Thursday, 21 January 2016

David Bowie - Blackstar, White Noise

Perhaps it helps not being a fan per sé, but the feeling of loss since waking to the awful news on that fateful Monday morning of 11th January 2016 still lingers, if tempered by subsequently overdosing on the better parts of David Bowie's back catalogue. Bowie's large but not excessive musical back pages have now become his legacy. Let it not be forgotten that he was also an actor, and he influenced fashion, theatre, video, and changed rigid gender perceptions, even I suspect amongst the most macho of builders' labourers, I mean, just look at The Spiders! However there can be no question that what Bowie will be chiefly remembered for is his massive contribution to popular music.

The first Bowie album I bought new was Low, as prior to that, although aware of the singles via Top of the Pops and later my secondhand copy of Changesonebowie, I was a rock fan, and rock fans didn't buy singles, they bought albums, there was a strong demarcation and ne'er the twain shall meet. It seems odd now, but for that reason it never occurred to me at the time that Bowie was an album artist as much as if not more than he was a pop star who lived off his 45s. It didn't take me long to work up the hill backwards from that groundbreaking opening salvo of what became known as the Berlin trilogy, and by the time I saw him live for the one and only time at a baking hot Milton Keynes Bowl on 3rd July 1983 on the Let's Dance tour I was as familiar with his music as most of that seething, happy, and sunburned mass of people. Looking at the setlist now, it seems he played everything anyone could have wanted. Happy days...

Nobody asked, but here's my own personal perspective on Bowie's musical legacy, with an obviously highly subjective mark out of ten for each album. Nothing too heavy, mainly impressionistic, and I may even nominate my favourite, bloody difficult though that is. This list sticks to Bowie's original studio output, and so excludes Pin Ups and compilations. I have also left out his two soundtracks, as I am unfamiliar with them, and, well, because I can! I would also point out that prior to this exercise I had not heard the first album entitled David Bowie, nor Never Let Me Down or Tin Machine II, and only cursory listens had been given to the first Tin Machine album, and to everything from Black Tie White Noise through to Reality (with the exception of 1.Outside) - see, I told you I wasn't a proper fan! These omissions have now been remedied as far as possible.

So, put your helmet on, jump on, and hang on to yourself...

Here's a handy Spotify playlist with a track from each album, and to make it a tad more interesting, not necessarily the obvious choice, but one that hopefully represents each album's mood...

David Bowie
Release date 1st July 1967
6/10 (first impression)

Here we find Mr Jones chanelling Newley, Barratt, and Ray Davies, and maybe Scott Walker doing Brel. The end result is something of a curio, but quite fun all the same. He pronounces "scones" to rhyme with cone, the bounder!

David Bowie
Release date 4th November 1969

And...start again...we'll forget the first one...Bowie's second self-titled album was re-released in 1972 as "Space Oddity", for obvious reasons. That song alone is worth an extra half mark in my ranking, the rest mostly being a two years too late psychedelically tinged singer-songwriter excursion, but enjoyable nonetheless. The occasional instrumental embellishment, skewed lyrics and some fairly complex arrangements hint at what is to come.

The Man Who Sold The World
Release date 4th November 1970

Despite containing the first earful of Mick Ronson and Mick "Woody" Woodmansey, The Man Who Sold The World has not aged well, plodding along for the most part in 70s hard rock style, and it is a bit of a sideways step from the promise shown on the previous record. Highlights are the pastoral shades of After All which give the listener a welcome break from the lumpen and leaden rock music that surrounds it. That, and the title track, simply for the strength of its tune. The Supermen also might have had what it takes but is bogged down by a club-footed arrangement. On this LP you can hear Bowie floundering around looking for but failing to find that certain "something". By far the most daring thing about The Man Who Sold The World was its quickly withdrawn original "dress" cover, which also makes it the most valuable Bowie album for the record collector.

Hunky Dory
Release date 17th December 1971

Given that last record...where the fuck did this come from??! Bowie's muse hadn't so much as landed as moved in with all its belongings and put its feet firmly under the table. It must have been down to Trevor Bolder replacing Tony Visconti on bass! Possibly...

If you don't know this album you are either very young, or you've not been paying attention. Stylistically shifting, surreal and timeless, there are simply so many great songs on this record, if this had been Bowie's only album, rather than being a jumping-off point for the proto-Ziggy, it would still be spoken of in hushed terms of wonder. Or...bleedin' marvellous!

The Rise and Fall Of Ziggy Stardust & The Spiders From Mars
Release date 6th June 1972

Bowie was still very much "ours" when this platter fell to Earth. With hindsight it is bizarre how this album only got to No.5 compared with Hunky Dory's No.3, given that it is now probably Bowie's best known platter, at least on this side of the Pond. Mind you, guess how high it got in the USA? No.75, that's what! Astonishing but true.

Marc Bolan may have invented glam rock, but Bowie knew more than three Chuck Berry chords, and with the backing of the best rock band in Hull, starring a nascent Mick Ronson on shiny new Gibson, took the glam racket to previously unimagined places. You all know that anyway, so I'll stop now.

Aladdin Sane
Release date 13th April 1973

Ziggy's rock'n'roll high jinks on the road in the YouEssAy, and the first of many album appearances on the piano for Mike Garson, whose lyrical runs light up the the sublime title track, Time and Lady Grinning Soul in particular. It was a long time since I last played this record, I'd forgotten how good it is and yes, I prefer it to Ziggy. That gatefold cover is something else, too. Unsurprisingly given what preceded it, this was Bowie's first No.1 album in the UK, and the first album the USA took much notice of, rising to a giddy No.17 on the charts.

Diamond Dogs
Release date 24th May 1974

The first album from Bowie that links the past and the future, an odd mix of big-haired glam rock and soulful excursions, some of it would have formed a soundtrack to an abortive stage production of Orwell's 1984. Not played it in years before writing this piece, and I'm still of the opinion that it does not quite gel. Still a decent album though.

Young Americans
Release date 7th March 1975

Tapping into the current muiscal zeitgeist was now what was expected of Bowie, and coupled with his love of Motown, Young Americans was the natural result. It's been called "fake soul", "a pastiche", "plastic soul", and worse by its detractors, but as ever our man has moulded the influence into something indelibly Bowie. Full of soulful tearjerkers and effortless funk, Young Americans is a gem. I used to have the album on pre-recorded cassette, I only bought it because Bowie's cover of Across The Universe was the soundtrack to what I naively thought was the discovery of "love" at a school disco...simpler times, although it didn't feel that way back then.

Station To Station
Release date 23rd January 1976

"It's not the side effects of's too late...the European cannon is here" sang Bowie on the urgently paced, sprawling title track to his latest album, a song and an album that again bridged his past to his future. Ill advised Nazi salutes, TV chat show appearances coked out of his mind, the game was as good as up. Recognising that unless he escaped the drug-crazed surreal world of hangers on that was L.A,, it would be the death of him, dropping that line into the song was a statement of future intent. Station To Station the track and TVC 15 point at what is coming, while the rest of this fine LP carries on mining the rich seam of white soul in some style.

Release date 14th January 1977

Another "Whoa!" moment, and a bold step into the unknown for Bowie, both geographically and sonically. Relocating to Berlin with Iggy Pop, both with detox on their minds, Bowie teamed up with Brian Eno whose unconventional methods helped The Thin White Duke clean up, put on some weight and become merely slightly underweight, and produce one side of very left-field pop, and another of Krautrock influenced ambient instrumental music that must have lost him more fans than it gained.  Low was the first Bowie album I bought new, and with few preconceptions. I thought then it was wonderful and still do.

Release date 14th October 1977

You know you're a national treasure when Team GB walks out to your best known tune at our home Olympics. The old dame must have been proud! "Heroes" the song is a bona-fide all time classic and will probably last longer than any other Bowie song. Old Bobby Fripp had a big part in making it sound like it did with his unique style rattling the speakers. The only reason this record does not score 10 is that it was basically Low part two, and although a more sophisticated record, it didn't quite have the jaw-dropping impact, on me at any rate. My, my...

Release date 18th May 1979

The last of the Berlin trilogy, although perhaps a better name would have been be the Eno trilogy, as this album has little physical connection to the erstwhile German capital as far as I can tell, being recorded in Switzerland and the USA during tour breaks, although the songs may well have been at least partly penned in Berlin. Pop creeps back in to the Eurocentric experimentation as the Bowie-Eno partnership comes to an end. A planned instrumental second side along the lines of the previous two LPs was ditched in favour of a more traditional song format throughout, but there are still large helpings of weirdness spread all over this record.

Honourable mentions must be made here for Iggy Pop's The Idiot and Lust For Life, both written and recorded during the Berlin period, and Bowie is all over The Idiot in particular. The two LPs contain superior versions of the songs Bowie wrote for or co-wrote with his friend, namely China Girl, Sister Midnight (which with a new set of cut up lyrics became Red Money on Lodger), and Tonight, as well as maintaining the dislocated and slightly sinister airs of the Berlin trilogy.

Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps)
Release date 12th September 1980

If I were allowed only one Bowie album as I floated away in my tin can, this would be it. The album where experimentation and pop perfection get it on for forty or so minutes of musical eargasm. Utterly, utterly brilliant. If you disagree you are very, very wrong. :)

Let's Dance
Release date 14th April 1983

The album that made Bowie the biggest music star in the world for a few years, culminating in his triumphant appearance at Live Aid. Teaming up with Nile Rodgers was only going to result in a marvellous dance-pop album, and that is exactly what happened. I defy even the most morose goth not tap his or her feet to the title track. Marvellous stuff!

Release date 1st September 1984

Not as bad as I remember it, possibly because I've now listened to Never Let Me Down, next to which any old average Bowie fare is going to shine like a polished gemstone. Mind you, four of the songs on here are cover versions, which more than hints that Bowie was fast running out of steam. Also, the sublime take on the Beach Boys' God Only Knows is by far the best track on here, and that says it all!

Never Let Me Down
Release date 27th April 1987
3/10 (I'm feeling generous) (first and probably final impression - I doubt I'll listen to it again!)

Even a man as talented as David Bowie can be (snow) blinded by international mega-stardom, and if ever there was proof that global domination does nothing for the artist's muse, this clunker of an album is it. From the very first crash of THAT awful 80s drum sound on opener Day In Day Out I just knew that this record was going to be a stinker. I sat through it all...and I was right. God, a lot of pop music in the 1980s was rubbish, was it not?

Tin Machine - Tin Machine & Tin Machine II
Release date 22nd May 1989 & 2nd September 1991
6/10 & 6.5/10 (II - first impression)

See that vein throbbing in Bowie's forehead? The Duke is raging and obviously wants to expunge all that bland corporate pop pap he'd been suckered into with an overdose of testosterone fuelled noise rock. Tin Machine were Bowie's first proper group since the late 1960s, as the Spiders were a mere fictional beast, and in any event only (ha!) a backing band.

Powered along by Iggy's sometime rhythm section, the punchy R&B-tight Sales brothers, guitarist Reeves Gabrels screeches and howls over the top of these democratically conceived non-songs, and the end result is a relentless steel-edged hard as nails mix of punky attitude and avant rock. The fans must have hated it. II is slightly more restrained and has a smidgen more melody, and this being the first time I've listened to it I am relieved to find that it is actually better than its harsh reputation.

Ultimately, Tin Machine were a necessary catharsis for Bowie, but something of a flawed experiment. If Bowie was avant anything, he was avant pop, and his innate sense of melody did not sit well with Gabrels' eardrum rattling avant rock dissonance. Move on...

From here on in, with the exception of 1.Outside and the last two albums, I'm entering virgin teritory, so these are only mere impressions from one or two listens via Spotify...I know, I know, but it's not like Bowie's estate needs the money, is it?

Black Tie, White Noise
Release date 27th April 1987
7/10 (first impression)

Discounting his final two albums, this was Bowie's last number 1 in the UK, from the days when albums sold in such quantities as to make the achievement a notable event. Re-connecting with Nile Rodgers, Black Tie, White Noise is an album of modern dance music containing some classy tunes and top drawer playing from a stellar cast. A poignant last hook-up with Mick Ronson is on here, as well as some interesting covers, namely Cream's I Feel Free, a version of Scott Walker's Nite Flights that arguably betters the original, and a very tongue-in-cheek I Know It's Gonna Happen Someday, or as Bowie puts it a "totally camp" take on "me singing Morrissey singing me". Marvellous!

The Buddah of Suburbia
Release date 8th November 1993

My rambling missive initially did not contain an entry for this album, as I mistakenly mistook it for a soundtrack. I have since been admonished and told to go sit on the naughty step by record producer Lee Fletcher, who has this to say about this admittedly rather good album:

"The Buddha Of Suburbia is not a soundtrack album, it's inspired by the music he wrote for the series but is an original Bowie record, and is the stepping stone into 1.Outside territory. It is a key album for him, and one of his personal faves, and the one that reintroduced many of the 'Eno' working methods thus ushering in their 90's collaboration. He also re-recorded Strangers When Me Meet for 1.Outside. It's not perfect, but it's frequently overlooked as many folks assume it's just a soundtrack album"

Indeed they do... *the mark is mine, not Lee's, I hasten to add. Can I come back in from the garden now? I'll catch my death in the fog. ;)

Release date 26th September 1995

Definitely Bowie's prog rock album, centered around a bizarre concept that could be seen as a logical paranoid modern extension of Pete Townshend's abortive Lifehouse project. Mike Garson relates an interesting tale where the band would be recorded improvising for hours on end, with the re-united Bowie and Eno assembling the best parts to form the music for Bowie's lyrics. That may explain why it is a little short on melody, but the album makes up for it with Bowie's most startling experimentalism and "next move" since dropping Low on an unsuspecting world.

Release date 3rd February 1997
6.5/10 (first impression)

Written and recorded in only 2½ weeks straight after the end of the Outside tour, the urgency and energy in these zeros and ones is apparent from the off, appropriating then current drum'n'bass sounds to clattering effect. When it works, it is fabulous, as The Last Thing You Should Do proves, where a detached Bowie languidly semi-sings "What have you been doing to yourself" while the manic beats fly all around in a haze of wired paranoia. When it fails, as on the preceding Telling Lies, those same itchy scratchy rhythms add nothing to an already menacing song.

This album has returned to the feel of the second and third albums in this list, where Bowie is not reinventing current trends but merely using them.

Release date 4th October 1999
8/10 (first impression)

A deeply reflective and melancholy album of love lost, perceived personal failure and a long-postponed "growing up" via coming to terms with long-suppressed emotions, 'Hours..." has a suitably low-key musical backing, the kind of thing that has to be done right to avoid sounding dreary, and Bowie does it right, natch. One particular rhetorical lyric states "I got seven days to live my life, or seven days to die". The positive choice neatly sums up Bowie's attitude to life. Blimey...I said I wasn't going to get heavy...oh well...

Of the hitherto unheard albums, this is the one I've played the most, and my inital 8/10 seems about right.

Release date 11th June 2002
7/10 (first impression)

Opening track Sunday is great in a "before he went strange" Scott Walker fashion. Afraid  is a wonderfully edgy paranoid rock song performed as if straining at a leash, love the organ sound on it too. The lyrics on Heathen seem full of angst and  concern, not unsurprising as it was presumably at some point in production when 9/11 happened. A general air of sadness pervades. Sounds like it is worth persevering with.

Release date 16th September 2003
6/10 (first impression)

There are some good things on here; the frantic title track, the lovely, regretful ballad Days, and his cover of Jonathan Richman's Pablo Picasso for instance, but there's nothing on here that particularly makes me want to play it more than the few times I have for the purpose of this now mammoth scribble except maybe the closing stripped-back epic Bring Me The Disco King, which sounds like the kind of song Morrissey has dreams of writing, but loses the thread as soon as he wakes up. Mostly, this album comes over as a bit tired and world-weary, but I suppose if you're going to confront reality and "the devil in the marketplace", then that's kinda inevitable.

While onstage in Germany the following year on the Reality tour Bowie fell ill, and according to which reports you read, was either suffering from an acutely blocked artery and/or had a heart attack. We all thought he had subsequently retired, until...

The Next Day
Release date 8th March 2013

Remember what a marvellous surprise it was when The Next Day's imminent release was announced on Bowie's 66th birthday, followed by the suitably oblique video for Where Are We Now? It certainly lived up to the hype, and thankfully, in my house at least, has not turned out to be one of those "instant" records that gathers dust after a frantic initial first umpteen spins on repeat.

A "thankyou" album, to his fans, with many nods to his back catalogue, and with a sprightly new lease of life running through it, The Next Day is a life-affirming thing, and kicks some serious ass. The sound of a man acknowledging his past while pointing to the future, which as we know, was soon to play the cruellest trick. Possibly the best comeback album by anyone, ever?

Release date 8th January 2016

It's still raw, and I can't listen to this with any kind of detached objectivity, and frankly Blackstar is for the time being beyond being cheapened by grading, so no mark given. Ask me in six months. What I can say is that Bowie's parting gift illustrates his keenness to explore right up to the end. Much has been made of his ditching his regular musical collaborators and hooking up with a New York modern jazz group, but this album is definitely not jazz, oh no. Bowie uses the jazz musicians' differing perspectives in a textural manner, lending the album a highly modernistic and impressionistic sheen and a sometimes edgy atmosphere, concomitant with the terminal circumstances of its creation. The first time I heard the opening title track I could have sworn that drum sound was electronically generated, but no, it is actually played by drummer Mark Guiliana. How many rock drummers could have done that?

Mark's rhythms are central to the album, propelling the dryly humorous 'Tis A Pity She Was A Whore with an unerring pulsebeat that links it to motorik rhythms from back in the Low days. His jazz phrasing makes the now almost unbearably poignant Lazarus more edgy than it would otherwise have been in the hands of a straight ahead rock drummer. Sue (Or In A Season Of Crime) pre-dates the rest of the songs, appearing as it did with a full on brass arrangement on the last "Best Of" album. Here it motors along, overlaid with swathes of impressionistic and heavy electronica sound piloted by a funky and spidery (ha!) guitar line. Girl Loves Me seems to have one of those dense cut up Bowie lyrics, this time peppered with pseudo-Nadsat atop a menacing electro-bass line in funereal tempo...scary! Dollar Days, not the already familiar Lazarus was the song that made me well up when I finally steeled myself to listen to the CD some five days (no coincidence intended) after I got home that fateful Monday evening to find it waiting for me on the doormat, having been pre-ordered it some weeks previously. There's always one damn song, eh Dave? I can't analyse Dollar Days here, just go listen for yourself. Nostalgia creeps in by way of a reprised harmonica line from New Career In A New Town on the closing track I Can't Give Everything Away, a heart-tugging full stop of a song with a lovely sax solo from Donny McCaslin, again rhythmically powered to the end where a glorious Fripp-like guitar break accompanies Mark's on the nose drumming.

There are no other remaining and widely popular musicians of Bowie's sadly rapidly depleting generation who would be capable of making a parting gesture as potent and startling as Blackstar, it's that simple. The songs on Blackstar that deal with mortality and impending death form an artistic statement that has few parallels in popular culture, let alone music. For a while at least it is inevitable that the "non-death" songs will be overlooked, but they are an important part of what I've little doubt will be seen to be in years to come as one of Bowie's best albums.

That's all folks...

The era of iconic and strange rock stars who touch the lives of ordinary folk who wouldn't normally have anything to do with the unconventional dies with David Bowie, partly because of his unique genius, and partly because the cultural significance of his preferred medium of expression continues to become ever more marginalised, rendered disposable, stripped of any sense of permanence and worth in a digital age of instant gratification, where information overload results in lowered attention spans. Where once, good popular music was art, it is now merely artifice, no matter how good the intentions. There is no love in zeros and ones.

David Bowie was probably the only popular musician of his era who could get away with dropping large helpings of very left-field thinking into an ostensibly "pop" medium and yet remain successful. There will never be another musician who will be able to subvert and drive popular culture on such an unprecedented scale over a sustained period in the manner Mrs Jones' boy did for the duration of the 1970s. Many have said this already, but it's worth repeating: those of you who went through your teenage years in the 60s had Lennon, those of us who came of age in the 70s had Bowie. The former represented the hope and idealism of his age, while the latter reflected the paranoia of the his age back at us, but in a most positive fashion. It was inevitable that Lennon and Bowie would collaborate at some point, fittingly enough on the subject of celebrity.

Thanks for all that wonderful music David, it was a good trip...from Ibiza to the Norfolk Broads, via LA, Berlin, New York, and on out to the Blackstar...

"Everybody knows me now..."

David Bowie 8th January 1947 - 10th January 2016 RIP

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