Heathen

David Bowie released Heathen on 11th June 2002, my last day of University. Three years earlier, on October 4th 1999, he had released “Hours…”, which was my first day of University. Between them, coincidentally, they bookmark this period of my life perfectly.

Throughout the 1990’s, many music journalists had been quick to declare each new Bowie album as “his best since Scary Monsters”. However, with Heathen there was the greatest concensus: this album stands alongside Bowie’s very best work. While for me, 1.Outside remains his greatest album of the last 20 years, Heathen comes a very close second. 1.Outside was a sprawling, experimental concept album; Heathen is a much tighter unit, probably best described musically as “art-rock”, a fusion of Scary Monsters, “Hours…” and Low. At the time of its release, it was nominated for The Mercury Music prize (losing out to Ms Dynamite’s “A Little Deeper”) and more recently was voted amongst the top 200 albums of Q magazine’s lifetime.

Heathen is an album about atmosphere. Like so many of his albums before, the themes of fear and angst run throughout. “Nothing remains, we could run when the rain slows, look for the cars or signs of life” sings Bowie on the opening lines to “Sunday”, Heathen’s opening song, thematically reminiscent of “Five Years” from 1972’s Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars or “Future Legend” from 1974’s Diamond Dogs. The equally bleak “Heathen” closes the album: “You’ll say you’ll leave me. And when the sun is low, and the rays high, I can see it now, I can feel it die”. Part of the genius of this album is how Bowie lets the listener paint their own pictures about what is going on: “Waiting for something… Looking for someone… Is there no reason? Have I stared too long?

The release of Heathen was preceded by the single” Slow Burn”, which features Pete Townshend on guitar and for which Bowie received a Grammy nomination for best vocal performance. However, it is “Everyone Says Hi” – one of Bowie’s best ever songs – which was to be the album’s hit single and which remains (to date) his last UK top 20 chart hit. It is a song about the loss of someone special (although we don’t know who and we don’t know where they’ve gone) and it contains a lyric and a vocal performance which are amongst Bowie’s most raw and emotional.

Bowie often likes to include at least one cover version on his albums – this album contains three: “Cactus” by The Pixies, “I’ve Been Waiting For You” by Neil Young and “I Took A Trip On A Gemini Spacecraft” by The Legendary Stardust Cowboy (who’s name formed part of the inspiration for the character of Ziggy Stardust). Each is a great addition.

It’s now approaching 10 years since the release of Heathen and the album has lost now of it’s relevance, emotion or power. For me, the album has a special place in the Bowie canon as it was while playing live shows to promote it that I first got to see Bowie live (in Manchester, 2002, supported by The Divine Comedy and Suede). Anyone who thought David Bowie had stopped making great music some years ago really needs to give Heathen a listen.

Songs to download:

  • Sunday
  • Cactus
  • Slip Away
  • Slow Burn
  • Everyone Says Hi
  • Heathen
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Diamond Dogs

And in the death, as the last few corpses lay rotting on the slimy thoroughfare, the shutters lifted in inches in Temperance Building, high on Poacher’s Hill” are the introductory lines to Future Legend, the opening track to Bowie’s brilliant, theatrical concept album,  Diamond Dogs. Set in a near apocalyptic future, we are taken to Hunger City: “No more big wheels – fleas the size of rats sucked on rats the size of cats and ten thousand peoploids split into small tribes covering the highest of the sterile skyscrapers” and told that “Any day now – the year of the Diamond Dogs“.

Released in 1974, Bowie had originally intended to produce a concept album based around George Orwell’s 1984. However, having been denied the rights by Orwell’s widow, Bowie instead took the ideas of the novel and created his own vision. The result is something quite spectacular.

Put simplistically, if you were to fuse Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars with 1.Outiside, you would produce Diamond Dogs. Musically, the album has more in common with Ziggy Stardust; thematically, it is closer to 1.Outside. The album is often seen as the last of Bowie’s “glam rock” period – the preceding albums being 1972’s Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars, 1973’s Aladdin Sane and covers album, Pin Ups. This is most obvious in the album’s biggest hit –  Rebel Rebel. However, Bowie’s sound was starting to evolve and elements of the jazz/soul – to later be more fully explored on 1975’s Young American’s – can be heard within the music of this album.

The imaginary created on Diamond Dogs is incredible. At this time, Bowie was using the technique of “cut-ups”, taking pieces of writing, stories, poems, magazine articles etc, and cutting them up into words and phrases, then randomly putting them together. What was created sometimes  made sense and sometimes didn’t, but from the combinations would come ideas, and this album fizzes with them. No more is this more successful than on the trilogy of Sweet Thing/Candidate/Sweet Thing (reprise):  “Some make you sing and some make you scream, one makes you wish that you’d never been seen, but there’s a shop on the corner selling papier mache, making bullet proof faces, Charles Manson, Cassius Clay. If you want it boys, get it here thing… We’ll buy some drugs and watch a band, then jump in the river holding hands. If you want it boys get it here thing, hope boys is a cheap thing, cheap thing. Is it nice in your snow storm, freezing your brain, do you think that your face looks the same?” .

In his early – mid 70’s albums (and later revisited in 1995’s 1.Outside), Bowie often took on the role of character’s. Sometimes they would feature in an album’s title – as with Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane – and sometimes they were confined to within songs. In 1976’s Station to Station (originally to be called The Return of the Thin White Duke), Bowie became The Thin White Duke; in Diamond Dogs he became Halloween Jack – “a real cool cat and he lives on top of Manhatten Chase. The elevator’s broke so he slides down a rope onto the street below – Oh Tarzie go man go!“.

Towards the album’s conclusion come the songs We Are The Dead, 1984 and Big Brother. With these, the links to Orwell’s novel are most obvious. However, despite the orignial intention, Diamond Dogs stands apart as Bowie’s own creation, and is all the more powerful for it. While others may go for Hunky Dory or Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars, for me, this was his best album to date. It remains as one of his greatest.

Songs to download:

  • Sweet Thing/Candidate/Sweet Thing (reprise)
  • Rebel Rebel
  • We Are the Dead
  • 1984
  • Big Brother

Scary Monsters and Super Creeps

Scary Monsters and Super Creeps is a benchmark Bowie album. Released in 1980, it is the album against which his subsequent albums are compared. Boringly (and somewhat lazily), the statement “…his best since Scary Monsters” can be found in most album reviews post-Tin Machine. While such statements give the album due weight (put simply, this is one mighty album), 1.Outside (from 1995) and Heathen (from 2002) are the equal of Scary Monsters, while Black Tie White Noise, Earthing and Reality aren’t too far behind.

The album follows Bowie’s more experimental “Berlin trilogy” and was his attempt to produce something more commercial. In that sense, the album was a roaring success. It hit the number one spot in the UK album chart (his first to do so since Diamond Dogs in 1974) and produced four hit singles: Ashes to Ashes (a UK number one), Fashion (a One Show favourite), Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) and Up The Hill Backwards. However, in contrast to Bowie’s later 80’s output (Let’s Dance, Tonight and Never Let Me Down), this is an album which is creative and ambitious. Long before the New Romantics took over the 1980’s, Bowie invented New Romanticism.

Musically, Scary Monsters is closest to that of 1970’s The Man Who Sold The World, 1974’s Diamond Dogs and 2003’s Reality. At it’s heart, it’s a great rock album – with it’s “Oh! Oh! Oh!” finally, the title track in particular is a great stadium number. There is a real energy and drive throughout, with every song demanding your full attention, and Bowie’s vocals have never sounded stronger. However, if you are looking for a ballad, Scary Monsters is the wrong place to be.

Thematically, Bowie sticks close to his favourite areas – fear (“Up in the tower, they’re watching me, hoping I’m going to die”, “They move in numbers and they’ve got me in a corner” and “Put a bullet in my head and it makes all the papers” and isolation (“The shrieking of nothing is killing me”, “The face of doom was shining in the room” and “Pyschodelicate gril – come out to play, little metal faced boy, don’t stay away) . These themes span the album, with Ashes to Ashes – marking the reappearance for Major Tom, last heard floating away in 1969’s Space Oddity – Scream Like A Baby and Teenage Wildlife (one of THE great Bowie songs) particular highlights.

For me, Scary Monsters is the last great Bowie album of a 10 series set, beginning with 1970’s The Man Who Sold The World. At the start of this new decade, Bowie was looking back over his career (the reappearance of Major Tom and scrapbook-style images of earlier album covers on the reverse sleeve are examples of this) but more importantly, he remained at the forefront of popular music and and continued to break new ground. Scary Monsters was not to be the last great Bowie album…

Songs to download:

  • It’s No Game (Part 1)
  • Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps)
  • Ashes to Ashes
  • Fashion
  • Teenage Wildlife
  • Scream Like a Baby

Career overview

A rather nice overview of the albums of David Bowie, in 6 minutes

1.Outside

1.Outside is a beast of a Bowie album, and it’s my favourite. Released in 1995, it was originally intended to be the first of a series of five albums (hence the “1” in the title) in a lead up to the new millennium. It should come as little surprise to those who follow the work of David Bowie that the follow-ups never materialised – this is a man with a very limited attention span! Apparently, over 20 hours of material was recorded in the original sessions with Brian Eno (their first collaboration since their Low, Heroes, Lodger Berlin trilogy) and Bowie has said on a number of occasions since that one day he intends to go through the tapes and put together the follow-up, 2.Contamination. However, it’s now over seven years since Bowie released a new album (and over 15 years since the release of 1.Outside) and if ever he was going to find time to go through these tapes and put together the sequel, you would have thought that this would have been it. For me, the fact that 1.Outside remains the only album of the planned series only makes it more interesting because of it.

The music on 1.Outside shows Bowie at this most experimental and daring. For the first time since The Thin White Duke on 1976’s Station to Station, he re-introduces characters – multiple characters. Sub-titled “The Nathan Adler Diaries – a non-linear hypercycle”,  the loose narrative of 1.Outside has Detective Nathan Adler investigating the ritual-art-murder of Baby Grace Blue, and in the process experiencing a variety of strange and sinister characters. Not to everyone’s taste, the album contains a variety of segues – spoken narratives with Bowie playing the part of each of the different characters. For me, these provide many of the albums great moments.

The album’s lead single was The Heart’s filthy Lesson – a minor top 40 hit – and which is the song which so effectively closes the 1995 film, Se7en. The rousing grand piano sections (performed by Mike Garson – a former member of Bowie’s band The Spiders (from Mars) and who began working with Bowie again on 1993’s excellent Black Tie White Noise) along with on others on songs such as The Motel, and are real highlights of the album.

At the time of release, critics gave this album a warm reception, declaring it (as they have done with all Bowie’s albums post-Tin Machine) his “greatest since Scary Monsters“. However, arguably, it is this album more than others from the 1990’s such as Black Tie White Noise and Earthling, which has achieved the greatest respect amongst critics and fans with the passing years. Every now and again the media conduct polls asking people to list their top 5 David Bowie albums (such as to celebrate his 60th birthday a few years ago) and increasingly 1.Outside features in these lists along with the better-known classics such as Hunky Dory, The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars and Diamond Dogs.

1.Ouside is not an album which is immediately accessible and it’s subject matter is challenging. However, this is an album filled with spectacular moments, many of which display the same flashes of genius Bowie created in the 1970’s and early 80’s. It is an essential purchase for anyone interested in the music of David Bowie.

Songs to download:

  • Outside
  • The heart’s filthy lesson
  • Hallo spaceboy
  • The motel
  • I have not been to Oxford Town
  • The voyeur of utter destruction (as beauty)
  • Through these architect’s eyes

Station To Station

Station To Station is a masterpiece. Based on the reviews the re-release received earlier this year, it’s probably fair to say that it has recently been re-discovered as such. Bowie himself has said that this is his favourite album, but he’s also on record as saying that he can’t remember recording it (and perhaps the two are linked). Recorded in 1976 in LA, this was Bowie at the height of his cocaine addiction, at his lowest ebb, but riding a wave of musical creativity.

The album contains only six songs, but each is a stand-alone gem. All but two have running times of over six minutes. The title track – perhaps Bowie’s greatest song – is a 10 minute sprawling epic. Opening to the sound of a fast moving train before settling into a foreboding groove, at three minutes in Bowie’s voice rises from the ambiance to announce, “The return of The Thin White Duke, throwing darts in lovers eyes”.

This is one of Bowie’s darkest characters (although he would create a collection of others in 1995’s 1.Outside). As the song builds, he creates a series of fantastically dark images – “Here are we, one magical moment, such is the stuff from where dreams are woven… Here am I, flashing no colour, tall in this room overlooking the ocean… There are you, you drive like a demon, from station to station” – before the song explodes into its second half, again, awash with striking imaginary. It is this second half which embodies the themes of the album: isolation, desperation and a deep rooted need to find love. Although the lyrics are filled with a sense of impending doom – “It’s too late!” screams Bowie, over and over – from this comes a realisation that there could yet be a way out  – “Got to keep search and searching, oh what will I be believing, and who will connect me with love?”

Station to Station is followed by Golden Years – one of Bowie’s all-time great pop songs. Building on the sound Bowie had created a year earlier on Young Americans, on the face of it, Golden Years is a much more optimistic song than the album’s opener. However, look deeper and the same angst and fear creep out from the lyrics:  “Don’t cry my sweet, don’t break my heart… run for the shadows, run for the shadows, run for the shadows”.

And so these themes continue throughout the album. Bowie himself has talked of Word On A Wing as a cry for help – “Lord, I kneel and offer you my word on a wing” while Stay – “This week dragged past me so slowly, the days fell on their knees, maybe I’ll take something to help me, hope someone takes after me” and Wild Is The Wind – “Love me, love me, love me… say you do” – only add to the feeling of loneliness, insecurity and despair. TVC15 – a song about a guy’s “demonic” TV set which swallows up his girlfriend – says much about Bowie’s state of mind at this time.

In an attempt to escape his addiction and demons, Bowie would relocate to Berlin to record his next album. However, he would fail to escape from the dark mood and themes he created on Station to Station – his next album was to be called “Low“.

Songs to download:

  • Station to station
  • Golden years
  • Word on a wing
  • Wild is the wind

Black Tie White Noise

Black Tie White Noise is the album I’m listening to right now. I’ve been listening to it full on for the last fortnight. It’s one of those albums that I keep forgetting about and then coming back to and thinking “Wow – this is really great”.

Released in 1993, it was Bowie’s first solo album in six years (he had been side-tracked with Tin Machine) and at the time it did really well in the UK – it is notable for being Bowie’s last UK number 1 album. However, ask most people to name their top five David Bowie albums, few are likely to include Black Tie White Noise in their list, which is a shame. While other Bowie albums from the 1990’s are now widely looked on as Bowie classics – The Buddha of Suburbia, 1.Outside, Earthling – Black Time White Noise is often forgotten about. Sadly, more people own 1983’s Let’s Dance (which shares the same producer, Nile Rodgers). Let’s Dance is a GOOD album, but it’s not a GREAT album. Based largely on the success of three singles – Let’s Dance, China Girl and Modern Love (all great songs) – it regularly appears alongside other Bowie classics in “Best Album…” lists. Black Tie White Noise rarely appears in such lists, but it deserves to. True, it doesn’t contain songs which can compete with the Let’s Dance singles in terms of mass commercial appeal, but it does contain great songs. These include Bowie originals, such as The Wedding Song, You’ve Been Around (a Tin Machine cast off) and Jump They Say (Bowie’s last UK Top 10 single), and covers, including Scott Walker’s Nite Flights and Morrissey’s I Know It’s Gonna Happen Some Day. Let’s Dance has little else to offer than it’s three famous singles. Taken as an album, Black Tie White Noise stands head and shoulders above Let’s Dance.

The music of Black Tie White Noise is fused with elements of dance, jazz, funk and soul and in that sense the album has much in common with Let’s Dance, released a decade earlier,and Station to Station, released seven years before that. While there are moments of beauty – The Wedding Song, Nite Flights, Miracle Goodnight – so too are there moments where (as in all great Bowie albums) the music becomes dark, experimental and edgy. Pallas Athena in particular is superb.

While it remains a largely forgotten album, Black Tie White Noise deserves a wider audience. In contrast to the album’s bland cover, the music is exciting, thrilling and memorable. If you haven’t heard it before, Black Tie White Noise is worth a listen, and if you have, give it another go!

Songs to download:

  • You’ve been around
  • Jump they say
  • Night Flights
  • Pallas Athena
  • I know it’s gonna happen someday
  • The Wedding Song