Music Monday: David Bowie

I'm cribbing a bit from my friend Dan here, using his Music Monday format for this. I don't intend this to be an obituary for Bowie, who died today. I'd rather just explore the music he made over a long and influential career. He was a guy so in touch with his art, he even said goodbye to the world with a new album in final flurry of activity. He was one of the true artists in rock and roll, and someone who was always looking for the next big thing.

It's hard to describe Bowie's place in music exactly. The underground sees him as a cultural appropriator, yet the mainstream paints him as the consummate innovator. Neither was true. He did mine the underground looking for the next trends and adopted the aesthetics and ideas under his own banner. However, once those ideas had been run through his process they were distinctively his own. He was a Prometheus for mainstream culture stealing the fires of creativity.

I wanted to share some of what I thought were the stand out parts of his catalog. The parts that I thought showed his capability as an artist, but it's by no means comprehensive. If you're looking for something that spans his whole career, the (3 CD version of Nothing Has Changed is a great place to start.) I just got my copy of Blackstar on Friday, and haven't listened to it yet. It stands as the last words of Bowie as an artist, apparently planned as a goodbye to fans.

Also, I assume every classic rock radio station is planning Rebel Rebel, Heroes, Space Oddity, and Changes. Which are great songs, don't get me wrong. I just feel like they aren't the highlights I would choose. Skipping his pre-glam years, which are more of a curiosity than anything else, I wanted to pick my favorite points from the various phases of his career. Bowie was the place where most of my favorite music came from, his constant pulling from the underground gave back in the form of another generation of artists he influenced.

Glam

It's hard not to find classics in this era of Bowie's career. The character of Ziggy Stardust still reverberates in pop music today in every bit of guy liner and gender bending, and Mick Ronson's guitars still influence the "big" rock sound. Punk, Goth, Metal, all drew from the work Bowie was doing in the early Seventies. The Man Who Sold The World, Hunky Dory, Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, are all classics. Diamond Dogs and Pin-Ups are less essential, but have some highlights.

It Ain't Easy - A Ron Davies song, this is about as straight ahead blues-rock as you can get. Still really like their interpretation of this song, it's got a lot more energy than the meandering Three Dog Night version.

Oh! You Pretty Things - Probably the only time that Nietzsche's philosophy has been the subject of a jaunty boogie.

Saviour Machine - Lots of moog synthesizer weirdness here. Somewhere between psychedelic and prog rock, the song has a lot of the theatrics that would define this whole glam era of Bowie. It's a big 70's rock song, and still shows Bowie finding his footing.

Aladdin Sane - Hints at Bowie's love of jazz and discordant music, the piano over the bridge is pretty crazy for a mainstream record.

Plastic Soul

Usually a pejorative for white artists who appropriated black music, Bowie owned this term. Collaborating with Luther Vandross to create Young Americans, he made a pretty great R&B record. This entire album is amazing. That was followed up by Station to Station, which took the same sound to weirder places artistically. Both of these records are worth hearing in their entirety.

Fascination - There's a lot of Curtis Mayfield here, and is the most straight ahead funk track on Young Americans.

TVC 15 - A druggy hallucination on a druggy record, but the weird imagery mixes with the upbeat funk. The music is fairly straight ahead for a track about the TV eating someone.

Berlin

If there is any period in Bowie's career that defines him as an artist, it's the Berlin Trilogy. Three records made with Brian Eno basically pull from Krautrock, Post-Punk, early synthesizers, world music, and jazz to create some of the most original music of Bowie's career. Low and Heroes are full of plodding instrumentals, but still have catchy singles. Lodger is a more conventional record that feels like an attempt to cull the experience of making the first two records in a more conventional direction. All three of these are must listen records, I can still hear their influence in alternative music today.

DJ - Bowie doing a riff on the Talking Heads, even bringing in Adrian Belew for a solo.

Sound and Vision - The song that in my mind most defines Bowie as an artist. The lyrics are a bit off kilter, the music is tight and rhythmic.

Warszawa - One of those plodding psuedo-instrumentals. Invokes a lot of emotion has some interesting vocal work near the end.

Sons of the Silent Age - Anticipates a lot of the more experimental corners of post-punk mined by Wire, the guitar has a great texture.

Neukölln - Another instrumental, more expirimentation. Features Bowie's saxophone playing, it's

Mainstream Years

The album Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) doesn't really fit nicely into Berlin or the era that came after; Let's Dance. Let's Dance is when Bowie got to contend with rock stardom in the era of MTV. It led to some seriously questionable choices like covering Dancing in the Streets with Mick Jagger, but it's also the era that gave us Labyrinth. Tonight and Never Let Me Down Again both feel pretty aimless, which may be why the next reinvention was fairly unconventional even for Bowie.

Scary Monsters and Super Creeps - The album title track has vocal distortion and some big drums. Feels like Bowie reflecting back on what the post-punk and goth guys had cribbed.

Teenage Wildlife - Bowie takes aim at all the new wave kid with one of the best lines he ever wrote - "As ugly as a teenage millionaire."

Modern Love - The opener to Let's Dance announces pretty well the new direction and sound that Bowie found collaborating with Niles Rodgers. The whole Let's Dance record is pretty notable for Stevie Ray Vaughn doing session work before he hit big on his own.

Cat People(Putting Out Fires With Gasoline - This song is so quintessentially 80's it's almost painful. It's still a pretty great song, and is used in one of the best scenes of Inglorious Basterds.

Magic Dance - Anyone who was a kid in the 80's probably knows this song. It's David Bowie dancing with Muppets, it can't be all that bad.

Tin Machine

Not many rock stars hit middle age selling out arenas, fewer still reinvent themselves fading into the line up of a band. Yet after finding himself in the middle of the 80's excess, that's what Bowie did with Reaves Gabrels and the Sales Brothers. Mining the likes of the Pixies and Nirvana for inspiration, the band was intentionally as uncommercial as possible. The band lasted for two albums, one of which doesn't seem to have ended up legitimately in digital form.

Tin Machine - Self-titled album, self-titled song. This is probably where a lot of people get the idea of this album anticipating Alternative rock a couple of years before Nirvana would start the flurry of underground bands breaking on MTV.

Crack City - Pretty pop punk, I just like the line "With buttholes for their brains"

Under the god - Another big rock song, reminds me of The Smithereens.

Electronic Years

I think that most people my age know this era pretty well, as this was when Bowie was on tour with Nine Inch Nails and back in play on MTV. Black Tie White Noise infuses a lot of electronic music, but also has a lot of world music influence. It's probably the poppiest music of this period. Outside was supposed to be the beginning of a new Berlin period, one that alas never came to be. It's got Bowie and Eno at their weirdest, with cut-ups, spoken word, and a lot of noise. Earthling found Bowie fulling embracing Jungle and Drum and Bass, along with some of the pop industrial sound he picked up from Trent Reznor.

Pallas Athena - An interesting mix of electronic music with jazz.

I'm Deranged - This is probably the first Bowie song I listened to obsessively. It was on the Lost Highway soundtrack, which was a doorway to a lot of interesting music. (There's a whole post in the way that soundtracks helped bring underground and classics alternative artists to mainstream artists.) This led off the soundtrack, and sounds like lounge music for the dammed.

Hallo Spaceboy - A team up with the Pet Shop Boys. I challenge you to listen to this and not stop your foot along.

Seven Years In Tibet - A wonderful mix of electronic and organic music, I particularly like the Xylophone at the end of the verses.

Dead Man Walking - Another great mix of electronics with rock, supposedly the guitar riff was written by Jimmy Page.

Return to Rock

This period starts out with an album that’s only about half good, Hours. The sound was meandering, and it seemed like a reaction to how synthesized Earthling was. However, Heathen feels like an artist really comfortable in his skin. That was followed up by Reality, Bowie’s last album until 2013.

The Pretty Things Are Going To Hell - This has this big chunky guitar riff, and is probably the weirdest thing on a pretty tame album.

Cactus - An excellent cover of the Pixies’ song. Bowie doesn’t sound nearly as crazed as Frank Black, but I love the arrangement on this.

Slip Away - A sadder song, almost a dirge.

Pablo Picasso - Another cover, this one of Jonathan Richman.

The final Comeback.

Two albums. It’s not much, but it counted. The Next Day was a howl from the past, out of nowhere, a surprise album no one was expecting. Then Blackstar came this year, with two singles and videos released early. Blackstar was intended as a goodbye. I haven’t listened to it yet, waiting until I have the time to process it as the final words of an artist whose career influenced most of my record collection. He was the gateway to a lot of cool music I wouldn’t have found on my own. Probably yours too. Without Bowie, a lot of our record collections would be pretty boring. There aren’t many people whose influence span the classic rock station all the way to DJ’s still remixing and reinventing his work. His fingerprints are smudged on the brains of generations of musicians, and hopefully it will be awhile before his shadow starts to wane. The music can stand on it’s own, but Bowie as an artist makes the music all the more meaningful. The penchant for reinvention and seeking influence from the next big things should be what every aging musician does, rather than resting on your laurels and playing the hits on the festival circuit. If ever you feel like you can’t measure up, just remember Dancing in the Streets. And if you get too big for britches, remember you’ll never be cool enough for Neil Gaiman to write a story about you.

Where are we now? - Like the album cover of The Next Day** this is a nod to the Berlin days. It’s a slow contemplative track that bleeds nostalgia from every note.

The Next Day - If you thought the new record was going to be a snoozer from the lead single, its opening track burned with an intensity that assured Bowie wasn’t a tired old torch singer.

Dancing out in Space - A genuine dance rock tune, not something many people bother with anymore.

Blackstar - The lead single on the final record. It’s weird, difficult, and nearly ten minutes. It’s also one last twist on Bowie’s career. He recruited a bunch of jazz musicians from the village for this one, making his final message something worth savoring. Here’s hoping the rest of the record is just as engaging.

So that’s it. My personal highlight reel from Bowie’s amazing career. There’s EP’s, live albums, and a few soundtracks I did’t get to. There’s all those classic singles as well. Don’t count them out. It might be finite now, but there’s a lot of Bowie left to listen to.

Mike M

Mike M

I have written various kind of reviews for years. I currently write for Make Use Of. I used to write for Digital Entertainment News, Macgasm, and the Examiner. My day job is as an IT monkey. Follow me on Twitter.