David Bowie: The Buyer's Guide
Bowie’s back catalogue is a minefield for the uninitiated. Here’s how to separate the monsters from the gnomes
The music press obviously does’t know much about lizards. If they did, perhaps they wouldn’t have spent the last four decades referring to David Bowie as the ‘chameleon of pop’.
The defining characteristic of the chameleon, surely, is its ability to change colour to match its surroundings. It blends in with what already exists, rather than being different. Essentially, it’s the reptile equivalent of Good Charlotte.
The reverse is true of David Bowie. Since the release of his first batch of singles in 1966, this fascinating solo artist has forced the background to blend in with him. Then when it does, he sheds his musical skin and strides out in search of fresh inspiration. We’ve watched Bowie do this countless times, and it never fails to prompt excitement and respect.
When contemporary rock bands talk about experimentation, it generally means that they’ve learnt a new chord. Bowie’s interpretation of the word is rather more extreme. When he reinvents himself, as he does every few years, little remains of what went before. The musical direction might go from glam to Philly soul; the production might trade sumptuous for brittle; the Bowie persona might go from an androgynous spaceman (aka Ziggy Stardust) to a Nazi-obsessed cabaret act (aka The Thin White Duke); even Bowie’s personnel – always a vital strand of each new era – is built on shifting sands, as the artist seeks out the best foils to his dilettante muse.
Bowie’s appetite for reinvention makes him both magnetic and inconsistent. In the past he has left genres and collaborators behind just as it seemed they were hitting their stride (and here we’re thinking specifically of the Ziggy period). Sometimes, he has loitered longer than necessary in such questionable waters as electronica and dance. At times his eclecticism seems contrived – and during the last two decades there’s little doubt that he’s missed the target more than he’s hit it. The ‘David Bowie’ section of HMV grows more of a minefield with each passing year.
And yet, as he proved with 2002’s excellent Heathen, you write off David Bowie at your peril. While bands like AC/DC and Motörhead embrace familiarity, he remains one of the few established artists still capable of shocking and innovating; perhaps the only 70s superstar who still pushes himself, and certainly the only one who still pushes us. When he’s on form there’s nobody to touch him.
ESSENTIAL - CLASSICS
THE RISE AND FALL OF ZIGGY STARDUST AND THE SPIDERS FROM MARS
‘To Be Played At Maximum Volume’, advised the back of the sleeve, and that is indeed the best way to enjoy Bowie’s creative pinnacle. Ziggy Stardust marks the moment when Bowie got it absolutely right.
Like all good concept albums it felt like a journey, from the apocalyptic Five Years to the pain-racked Rock ‘N’ Roll Suicide. Unlike most concept albums, the abundance of pop hooks meant it sounded just as good heard in snatches on the radio. While Bowie would never be better, you can argue that the album belongs equally to guitarist Mick Ronson.
Hunky Dory is all about the songs. This is the album that floating Bowie fans are most likely to pick off the shelf, and for good reason. Why, after all, would you want to sit through the more ‘challenging’ parts of Tin Machine II when you could bask in the joyous sunshine that radiates from Changes and Fill Your Heart? Why trawl through Earthling when you could tap and hum to Life On Mars and Kooks?
Unlike some of Bowie’s later records, there’s nothing esoteric or affected about the songs collected on Hunky Dory. It’s the one Bowie album that gives Ziggy Stardust a serious run for its money, and the only era-defining record that also sounds great at house parties.
SUPERIOR - THE ONES THAT HELPED CEMENT HIS REPUTATION
The first of the so-called ‘Berlin trilogy’ (despite being largely recorded in France), Low is as disparate and uneven as Bowie’s mindset at the time.
Written as he recovered from the cocaine blizzard of the Station To Station period, this 1977 classic saw Bowie collaborate with Brian Eno to create a bewildering tapestry of sound, spiralling from brittle post-punk tracks like What In The World, to bleak instrumental soundscapes (Warszawa). Apart from tracks like Sound And Vision and Speed Of Life, Low is hardly Bowie’s most immediate work, but there is an argument that it’s his bravest and most evocative.
Off the back of the previous year’s Ziggy Stardust, Bowie was a bona fide superstar. As a consequence, much of the follow-up was written as he observed America through the tour bus window.
In lesser hands, that might have resulted in a transitional work, but Aladdin Sane was no ordinary travelogue. It’s a widescreen epic that brings together Ziggy Stardust-esque rockers (Watch That Man, The Jean Genie) with unsettling anti-ballads like Lady Grinning Soul, and is equally convincing at bluesy shuffles (Panic In Detroit) and swing-time pop (Drive-In Saturday). It was also the last great album that Bowie and Mick Ronson created together.
SCARY MONSTERS (AND SUPER CREEPS)
Emerging from the ‘Berlin trilogy’ with critical acclaim but falling sales, Bowie began the new decade with a record that managed to debut at No.1 (UK) without compromising its author’s restless vision.
Scary Monsters was bolstered by the spidery lines of King Crimson guitarist Robert Fripp, and Pete Townshend (on _Because __You’re Young_), and had two new classics: _Ashes To Ashes_ and _Teenage Wildlife_. Bowie’s commercial renaissance would gather speed with 1983’s _Let’s Dance_, but for many, _Scary Monsters_ was his last great musical statement.
STATION TO STATION
Bowie’s narcotic intake in the mid-70s was such that he claims not to remember the making of Station To Station. For everyone else, this 1976 classic remains one of his most memorable albums.
Comprised of six extended tracks whose emotional starkness was a fair reflection of Bowie’s state of mind (at this time, he was trading as The Thin White Duke), Station… marked a significant departure from the breezy soul of Young Americans, and hinted at the electronic direction that the ‘Berlin trilogy’ would later explore. Golden Years was the album’s big hit, and it’s one of several standout moments.
GOOD - WORTH EXPLORING
Bowie rose to the challenge of following Low by delivering his second Berlin-inspired album, recorded at the city’s Hansa Studio.
“Heroes” shares many of the same qualities as its predecessor (particularly on such austere instrumentals as Sense Of Doubt and Neuköln), but there’s arguably more light creeping under the curtain here, from the soaring defiance of the title track to the barrel-house stomp of Beauty And The Beast. It’s also notable for the stunning performance of Robert Fripp (whose guitar parts were supposedly recorded in a single day – despite him never having heard any of the songs before).
THE MAN WHO SOLD THE WORLD
Early hints at Mick Ronson’s potential as a catalyst came on this 1971 stormer, which shredded Bowie’s folk-pop sensibilities and set him up as a genuine rock star.
While not quite as consistent as his subsequent 70s albums, it’s hard to knock the primitive power of moments like Black Country Rock and the opening section of The Width Of A Circle. The raunchy riffs of She Shook Me Cold, meanwhile, could almost pass as heavy metal, and the definitive version of the title track was hypnotic and unsettling. Better was to follow from Bowie and Ronson, but this record was one hell of a start.
When Bowie was refused permission to stage a theatre production based on George Orwell’s 1984, the redundant songs made their way onto the second half of Diamond Dogs instead.
This cut-and-paste approach resulted in a loose concept album (it’s tied together by a vision of a decaying future) and some of Bowie’s most rocking songs to date, with highlights including the raucous title track and the brittle stomp of Rebel Rebel. We were all missing Ziggy too much to appreciate it properly at the time, but listened to in retrospect, parts of Diamond Dogs are the mutt’s nuts (so to speak).
LABYRINTH – THE ORIGINAL SOUNDTRACK
He had already minced through his role as Jareth the Goblin King in Jim Henson’s film, and Bowie heaped further indignity upon his floundering career by pitching in with the soundtrack. Perhaps such infantile numbers as Magic Dance wouldn’t have been so bad if Bowie’s ‘serious’ musical output had been blossoming at the time. Coming off the back of such forgettable albums as Tonight and Absolute Beginners, however, the five songs that Bowie contributed to Labyrinth sounded distinctly like underwhelming.
This article originally appeared in Classic Rock #96.
For the story behind Aladdin Sane and Bowie's journey through America in the 1970s, then click the link below.