much in inverted commas. The song follows a pretty routine chord progression on the verses, but then, where a lesser writer would have gone to the normal chord to resolve the cycle, Bowie goes to a minor voicing, bringing in a brief change of mood that offsets the throwaway fun vibe of the song. Yet again, Bowie takes cliché and subverts it.

I also like this song because it is Bowie having fun and showing a deadpan sense of humour in the lyrics.

The chorus is a great hook, with camp hands on hips backing vocals, anticipated by a rock n roll riff that is played firmly tongue in cheek. The play out too is great; kronky out of tune guitar that somehow perfectly suits the chaotic atmosphere of the song.

‘Boys Keep Swinging’ is Bowie at his playful best, an artist quite literally willing to throw the cards in the air and go wherever they land.

 

‘Teenage Wildlife’ (‘Scary Monsters’, 1980)

With an intro that recalls the pounding two chord chug of ‘Heroes’ this at first sounds like Bowie is referencing himself in a too obvious way, but as the song unfolds, within the first minute and a half, you realise that this is a very different song, the melody and harmony shifting almost too fast to keep up, climaxing in a crescendo of a chorus that like the rest of the song, is part of a complex harmonic structure that snakes and weaves all the way through. The song takes another turn about four minutes in and the effect is almost too much to take in, with Bowie delivering one of his ‘histrionic’ vocals. This song is a very under-aired and underrated gem in Bowie’s already formidable musical canon, where by the end of the 70s, his albums amounted to a legacy of influence and pop culture shaking brilliance.

 

‘China Girl’ (‘Let’s Dance’, 1983)

This co-write with Iggy Pop (who wrote the lyrics) is a great example of Bowie’s commercial instinct for a subversive pop song, albeit wrapped up in a rich and luxurious production for the new pop 80s generation.

It has been speculated whether the lyric is about drug addiction (both Bowie and Iggy were trying to stay clean in their time in Berlin – could the song be a reference to ‘China White’, a pure form of heroin?) or whether it is literally about an abusive love affair with an Asian woman. Whatever it is about, the melody and harmonic structure from Bowie is a sumptuous delight; this is a tune that goes places and takes several turns, building to a dramatic climax: ‘I stumble into town/ just like a sacred cow/ visions of swastikas in my head/ and plans for everyone’. I’ve included this song on here, because it has been somewhat marginalised by its obvious commercial appeal, but this is a Bowie pop song that is deceptively subtle and has all the hallmarks of a great Bowie tune. He also puts in a superb and emotive vocal performance on this track. ‘Let’s Dance’ is an album some Bowie fans are a bit sniffy about – ‘it’s too commercial’ being a criticism of it. But this song, the title track and ‘Modern Love’ are songs that show he could hit the mainstream and have massive international hits when the mood took him.

 

‘Absolute Beginners’ (1986)

Critics and fans alike are fond of calling the 80s Bowie’s creative nadir decade. Even Bowie himself disowned a lot of his music from that time. However, that is not to say he didn’t have the occasional flashes of brilliance and this song, written for the film soundtrack of the same name, is a classic piece of Bowie songwriting, the kind he could probably do in his sleep. The song has echoes of the 70s Bowie in its opening ‘bop-bop-ba-ooh’ hook and then goes into a simply gorgeous tune that Burt Bacharach would have been proud to have written. The tune has a lush and sublime romantic mood but Bowie makes it the coolest love song you ever heard. The chorus is great too, a classic Bowie melody, emotive, commanding and almost like a torch ballad in its dramatic impact. The song manages to avoid cliché and as usual for Bowie, takes some neat and surprising turns.

If Bowie is not remembered for much from the 80s, he certainly should be remembered for this song from that decade.

 

‘Amazing’ (Tin Machine, 1989)

Tin Machine was Bowie wanting to be ‘just the singer in a band’ but of course, being Bowie, this plea for anonymity didn’t hang. Critics have mostly panned Bowie’s Tin Machine short phase (2 albums and a live release) as being a wrong footed move in an unwelcome direction. NME scathingly called it Bowie’s ‘pub rock band’.

I didn’t mind the first Tin Machine album at all, in fact I enjoyed it at the time. It was Bowie stretching out, relaxing, letting his hair down a bit and just having a good time, rediscovering what it was like to be in a band again after so long. I think he was in way, trying to clear his head, clear the decks and just bask in a background role so as not to feel any pressure.

Tin Machine has been called his answer to the Seattle grunge scene, but a lot of this is high octane, jammed out rock and not grunge at all. In amongst the scuzzed up rock riffs there is this track, ‘Amazing’ and it’s a good Bowie song that deserves an unearthing. The tune has all the hallmarks of a good Bowie melody and the chords beneath it move into some unexpected places on the chorus, as is a trademark of Bowie songs. It’s all the better for being brief and is a tuneful oasis in an album that is not high on melody.

 

‘Buddha of Suburbia’ (single and soundtrack to TV show, 1993)

As if to show that he could still write an old style Bowie song, with echoes of ‘Hunky Dory’ and even a lift from ‘All the madmen’ on the play out, Bowie released this brilliant song with a wry nod to his past; putting paid to those who said he didn’t or couldn’t write ‘proper songs’ anymore. The melody climbs and spirals, Bowie singing in his affected Anthony Newley- or is it Ray Davies? –voice, to a chorus in which his vocal soars, not unlike his singing on ‘Wild is the wind’.

The recording also has a jangly 12 string guitar throughout, an echo from ‘Ziggy Stardust’. The proliferation of references on this song gives it a vaguely nostalgic air and is one of Bowie’s best ‘pop’ songs since ‘Absolute Beginners’ from the 80s. ‘Buddha of Suburbia’ is Bowie pulling all the stops from his bag of songwriting tricks.

 

‘Hallo Spaceboy’ (1.Outside, 1995)

Bowie’s so called creative recovery is generally agreed to have started in the early 90s when he released the soundtrack to ‘Buddha of Suburbia’ and the album ‘Black tie, white noise’ in 1993.

‘Hallo Spaceboy’ from the ‘1.Outside’ album (that had Bowie re-uniting with Eno) didn’t get anywhere near the attention it deserved when it was first released. It took a Pet Shop Boys collaboration remix to bring it to wider acclaim. It was Bowie back to being sci-fi weird and obliquely referencing his past but determined at the same time to forge ahead to a different future.

‘Hallo Spaceboy’ is a good Bowie tune, with some weird almost atonal changes in it that are not the root of the home key and this makes it jarring on the ear until you get used to it and then you realise it really is quite brilliant. Bowie is back on form on this song and the artistic renaissance of Bowie was now official.

 

‘Thursday’s Child’ (Hours, 1999)

One of Bowie’s most over-looked releases, the ‘Hours’ album has a lot of good to great Bowie moments on it and this song is one of the great ones.

A melancholic minor key tune with Bowie in yearning voice rises to a lovely chorus in which the chords shift into unusual places, reflecting the dark to light tension in the song. Bowie seems already thinking of his mortality and how he will be remembered: ‘Something about me stood apart’ he sings, as if he hasn’t quite figured out his appeal to his audience himself.

 

‘Sunday’ (‘Heathen’, 2002)

Bowie had continued to follow the career of Scott Walker and said many complimentary things about his music and determination to not follow already over-mined musical seams. This track is very Scott Walker, albeit Bowie absorbing an influence and making it part of his own style. ‘Heathen’ is a fresh start of kinds. It is Bowie forcing himself to go places he had never been before. Although he doesn’t manage it for all of the album, this opening track is a great Bowie moment; a melody that shape shifts and creates a sense of Bowie entering his autumn years, a man all too aware of the weight of his past, yet looking for a way to leave it behind. What lies ahead is uncertainty, Bowie is not the brash, assured man he once was and on this track, you get the sense he is looking for the next ladder out of normality. It’s a great track and a song that foreshadows the more reflective and rueful Bowie of his last two albums. As Bowie enters late middle age, he is more than willing to rage against the dying of the light.

 

‘The Loneliest Guy’ (Reality, 2003)

The Scott Walker influence is once again evident here. Bowie sings a melody that emerges from the heavily reverbed fog of the mix and shines as good as any of his melodies. The song is another indication of Bowie wanting to avoid rock and all its incumbent clichés, the mood is jazzy and down tempo. It’s a song that exists in its own time and takes its time too. A new Bowie is emerging in this song and it is a Bowie who is prepared to once again, walk into the wilderness alone if that is what it takes to make his artistic quest valid to himself, never mind his audience.

‘Where are we now?’ (‘The Next Day’, 2013)

An elegiac Bowie singing a beautiful melody that, so late into his career, he showed that he was still a songwriter who could be inspired and inspiring. The tune is wistful and haunting in the best sense of the word. The climb to the chorus is the craft of a master songwriter at work. The chorus is very moving and this is one of Bowie’s most affecting songs, with an emotional resonance that borders on pathos. It is the sound of a man taking stock on his life and of course, his long-standing audience could relate to the question posed by the song title.

 

‘Sue (or a season in crime)’ single, and track on ‘Nothing has changed’ 2014

The album ‘The Next Day’, a surprise release in 2013 after 10 years of no musical activity, was well received, although not the radical album that many of his long standing fans had hoped for. ‘Sue’ (a season in crime) put that slight disappointment right.

The whole song makes for uncomfortable listening and the vocal melody echoes the torment of the character in the song, framed by a noir jazz backing of horns and saxes that drift in menacing atonal clusters. It is a song indebted to the more abstract aspects of Miles Davis, or even the space jazz of Sun Ra. It is a Bowie we have never heard before; a man finally able to break free of his past.

 

‘Blackstar’ (single, 2015)

Before the album of the same title, there was this: the first new track from Bowie of 2015, arriving in the dark month of November. Another elliptical twist from Bowie, following the dissonance of ‘Sue (or a season in crime) ; ‘Blackstar’ is nearly ten minutes of gothic electronica and the message is clear: Bowie is back to his experimental muse, the one that never gave a damn of who he might alienate from his audience.

The song centres around an Arabian harmonic structure, with Bowie singing an almost medieval dirge over the top of it. The harmonic minor key moves into a second section, a more optimistic major key melody rising from the bleak pessimistic feeling of the first part. The effect is like sunshine breaking through brooding clouds before being swallowed again as the doomy motif returns.

It is almost impossible now to listen to this track and not hear death in the music. Bowie knew his time was coming and he seems to have decided that if this was to be his last gesture, he was going to go out with no compromise to his art.

A stunning track and one that will endure as much as his many other classics.

 

‘I can’t give everything away’ (‘Blackstar’, 2016)

We didn’t know it at the time, that Bowie’s final release was a swan song, an album that now has an air of imminent death about it. Bowie’s last album showed that he had lost none of his thrilling edge as an artist capable of surprise and also, could still compose a lovely aching melody such as this song. The way the chorus glides into the vocal refrain and lingers on the word ‘away’ is beautiful and sad; a reminder that the dying Bowie was an artist with even more great music in him.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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