Returning to a harder edged rock sound, this futuristic concept album about an androgynous alien rock star was the ultimate glam rock album, as well as an incisive critique of pop stardom.
It was also the album that broke Bowie big, at least in the U.K (it took him a bit longer to break through in the U.S.). After all, the glittery stage persona of the flaming haired Ziggy Stardust made for great rock n’ roll theater – remember the confusion caused when Bowie “retired” Ziggy? – and, more importantly, this album contains some truly great rock ‘n roll songs.
Included among those are the unforgettable riffs and strange yet catchy chorus of the title track, and the relentlessly surging rock drive and hilarious lyrics of “Suffragette City,” the album’s two most famous songs, at least in the U.S. where both still make the regular rounds on classic rock radio.
In addition, the hard rocking “Moonage Daydream” features some killer Mick Ronson guitar and otherworldly atmospherics, while the wide-eyed wonder of “Starman” (a U.K. top 10 hit) is a catchy, evocative, and dramatic space ballad a la “Life On Mars?”
Also notable are the lushly orchestrated chants of “Five Years,” which brilliantly harks towards Armageddon (and which bears a resemblance to the Moody Blues’ “Go Now”), the lovely, melancholic piano ballad “Lady Stardust” (the “lady” in question being glam friend/rival Marc Bolan; all together now: “he was alright…”), the slinky groover “Hang On To Yourself” (which always makes me wanna move), and “Rock n’ Roll Suicide,” the dramatic, theatrical finale which ends the album as perfectly as “Five Years” had started it.
Even the lesser tracks, such as “Soul Love,” with its overly accented soulful pop vocals, and the upbeat if comparatively generic rocker “Star,” are enjoyable if not quite as necessary, as is the Ron Davies cover “It Ain’t Easy;” I know that I always sing along to its big chorus in any event.
Sure, there are some dated elements to the album’s early ’70s sound, but Ronson’s razor-sharp guitar playing and Bowie’s passionate if reedy vocals ensure that this sci-fi extravaganza delivers a one-of-a-kind experience. Hell, even the evocative album cover is legendary, and all these years later Ziggy Stardust remains both Bowie’s most beloved and flat-out best creation.
Note: The overtly gay single “John I’m Only Dancing” (another big U.K. hit that wasn’t released in the U.S. until many years later due to its risqué lyrics) and “Velvet Goldmine” (later the title of a major motion picture about the good old glam days) are essential bonus tracks on the reissue.
Note #2: During this time Bowie also made major contributions to the careers of Lou Reed and Mott The Hoople, producing Transformer and All The Young Dudes, respectively. Bowie also wrote the classic “All The Young Dudes” for Mott.
Ever heard about ‘transitional’ albums? Well, here you have a perfect illustration. This record shows Bowie standing with one foot in the past and the other in the future. More exactly, about half of this record sounds like it was destined to be a sequel to Young Americans, with generic soul vocals and everything, and the other half sounds as if it belonged to the Berlin trilogy. Actually, if I’m not mistaken, David had already moved to Berlin at the time, and was probably busy studying the works (or, should we say, ‘Werks’?) of Kraftwerk, which explains all the synthesized stuff on here. So, actually, my point was to say: ‘Hey! What an appropriate album title!’ Because this is, indeed, David caught in the process of traveling from one station to another…
People usually know this as ‘the one with the Thin White Duke on it’, as it was another change of face for David: the period where he completely dropped all his Ziggishness, began flirting with Nazism and assimilating various German influences (yeah, like Kraftwerk!). In case you’re wondering, The Thin White Duke is that dude who’s pictured on the back album cover… oh, wait, that’s David. Well, I really can’t say any more about it than can be obvious from the lyrics to the title track that tell about his return.
More interesting is the very construction of the title track itself – a lengthy ‘progressive’ epic that goes on for ten minutes but rarely becomes boring, as it’s multi-part and practically always catchy and engaging. First, you have trains running in all directions, then you get that nagging, clumsy rhythm that’s almost ‘ugly’ in its addictiveness, and finally, we shift onto a proto-disco dancey track, you know, the kind of ‘perverted dance music’ that Bowie mastered so perfectly in the late Seventies. So a bit of intellectual listening first, and a bit of dirty dancing next. Vote For It!
There are but six tracks on the whole record, but none are bad – and I fully agree with those who rate the album among David’s best. These songs are catchy and addictive as hell. David uses complicated, funky rhythms that will have your feet tapping in no time without any possible feelings of remorse, and the backing band, led by the guitar hero Carlos Alomar, rips it up mightily almost everywhere. ‘Golden Years’, ‘TVC15’ and ‘Stay’ are all personal favourites of mine, in fact. The first one tempts me to play air guitar all the time – that gruff little riff that holds the melody together is so cute as it tears through my left speaker! And the funny handclaps! And the backing vocals – ‘gooooolden years, goooolden years’… I’m not much of a funk fan, but this is funk with a tiny bit of David’s perversity thrown in, and it’s so dang funny…
And ‘TVC15’? It’s hardly possible to describe the song, with Bowie assuming a weird, dissonant tone, and chanting lyrics about how his girlfriend got eaten by his TV set (in the literal sense, no less). Hilarious, yes, but also completely subduing – every piano and guitar note are so sharp, so hard hitting, so completely in place, so thoroughly immaculate that it’s impossible to resist the song. And in any case I don’t see no reason why I should resist it. Is this weak half-assed funk? No, no and no. This is pointing the way to the future.
This is the direct predecessor to… to… to everything. This is one of those rare cases when Bowie actually precedes things: this stuff reeks so much of paranoid New Wave rhythms that if you wanted to find a counterargument to the proposition of David always jumping on other people’s bandwagons, well, it’s right before you. Not too many of those counterarguments; this is one of the most obvious.
And, of course, there’s ‘Stay’ – yet another ‘dirtied down’ dance number; here, though, it ain’t David, but rather Alomar, who’s the main hero. That riff may be one of the best dance-style riffs in existence, and the whole performance blazes and smokes. Do not miss the bonus live version of it, too, with an extended guitar solo that practically annihilates the audience and me as well. Together with ‘Hot Stuff’, this rates as my best bet for ‘best disco performance by an old fart’.
Now the ‘souly’ stuff which I was mentioning early is represented here by two pathetic ballads, ‘Word On A Wing’ and ‘Wild Is The Wind’ (kinda similar-sounding, aren’t they?). Both are side-closers, apparently on intention – to end your listening experience with something calm and relaxed. They are nowhere near as groundbreaking or, indeed, as attractive as the funkier, ‘dancier’ numbers, but they’re good anyway. Not enough, though, to make me award a 10 to the record. I still can rarely endure ‘Word On A Wing’ to the very end (maybe it just seems too watered down to me), and ‘Wild Is The Wind’ (the only cover on the album) is a bit too sappy and overblown even for Bowie.
I swear, in fact, that the beginning of each verse reminds me of Jesus’ ‘I Only Want To Say’ air in JC Superstar! (I actually love that air, but that’s another thing and another subject). In any case, it’s obvious which station was the departure and which was the destination on the album. Welcome to Berlin, mr Bowie!
As usual, good bonus tracks for good album. You might think that the live versions of ‘Word On A Wing’ and ‘Stay’ are just superfluous – don’t. They easily blow the originals away, with lots more passion, and
much more effective and concentrated guitarwork from Alomar (as if he was idle in the studio!) Especially ‘Stay’, of course. That solo brings me to ecstasy. These bring the album’s rating to a near-ten. A near-ten, though – hear that, a near-ten. Excellent as it is, the ballads still bring it down, whether they be personal or not personal. They lack hooks and are somewhat below David’s usual songwriting capacities. But if you prefer to hear from a real Bowie junkie, please check out Jeff Blehar’s comments below and maybe you’ll come to trust him more than me.
Why the hell should you trust me, anyway? I’m not a Bowie fan! Heck, I even hate his make-up on the photos on here.
Imagine the scene; Earth is five years from being destroyed due to a lack of natural resources and all of humanity it crying out for a savior. In these bleak, desperate times the call is answered in the most unexpected of ways, an extra terrestrial life form discovers Earth. This life form, call him “Ziggy” if you will, is a promiscuous rock star, gifted musically both through guitar and song, bringing a message of peace and love to all of mankind. This is the setting that is beautifully created by master word smith David Bowie in his oft overlooked masterpiece “The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars” (hereby referred to as “RAFOZS”). This is truly Bowie at his experimental best, showcasing his ability and cementing his position as one of the greatest English singer/songwriters of all time. “RAFOZS” is without doubt one of the most influential rock albums of the 20th century, justly achieving number 35 on Rolling Stone’s Greatest albums of all time.
From the off the music on this album is terrifically precise with percussion, guitars, piano and vocals all meticulously harmonized together by Bowie. The vocal performance in particular is one of Bowie’s best, encompassing everything that makes him such a great artist into 40 minutes of musical magic. Opener “Five Years” starts off the album brilliantly, introducing the depressing state of Earth, and the eventual realization of the population that their world will be obliterated. The slow build up of the quiet instrumentation allow emphasis to fall onto the powerful, emotive lyrics which are delivered brilliantly by Bowie. Lines such as “News guy wept and told us Earth was really dying. Cried so much his face was wet, then I knew he was not lying” set the scene perfectly, and honestly create a sense of unease within the listener, transporting them to Bowie’s parallel universe.
The music continues to impress throughout the album, with no track failing to impress in any way. “Starman” is probably the most well known track off of the album, and for good reason. After a brief musical introduction, sharp vocals break in, complementing the melodic string symphony in the background. This song also boasts one of the most recognizable chorus’s on the album, softly sung, and immediately catchy. “It Ain’t Easy” is a hard rocking number, definitely one of the heavier numbers on the record with the vocals and overall musical style taking a sharp turn from that already heard on the album. Again it is a vocally driven song, as Bowie once again demonstrates his extraordinary range. Another notable song is “Suffragette City”, another hard rocking number, faster than “It Ain’t Easy” with catchier hooks and a far superior chorus.
“RAFOZS” is truly a product of its era, with influences apparent all over the place, from the highly Beatle-esqe “Lady Stardust” to the bluesy/rock ‘n roll influences of “Star” which could have come straight out of a Chuck Berry back catalogue. Bowie’s bizarre extravagance and captivating outrageousness are displayed throughout the album, none more so than on eponymous track “Ziggy Stardust”. The familiar guitar introduction to this song hooks the listener into the proggiest song on the album. This song is a typical overindulgence of rock fantasy. This is the one song that the album leads up to, the focal point of everything beforehand, and it delivers in spades.
To say this album is one of the best rock albums of all time would be no understatement. Although not achieving particularly huge sales, this album – arguably Bowie’s magnum opus – marked the coming of super stardom for one of Britain’s greats, and helped inspire many acts over the coming years. This album is a must have in any half decent rock collection, containing eleven musical masterpieces that will satisfy any rock lover, and bringing about one of the most celebrated rock persona’s of the 20th Century, a Mr. Ziggy Stardust and his house band The Spiders from Mars.
When notorious hype-machine NME conducted its poll among contemporary musicians time (Radiohead, Placebo, U2, Suede and Marilyn Manson among others) to discover the most influential musician of our time, guess who came in first? David Robert Jones, sometimes known as The Thin White Duke, sometimes by his alter-ego Ziggy Stardust, but far most commonly as David Bowie. From the time when he released his self-titled debut in 1967 to his 60th birthday two days ago, he has practically invented glam rock, jumpstarted Iggy Pop and Lou Reed’s career, collaborated with master of ambience Brian Eno, and thus created the famous Berlin trilogy (“Low”, “Heroes” and “Lodger”), dabbled in folk, heavy rock, pop, electronica and soul, and created a myriad of great albums in the process. Despite the fact that his career spans almost forty years, most fans, critics and greatest hits compilations look to the seventies, the decade of glam rock, the Ziggy Stardust persona, Bowie’s blue-eyed soul music, and the aforementioned “Berlin” trilogy; the decade where Bowie was at the cutting edge of popular music. Truly these were Bowie’s golden years, in which he released classic upon classic, with creativity more or less unmatched by any musician of 20th century. Having tackled both folk and rock on his first three albums, Bowie sought a different approach for his fourth. He told pianist Rick Wakeman that he wanted to make a more piano-oriented album, played him the songs that would come to make up “Hunky Dory” and asked him to play them on the piano, allowing him to write his own arrangements. The result was a catchy, beautiful, accessible and above all genius record, that many Bowie fans still cite as their favourite.
The album encompasses several moods and sounds, while still being rooted in a piano pop sound. Many tracks here find their way to various compilations (Bowie has a lot of those), but none became immediate hits. “Life on Mars” only became a hit after the following album “Ziggy Stardust” was released and Bowie garnered increased attention. It soon became popular, and for good reason. The verses are driven by a beautiful piano, complimented by a dramatic classic arrangement as the unbelievably catchy chorus comes crashing in. The lyrics are completely nonsensical: “It’s on Amerika’s (sic) tortured brow / Mickey Mouse has grown up a cow”. I don’t think anyone, even Bowie himself can make any sense of them, but somehow it means something with Bowie’s passionate delivery. The song manages to be incredibly epic, but still brief at 3:54. A fitting, dramatic conclusion follows, as a descending violin run leads to a glorious crescendo of instruments and a gentle piano line trails off until the song finishes. “Life on Mars” is the best song Bowie ever wrote, and as such it can’t be considered anything but one of the greatest songs ever written.
The fact that the album has such a monumental song doesn’t detract from the rest of the songs though. The dramatic tension built up by “Life on Mars” is released by the vivacious “Kooks”, which is conversely followed by “Quicksand”, the albums melancholic highlight. It is perfectly placed, in between too unabashedly bubbly songs like “Fill Your Heart” (by Biff Rose and Paul Williams, the only non-original here”) and “Kooks” (a song for Bowie’s newborn son, known to the world as Zowie Bowie, poor thing), and in the middle of the album too, acting as a centrepiece for the album. This demonstrates the albums perfect balance. Admittedly, most of the “hits” seem to be placed on the albums A side, but there is almost as much to be found on the second half.
Lyrically, it seems that Bowie is drawing inspiration Bob Dylan, with his often seemingly nonsensical, stream-of-consciousness lyrics. These are most evident on album closer “The Bewlay Brothers”. While no coherent meaning can be drawn from the lyrics, the words and themes always compliment the sound. It’s not meant to be dissected, but rather enjoyed. His lyrics are vividly descriptive though, as on the tribute song to his inspiration Bob Dylan, whose voice he likens to sand and glue. It is in the second verse, however, that he has written his most accurate description of Dylan’s genius: “You sat behind a million pair of eyes and told them how they saw”. While Dylan has always been reluctant to be labelled the voice of a generation, he has definitely been a spokesman of sorts, writing about subjects that many could relate to. The song is a poignant ode to one of modern music’s greatest song writers and one of the best songs on the album. “Queen Bitch”, the album’s only real rocker, foreshadows Bowie’s next album, glam rock masterpiece “Ziggy Stardust”. The song has been dedicated to the Velvet Underground, who must have been an inspiration as Bowie moved into the glam rock territory. Pop artist Andy Warhol also gets a nod, with the song of the same name, featuring Bowie’s trademark baffling lyrics: “Andy Warhol looks a scream / Hang him on my wall / Andy Warhol, silver screen / Can’t tell them apart at all”.
“Hunky Dory” is the album where Bowie cemented his position as a truly gifted song writer. A few songs don’t compare to highlights such as “Life on Mars” and “Quicksand” but that says more about the highlights than the rest. Every song is great in its own right, about half of them are completely essential and “Life on Mars” stands as the greatest song I have ever heard in my life. David Bowie, in his constant exploration of new musical territory never attempted to make another album like this. He went on to create other, different masterpieces, but he never surpassed ”Hunky Dory”.
Review from Denmark: On the one hand, ‘Let’s Dance’ is the first album since his 1967 debut, where Bowie releases a record not worthy of the highest praise on this planet. But on the other hand, it is by far not as awful as some have made it. Also, it is very much 1983 in a bottle, as Ziggy was 1972, Heroes 1977 and Scary Monsters 1980. After all, it was the year of Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’ and Culture Club’s ‘Colour By Numbers’ (of which the latter is by far the best of all three albums). It would be on ‘Tonight’ that Bowie, for the first time, was out of time.
‘Let’s Dance’ opens with the brilliantly rocking pop gem ‘Modern Love’, which, as the third single off the album soared to a UK #2 / US #14 peak. It is deliciously disposable, utterly commercial, but not at all too self-conscious. It is followed by the second single (UK #2 / US #10), the now-stample-on-radio, ‘China Girl’, an arguably somewhat superior version of the song Bowie wrote with Iggy Pop for his 1977 comeback album ‘The Idiot’. Here ‘China Girl’ is a soft & smooth danceable track with great rhytm & also retaining Iggy’s haunting lyrics.
The title track, and also the first single off the album, a UK #1 / US #1, appears here in its full lenght, majestic & brooding, with darkening lyrics & joyous instrumental backing, that made it an instant worldwide classic.
The fourth single, which was released only in the US, and only scraped to an undeserved #73, is ‘Without You’, a simple but breathtakingly gorgeous song, which is my personal favourite on the record (due to overexposure of the three brilliant first singles). It is romantic & gentle & brilliantly sung, an underrated gem, if there ever was one. Also one of the most ‘new romantic’ tracks on the record.
‘Ricochet’, another of my favourites, has the most brooding text on the album, & also the strangest music, with rolling drums that underline, that ‘Let’s Dance’, if nothing else, at least still is somewhat darker than ‘Thriller’.
The cover of ‘Criminal World’ is excellent, & brings further neo-romantic mystique onto the record. It is followed by a re-recording of ‘Cat People (Putting Out Fire)’, a song Bowie originally wrote and recorded with Giorgio Moroder for the ‘Cat People’ soundtrack, in 1982. Released as a single at that time, it reached a low & undeserved UK #26.
Anyway, in its original state, it was a delicious piece of New Romanticism, the closest Bowie ever came to the wonderful, glammy dance of Duran Duran, & with lyrics & sound effects that made it haunting like any classic Bowie track from the 70s.
Here, on ‘Let’s Dance’, however, it is tossed off in a blaze of hard rock. Not that it doesn’t work, it’s an almost excellent recording, but it pales so much compared to the original version, and worse = you can’t stop thinking of how much better the original was.
‘Shake It’, which closes the album in a Boy Georgesque way, is a great dance track, poppy, & self-consciously disposable & irrelevant. It ends a record that, if released by anybody else, would have been seen as, at least, a near-masterpiece, but which, like its recording of ‘Cat People’ (a microcosm mirror of all the strenghts & weaknesses of the album), just didn’t match the earlier Bowie. Still, if you already own everything from ‘Space Oddity’ to ‘Scary Monsters’, this album is well worth a thought, ‘cos it harbours a warmth, that Bowie at least retained through the eighties, on to ‘Never Let Me Down’, before it was lost to experimentation for experimentation’s sake (as opposed to experimentation for the sake of your life, as one could have called his 70’s period).
So this album is great. But unlike ‘The Man Who Sold The World’, ‘Station To Station’ or ‘Diamond Dogs’, this one is far from the gods. Far, far from the gods…
Review from US: David Bowie’s 1983 opus, “Let’s Dance” has become quite a controversial title in his catalog in the years passing since it’s release. Some see it as a sellout, others see it as a nadir, but I think both views are a little out of hand.
Following seven five-star albums (IMO) between 1974-1980 (Diamond Dogs, Young Americans, Station To Station, Low, Heroes, Lodger and Scary Monsters), anything less than perfection from the man was seen as a colossal disaster, and while Let’s Dance is a great album, it is a slight decline from the albums he recorded in the mid to late seventies.
Another thing that really hurts the album is that it was his first album since “Young Americans” in 1975 that really is a product of its era. “Let’s Dance” is as 1983 as Flashdance and Kajagoogoo. This album would not have been able to work in 1982 or 1984, much like “Young Americans” is a total product of 1975. It was totally the right album at the right time.
The album was highly commercial and provided him with more American success than he’d ever seen before and the videos made him a mainstay on the then-new MTV, but the commercialness of it has made the album seen as “David Bowie-lite” to most diehard fans. Truth be told, there is much to offer from this album.
“Modern Love”, “China Girl” and “Let’s Dance” are the one-two-three punch that starts this album off. These songs are solely responsible for bringing many new fans to the David Bowie party in 1983, and all of them are great singles. “Let’s Dance” is presented as a 7 1/2 minute long 12″ style mix of the song instead of the 4 minute version that made it a #1 single.
“Without You” was an afterthought choice for a single, and is a nice low-key new wave style ballad, although the Keith Haring portrait on the 45 cover might be more memorable than the album.
“Ricochet” is definately the closest thing to the Berlin trilogy as Bowie will get on an otherwise commercial album. I hated the song at first but it’s really grown on me.
“Criminal World” was another single-in-the-making, it kinda reminded me of a slower Duran Duran style song, a very pleasing song.
“Cat People (Putting Out Fire)” is where the album falters. The original 1982 version of the song produced by Giorgio Moroder is a masterpiece and one of Bowie’s most underrated singles. Here is a re-recording that turns it into a standard snoozeworthy 80’s rock song.
“Shake It” is another bad track, ending the album with filler of the worst kind.
However, I love the first six of the eight tracks, and that is enough to make the album worth owning. It is nowhere in the league of Bowie’s 1974-1982 work, but at the same time, this is the best album we’ll get from Bowie until 1993 when his career begins its renaissance. Stevie Ray Vaughan fans also should check this album out.
Err… while I first decided to be kind to the record, as nearly every reviewer in existence, starting from the corporate ones and ending with the independent ones, bashes the chitlins out of it, there’s really too little ground to apply one’s kindness. In a certain way, this is not necessarily a radical departure from everything Bowie had been doing earlier: he always had a passion for ‘authentic’ soul, and traces of the genre can be found on every single album of his starting from Ziggy, maybe even from Hunky Dory; and Diamond Dogs verged on the brink of being ‘soul’ – I mean, ‘Rock’n’Roll With Me’? ‘Sweet Thing’? Huh? And, of course, David Live already prepared us for the ‘big metamorphose’. The biggest departure, of course, was that on Young Americans David completely dumped the ‘glam’ stuff: no more androgynous Ziggy looking at us from the front cover. But if one thinks hard, one will be able to notice that ‘glam’ and ‘soul’ don’t really stray too far from each other – just look at James Brown and tell me he wasn’t a ‘glam star’. It’s all the usual stuff: pompous, overblown, master-of-the-universe-speaking type of music, only this time the rock’n’roll beats and metallic guitars are replaced by funky rhythms and ‘heavenly’ pianos and saxes and wah-wahs. Completely.
Now let it be known that I don’t really think much of ‘soul’ as a genre. It’s a pretty limited and cliched one, and it never places the emphasis on melodies, instead concentrating on image and vocal power and, well, ‘sincerity’ (gee; should we say ’emulation of sincerity’?) and ‘passion’. I don’t give a damn about Motown, and I don’t plan on buying any Aretha Franklin records in the near future. And what about Bowie? Sure enough, he demonstrates a total lack of care for melodies, but he doesn’t satisfy the ‘positive’ criteria either: his vocals can’t live up to the black singers’ potential, his ‘passion’ is entirely trumped up, and ‘sincerity’? Please refer to the introductory passage to see what I’m thinking of Bowie’s ‘sincerity’. Surprisingly, though, it’s his ineffectiveness and faked Philly accent that save the album from utter ruin (for me, at least). Were it ‘serious’ soul, I’d just skip it as an unnoticeable and mediocre record; as it is, it’s still highly mediocre, but certainly noticeable.
Now look here, I totally agree that the whole record contains not more than two ‘classics’ – the songs that bookmark the album. The title track is the most upbeat, vibrating and energetic on the album, and it’s the only song that has some serious ‘breathing’ power: everything else is totally lifeless and artificial. Seems that the lyrical subject of ‘two lovers’ has always fascinated David (he’d return to it, in a somewhat altered manner, in two years on ‘Heroes’), and he gives the song his all, straining the vocals as far as possible. Plus, the arrangement is stunning – Mike Garson’s piano and Dave Sanborn’s sax play a heartlifting, inspiring duel on the intro, and the ‘generic’, but groovy backing vocals chanting ‘young American young American he (she) wants a young American’ will stick in your mind for aeons whether you’d like it or not.
The sax parts are extremely nice and soothing – and sound not unlike that magnificent brassy stuff that John Lennon was releasing at about the same time. Maybe that’s why the backing vocals chant ‘I heard the news today oh boy’ at one point… but wait, John himself is present on the album, collaborating with Bowie on the record’s best track – the #1 hit single ‘Fame’, a song which is a serious candidate for ‘best Bowie arrangement ever’. Its midtempo, mannered funky rhythm is able to drive you crazy, much like the similar pulsation of Peter Gabriel’s ‘Steam’, although the latter came seventeen years later, and the vocals roll over you as waves chasing each other as Bowie sings about the downsides of, well, fame. Call me crazy – but I just love these delicious guitar licks, the occasional brass thunderstorms, and the slow, unnerving ‘grind’ of the song. Not to mention that hilarious chanting of the word ‘fame’ at the end when it goes from ‘highest’ to ‘lowest’. Terrific, memorable and a deserved success.
But this is where the paeans end. Out of the other numbers, only the cover of Lennon’s ‘Across The Universe’ comes across as memorable – and certainly not due to David’s successful butchering of it but to the fact that no matter how far you go in spoiling a Beatles song, it’s still a Beatles song. The obvious question is – why did John allow him do that, as he’s present on the recording himself, playing guitar and singing backing vocals? The number was a quiet, introspective and moody song; here, it’s rough, bombastic and utterly ridiculous. Perhaps ‘ridiculous’ rather than ‘bad’, but… oh well. As far as I know, Lennon hated the way ‘Across The Universe’ was recorded on Let It Be; maybe it was his ‘second try’.
And? What about the rest? The rest is mediocre, grotesque attempts at doing something truly ‘soulful’, but all these songs with short titles like ‘Win’ and ‘Right’ and long running times like four or five or six minutes are almost totally devoid of melody and never ascend to generating some real emotions. Well, perhaps ‘Fascination’ is okay, as it’s at least eminently danceable and, in all, sounds like a poorboy version of ‘Fame’. And ‘Can You Hear Me’ is a rather nice ballad – much too lethargic and hookless for my tastes, but I know people that like it and I’m able to understand them. After all, ‘lethargic’ and ‘hookless’ are rather standard complaints in Bowie’s case, aren’t they? The TV preacher ode ‘Somebody Up There Likes Me’ is dreadful, though, as it drags on for six and a half minutes without achieving anything, the only redeeming factor being Sanborn’s masterful sax playing again. It doesn’t even make suitable background music.
According to the standard match-for-match principle, the bonus tracks here pretty much suck as well. ‘Who Can I Be Now?’ is pretty, a ‘confessional-style’ ballad (Bowie at the crossroads, anyone?), but the other two are just too dreadful to ramble about. Suffice it to say that a) both go over six minutes and b) the second one is a dance rewrite of ‘John I’m Only Dancing’, totally despicable as it is. My advice to you: program this album so that it should always close with ‘Fame’. That way, your last memory will be a good one, and you won’t be willing to extinguish that tempting cigarette that David is holding in his hand on the front cover against his painted lips.
Better still, just get a compilation that has the title track and ‘Fame’ on it and I guarantee it that you won’t be missing any crucial points.
It was as though the weakly blue-eyed soul guy from Young Americans suffered a heart attack and died, and then a mad scientist came along, stole his corpse, and turned him into Robocop. Except David Bowie doesn’t fight crime; he sings rock music! (He could probably fight crime if he wanted to, though.) Station to Station is very much the same sort of funky R&B album that Young Americans was except this is far weirder. And when it comes to David Bowie, the weirder it gets the better. The beats are far more mechanical and European, the melodies are more distinctive, the atmospheres are thick and drugged up, and Bowie’s vocal performances seem more natural and passionate. You know what else, the most important thing? This album absolutely rocks.
Yes sir, David Bowie had successfully taken R&B and melded it into his own twisted image, and the result is one of the most uninhibitedly enjoyable albums that I’ve ever had the pleasure of sitting through. And this is easily one of my favourite albums of all time to sit through. There are only six songs on here, meaning that most of them are insanely long, notably the 10-minute title track. But holy hell, all of these songs pick up so much incredible steam that they are unstoppable. Even the ballads. Not even Superman could stop these songs. I mean, Superman might have been able to reverse time by spinning the earth backwards, but he’d be powerless against the sheer rockin’ power of Station to Station. (Superman probably would love this album, though. Logically, I would assume that Superman had super-good taste in music. He’d have no reason to stop it. Logically.)
The thought of listening to a 10-minute David Bowie song might be a harrowing idea when you first read about it. After all, the previous song he wrote that lasted about that long was “The Cygnet Committee” from Space Oddity, which I’m sure we all remember was charming but dull. …However, “Station to Station” is the sort of song that draws you in right from the moment that stilted groove begins to play, and it doesn’t let go until the fade out. The thematic idea of that song was (…wait for it…) trains; the track begins and ends with an extended soundbite of a steam locomotive! But the groove itself, all chugging and mechanical, sounds like the R&B interpretation of that train. Cool idea!
“Golden Years” was the hit single, a song that Bowie had originally intended for Elvis Presley. But good thing The King didn’t take it; he wouldn’t have sounded quite as cool singing it as Bowie would have. (Not that Elvis wasn’t cool; he just didn’t have it in him to give it quite the extra-terrestrial kick.) Also, “Golden Years” is by far one of the hookiest songs that Bowie had ever done, so it’s nice to hear it surface so predominately on one of his albums! “TVC 15” is another rabble rousing mechanical classic with bizarre lyrics about a television set gobbling somebody up. Who other than Bowie would sound convincing singing a song about that?. Bowie takes a moment to croon at us on “Word on a Wing,” but it’s a different sort of crooning than Bing Crosby; it’s more like crooning from a space-alien. I gotta assume a Roxy Music influence here! …Yeah, these songs are pretty weird.
And the album ends with what’s certainly his greatest cover of all time, “Wild is the Wind.” I had been listening to Station to Station for at least a couple of years before I even realized that was a cover! Bowie hadn’t been very well known for his covers, but he treats this song as though it were his own. In keeping spirit with the rest of this album, he incorporates a mechanical drum beat and a drugged-up atmosphere, but ………. Wow. Bowie’s vocal performance is so stop-dead-in-your-tracks fantastic that I can hardly believe it! By the end Bowie’s singing so passionately and gut-wrenchingly that I can’t help but feeling it right in the centre of my chest cavity. I can’t say that Bowie ever does that too often. He probably gave better vocal performances on “Heroes.” And also on “It’s No Game (Pt. 1).” But that’s about it.
Is Station to Station the greatest David Bowie album of all time? Nah, I don’t think so. Give me Ziggy Stardust over this anytime of the week. If it’s for no other reason, Ziggy Stardust was the more diverse and more joyous record. But I also don’t hold it against people who think Station to Station is superior. After all, Bowie had a lot of great albums each of a vastly different species, and it’s quite a chore for anyone to pick out a favourite. And then there are rumours that David Bowie was so hopped up on cocaine that he doesn’t actually recall recording this album. If that’s true, then this is a pretty glowing endorsement for cocaine!!!! …………But in all seriousness, don’t do cocaine. It’s bad.
So this is what it’s like to be astonished by a new David Bowie album. Though I was living and breathing way back in the fall of 1980, I was much too young to have appreciated the release of Bowie’s last masterwork Scary Monsters. The thirty-plus years that separate Scary Monsters from his latest release haven’t exactly found Bowie in creative exile, wandering in the desert. In this time, he’s put out a handful of terrific singles and two very respectable albums – but “respectable” is faint praise for a giant who, during his heyday, created countless classic singles and nine unimpeachable albums in breathless succession over the course of ten years or so.
The enthusiasm that first followed the surprise announcement of The Next Day a few weeks ago (!), on Bowie’s 66th birthday, seemed more like dutiful goodwill afforded to a beloved artist rather than realistic hopes for a great album. The Next Day turns out not only to clear the low bar we tend to set for rock’s elder statesmen: Bowie’s new album rivals Bob Dylan’s “Love and Theft” as a triumph that requires no qualification or apology for age.
For “Love and Theft”, Dylan reshaped himself into the pre-rock Song and Dance Man he always claimed to be and delivered some of the finest music of his career. Bowie – no longer the chameleon – proudly returns in a unity of his many personas, as if while orbiting the Earth in suspended animation they had melded into a single being. This is no “comeback” for David Bowie. Rather, it is a magnificent continuation: an ellipsis connects his nine earlier masterpieces to his tenth, The Next Day.
As Ann Powers recently noted in a typically insightful piece for NPR, Bowie may have receded from the spotlight in the last decade, but his influence on popular music has been as potent and wide-ranging as ever. The Next Day emphasizes the contrast between master and mimic. Bowie doesn’t yet need an understudy.
The album’s many playful, reflexive winks at the Bowie mythos (from the album artwork on down to the “Five Years” coda on “You Feel So Lonely You Can Die”) shouldn’t distract from these fourteen superb songs, some of the most tuneful – and in some cases, daring – of his career. “Where Are We Now?,” a lovely and contemplative homecoming to the Berlin of Bowie’s celebrated triptych, was an intentional curveball-choice for a lead single. It’s not The Next Day’s only ballad. The album slows to a finish with plastic-soul bombast (“You Feel So Lonely You Can Die”) and a stunning dirge (“Heat”). But the vast majority of The Next Day is vibrant, even delirious, roaring with Bowie’s heaviest rockers and teeming with guitar hooks that just beg to be lovingly re-appropriated by James Murphy.
Longtime producer Tony Visconti and the expert session musicians who brought vitality toHeathen (2002) and Reality (2003) return to inject The Next Day with joyful noise. Bowie’s lyrics at times darken the album’s sonic radiance: with a medieval tyrant (“The Next Day”), a school gunman (“Valentine’s Day”), and the unwilling participants of war (“I’d Rather Be High” and “How Does the Grass Grow”). “(You Will) Set the World on Fire” casts a gimlet eye on the early-sixties Greenwich Village music scene. Totalitarian angst practically suffocates “If You Can See Me.”
“Here I am, not quite dying,” Bowie sing-growls on the riotous title track, which opens the album by kicking down the front door. The Next Day burns and raves with such miraculous moments. A train of elephants seems to march alongside a fat sax lick through the bluesy “Dirty Boys,” until the song turns feather-light during its chorus. The incessant, anxious ostinato of “Love is Lost” breaks into the slow swoon of “Where Are We Now?,” just as three minutes of whirling cacophony resolves with a glorious major chord on “If You Can See Me.” The mournful, psychedelic interplay between the guitar and synth on “Dancing Out in Space” could have been ripped straight from one of the Berlin albums. Two of Bowie’s oldest obsessions – the cosmos and celebrity – collide onThe Next Day’s resplendent standout “The Stars (Are Out Tonight).”
The Next Day feels like David Bowie’s swan song (again, that cover art). It almost certainly will be if he waits another decade to record a follow-up. Visconti claims there’s more to come, and soon. What an exit it would be, though. The Folkie, Ziggy Stardust, the Thin White Duke, the Melancholy Experimentalist, the Rock God, the Goblin King, and the Elder Statesman all finally converged on a single man. Cue a reading from Walt Whitman: “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.”
From the charged chaotic bustle of its opening track, The Next Day is the sound of a man fully engaged and energised by life and his own musical past. On January 8, David Bowie celebrated his 66th birthday by unleashing his first new music in 10 years on an unsuspecting world.
The surprise may have faded, but now a full scale celebration can commence because The Next Day, the 24th studio album of his career, is quite simply one of Bowie’s greatest achievements. In the decade since he released his last album, Reality, the concerns for David’s health that followed his 2004 emergency heart surgery have been compounded by the starman’s almost total withdrawal from public life.
Many assumed an ailing Bowie was counting the cost of living a fast and dangerous life as he went under the radar in his New York-based retirement with model wife Iman and 12-year-old daughter Alexandria. But listening to this album, it’s easy to imagine Bowie hearing the rumours with wry amusement.
From the charged chaotic bustle of its opening title track, The Next Day is the sound of a man fully engaged and energised by life and, indeed, his own musical past.
1. THE NEXT DAY
The Dame’s first shot across the bows is delivered in droll, fast, furious and funny style. Guitars duel against a frenetic bustling beat and searing string arrangement. The lyrics could be playfully alluding to his health scare: “Here I am, not quite right/Plenty more shadows on the dancefloor for me”. A Diamond Dogs dystopian future is also suggested as the narrator goes “chasing through the alley”, professing he can’t get “enough of that Doomsday song”.
2. DIRTY BOYS
Anyone fearing that the contentment of married life has detached demon Dave from his bedhopping bisexual past can rest easy. This sleazy bump ’n’ grinder, edged along by Steve Elson’s rudely suggestive baritone sax, is funky musical molasses – an irresistible mutation of the ‘plastic soul’ sound he pioneered on Young Americans. Delicious.
3. THE STARS (ARE OUT TONIGHT)
With Dave on acoustic guitar, this cautionary anthem, dealing in both celebrity and destiny – “They’re waiting to make their moves on us/The stars are out tonight” – has a clear Ziggy Stardust allusion which is memorably picked up later on the album.
4. LOVE IS LOST
No one does inner turmoil, fear, unease and mournful longing quite like Bowie. Those qualities, reflected in some of his greatest tunes, are captured here in a robotic Berlin-era groove featuring Gail Ann Dorsey on bass and Gerry Leonard contributing an angry guitar squall under Dave’s doom-laden swoon announcing “this is the darkest hour”. It is a song for our time and all time, beautifully setting up the album’s introductory single.
5. WHERE ARE WE NOW?
Tentatively piecing together remnants of a dimly recalled past into a meditative prayer, Where Are We Now? is not afraid to show the tenderness and frailty that comes with age. It also boasts the melodic gift of a master.
6. VALENTINE’S DAY
Despite its title, the chances of this melodically memorable stormer taking its place as a cupid hitpick alongside Heroes may be compromised by its alleged subject matter, a high school shooting. Even so, the commanding vocal, aided by a key change lift-off, ensures a fantastically rousing tune.
7. IF YOU CAN SEE ME
Bowiephiles will have much to pore over lyrically on this album – not least in deconstructing the identity enacted on this chaotically-charged slice of Lodger-recalling Pan African psychedelia.
8. I’D RATHER BE HIGH
“I’d rather be dead or out of my head” cries a battle-scarred soldier against monster metal riffs that recall Sabbath’s War Pigs and Zeppelin’s Achilles’ Last Stand.
The desert setting suggests contemporary conflict, the language of drugged abandon masterfully manipulated to address the scourge of war. A great song for squaddies everywhere.
9. BOSS OF ME
One of the first to recognise the songwriting talent of Bruce Springsteen, Bowie’s playful genius is at work here.
With Elson’s baritone once more to the fore, this is like a Clarence Clemons-era Boss song turned upside-down.
10. DANCING OUT IN SPACE
Peppy and easy to handle pop, although not as immediately striking or inspiring as what has gone before. File under filler.
11. HOW DOES THE GRASS GROW?
Even as Bowie fondly rekindles his earliest musical loves (sampling the riff from The Shadows’ 1960 hit Apache), he adopts the persona of a unforgiving inquisitor with some extraordinary crooning.
12. (YOU WILL) SET THE WORLD ON FIRE
Key Bowie influence Bob Dylan and his fellow Greenwich Village folk heroes David Van Ronk and Phil Ochs are all mentioned in this blistering tribute to the potency of the early 60s scene in Bowie’s adopted hometown. Earl Slick pours six-string gasoline on top.
13. YOU FEEL SO LONELY YOU COULD DIE
This is the album’s stand-out track, its title taken from Elvis Presley’s first hit, Heartbreak Hotel. The churning wrath and suicidal anguish of the lyric, the blazing string arrangement, massed chorus and a drop into Ziggy Stardust’s Five Years drum pattern befit a suitably awesome showdown between the Duke and the King.
The final track takes a magnificently unsettling left-field diversion. The stark portentous setting betrays the influence of Scott Walker, but Bowie’s fearsome brand of confession casts a spell only he can muster.
An all-conquering closer.
The thought of their own mortality does peculiar things to people. Often it makes elder statesmen release records such as Johnny Cash’s American Recordings suite – a final corpus of work that retroactively imparts all that came before with more gravitas.
In his seventh decade, David Bowie remains unlike all the other old dudes. Death stalks his 24th album – one crafted in secrecy redolent of the tomb. But it isn’t necessarily Bowie’s own death. The Next Day is packed with murderous tyrants, school massacres-to-be and snipers wishing they were dead. Its killer line has just a frisson of autobiography, from a singer whose work has rarely been self-referential, at least not in the mewling sense. “I stumble to the graveyard and I lay down by my parents,” Bowie sings on I’d Rather Be High, “Whisper: ‘Just remember, duckies, everybody gets got.'”
A heart attack truncated Bowie’s last tour back in 2004. Obituaries might well have been kept on standby thereafter as this once-dissolute pop star, one who had repurposed emaciation into a Romantic trope, became a near-recluse. Had Bowie’s final word been 2003’s serviceable Reality, his legacy as the British art-school pop star nonpareil would have retained its rude health. If there were one final single – Where Are We Now, say – its quavering tone and rheumy backwards glances at Bowie’s Berlin period would have made for a tidy coda. The Thin White Duke, after all, would have looked good in a convalescent day bed.
Instead we have The Next Day, a dense, angry, complex rock album. It’s priapic with saxophone and studded with riffs on old Bowie, rich with internal assonance (the vocal melody of Where Are We Now taken up by the guitar on Valentine’s Day) and many Davids singing (he’s like Scott Walker on the album’s closer, Heat). A week on from its debut on iTunes, it’s still hard to separate the quality of songs such as the excellent Dirty Boys from our collective need for this album to be a return to form, a scourge to those furred arteries, a bony two-fingered salute to the worms. If it is the mark of a satisfying album that you want to absorb every last note and reference, then The Next Day is a banquet, but one in which superfoods and gristle both feature.
Boss of Me sits ill here, from the ugly Americanism of its title to the lacklustre rock of its execution. If You Can See Me is, meanwhile, a drum’n’bass cut whose strangeness doesn’t overcome a 90s hangover. The verses of (You Will) Set the World on Fire are let down by its chorus. There are links backwards to Reality and 2002’s Heathen, most obviously Bowie’s desire to make statements about war, where in his pomp he just made up exotic and strange things.
But the tracks that bristle with guns – I’d Rather Be High, How Does the Grass Grow? – are rich and gory and recall (of all people) PJ Harvey. And if Bowie wants to cast celebrities as undead aliens, “sexless and unaroused”, preying on humanity, as he does on The Stars Are Out Tonight, then there are few stars who could do so with more authority.
Most satisfying of all, perhaps, is the swell of You Feel So Lonely You Could Die, which updates the Bowie of Rock’n’Roll Suicide. A bleak waltz that cries out for a lyric sheet, it’s the song that really nails the argument in favour of this late comeback, as vicious as it is bitter. Does he really sing, “I can see you as a corpse/Hanging from a beam”? Yes. Yes he does.