David Bowie: Fantastic Voyages From Beyond The Hits
, January 11th, 2016 06:39
You could release countless Bowie anthologies and never quite capture how special the Thin White Duke really is. Here, Chris Roberts, Nix Lowery, Joe Stannard, Frances Morgan, Petra Davis, Wyndham Wallace and John Doran reveal their favourite Bowie tunes which weren't smash-hit singles
God knows he's good... and so does The Quietus. Our writers plunder his back catalogue to unearth the finest Bowie tracks that weren't hit singles. Listen to the David Bowie Beyond The Hits Spotify Playlist here.
'Can You Hear Me?' from Young Americans (1975)
One of the highlights of Young Americans (the album which single-handedly switched a generation of white boys on to soul music), Bowie's "plastic soul" is more soulful than most others' "authentic" soul. He originally drafted this for Lulu, but the way he sings it here could surely never be bettered by man, woman or beast. It's a love song which seems to be completely shorn of irony. Even if his singing is that of a consummate actor, it doesn't matter: trust the result, not the process. There's a mature credibility to the lyrics too: while the protagonist admits the relationship in question has been imperfect, and "there's been many others, so many times", the key line is: "I want love so badly/ I want you most of all". This is no prettified 'Lady Grinning Soul' but half a dialogue between grown-ups. There's a gorgeous gospel-tinged call-and-response at the denouement. I can't really reduce this song with verbiage, as everything about its tone, sound, core and sheen possess a hotline to my unconscious and move me like a tsunami's caress.
'The Loneliest Guy' from Reality (2003)
In sonic terms alone, 'The Loneliest Guy' is one of latter day Bowie's most compelling pieces. Without the anchorage of a beat, guitar, bass and piano create the musical equivalent of a clotted sob, a lifetime's accumulation of tears without cathartic release. Then there's the vocal performance, for which Bowie appears to be drawing on a new awareness of his own mortality. He sings in an upper range croon, fragile, as though slipping by degrees into a world of shades, while the lyrics enumerate images of neglect and empty legacy: "Weeds between buildings/Pictures on my hard drive." Suddenly, the artist's 'glorious' past, with all its private betrayals and petty slights, discloses itself as an unmanageable burden: "All the pages that have turned/All the errors left unlearned." Like 'Thursday's Child' from the previous album, 'The Loneliest Guy' expresses the fear that mistakes can never truly be put right, that wrong is wrong forever, that love lost can never be retrieved no matter how hard one regrets.
'Art Decade' from Low (1977)
A pun on Art Deco and purportedly named after a Berlin strasse - perhaps Hauptstrasse in Charlottenberg where he bunked down during the Heroes years - Bowie has been quoted as saying that 'Art Decade' is his paen to West Berlin. A fitting coda to its album antecessor, 'Warszawa', 'Art Decade''s simple beauty lies in the sparse, reflective arrangement of repeated simple melodies. Delicate, somewhat mournful and, like 'Warszawa', painting Bowie's empathy with the isolated, borrowing Eno's sonic language, and creating another piece of seductively spacious, refined yet wistful construction. Tangibly yearning, 'Art Decade' is the winter of Bowie's discontent projected on his mythical Berlin.
'Unwashed And Somewhat Slightly Dazed' from Space Oddity (1969)
Alienation, isolation, violent insecurities – chronologically this - track two on Space Oddity - is where the Great Themes kicked in. But you know what else? It just fucking rocks. "A weird little song I wrote because one day I got a lot of funny stares from people in the street," he said in 1969. "About a boy whose girlfriend thinks he is socially inferior. I thought it was rather funny really." Lines like "Don't turn your nose up – well you can if you need to, you won't be the first or last" bear a candour and intimacy that few writers at this time were matching, although "I'm a phallus in pigtails" is just nuts. Really this is all about the climactic wig-out Bo Diddley riff session with his high-pitched Bolanesque vibrato whinny and that harmonica solo (by Benny Marshall of The Rats). Sounds awful the way I just described it. It isn't awful.
'Win' from Young Americans (1975)
'Fame' and the title track aside, 1975's ersatz soul experiment Young Americans is often placed low in both classicist and hipster Bowie top tens, languishing in £1 bins and charity shops. I know I got my copy somewhere like that, years ago; what's more unusual is that I became briefly obsessed - that repeated listening, planning cover versions kind of obsessed - with the second track, 'Win'. Sonically, it's a lush, saturated power ballad thing where the saxes (tight and funky elsewhere on the album) float and ripple on a bed of mega-reverb and strings keen like a slow disco lament; structurally, it veers between soothing grooves and anthemic DRAMA as the rhythm goes from a slinky, slow 4/4 beat in the verse to emphatic triplets and a squealing guitar in the chorus. Thematically or lyrically, the song makes no sense at all; the delivery is full of emotion but the words devoid of weight or coherence. The exhortations of the backing vocalists ("It ain't over...that's all you gotta do") can't pull us from the void at the heart of 'Win' (and, in fact, the whole album), and the more you listen to it, the less this song is about; and the less Bowie seems to know what it's about either. It doesn't stop him delivering some killer lines ("Someone like you. Should not be allowed. To start any fires...") and it doesn't stop it being beautiful, as the outro spirals lullaby-like hazily down into a couple of lazy drum breaks. Like a lot of highly produced music, 'Win's reflective surface denies full understanding, and thus it retains a strange, sad affect. Beck's almost-sampling of the track on 'Debra' does it no justice whatsoever in my opinion.
'We Are The Dead' from Diamond Dogs (1974)
Some consider Diamond Dogs to be Bowie's masterpiece. For me, the silliness of its Orwellian-Burroughsian narrative is made just about bearable by its author's growing predilection for studio experimentation. 'We Are The Dead' alone comes within spitting distance of fulfilling the project's lofty aims. The music is a lugubrious slog, the chromium flash of glam rock melted down into a woeful mess of molten metal and rancid sleaze, and yet this sloppy, solipsistic approach bolsters a lyric which leaps from the depths of idiocy ("Defecating ecstasy" and "We're today's scramble preachers.") to peaks of crystalline lucidity ("Something kind of hit me today/I looked at you and wondered if you saw things my way" and "Why don't we pass it by/Just reply, you've changed your mind?"). Somewhere between lines that are frankly more fuck-up than cut-up, Bowie manages to nail the abject hopelessness of Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, building a cumulative atmosphere of inevitable horror that allows the song to rise above both its own shortcomings and those of the rest of the album.
'It's Gonna Be Me' from Young Americans Reissue (1991)
Now, even within the most extraordinary body of work in the whole damn game, this is extraordinary. First, under working title 'Come Back My Baby', it got dumped off Young Americans in '74 when Bowie decided late in the day to include the Lennon collaborations ('Fame', 'Across The Universe'). It wasn't even released as a bonus track until 1991. So it must be a sketchy mediocrity, an afterthought, right? Far from it. 'It's Gonna Be Me' is a planet-huge, slow soul ballad with stop-start arrangements and an impassioned, oceanic vocal which is nothing short of astonishing. On any other album it would be the stand-out, the talking point. It's baffling even to close Bowie associates why he didn't rate it. My guess is he may have felt his lyrics portrayed him in an unflattering light as a heartless bed-hopping "womaniser". But it's a genre piece, so that shouldn't have stymied it. Plus there are countering, over-romantic flourishes – "loved her before I knew her name", "be holy again", and my personal favourite, "I wanna race down her street and knock hard hard hard on her door until she breaks down into my arms like a treasured toy". Maybe it's the way he sings "treasured toy". Yeah, it is. It's the way he sings the whole thing. You haven't heard a white boy sing black till you've heard this. Among the best three tracks from the Young Americans sessions, which is a gigantic statement.
'That's Motivation' from Absolute Beginners: The Official Soundtrack (1986)
Among the standouts of Gil Evans' extraordinarily brilliant soundtrack to the 1986 film adaptation of Colin MacInnes' hosanna to retromodernity, Absolute Beginners, is this set piece track of Bowie's. While critical reaction to the film - and especially to Bowie's performance as Vendice Partners, the anachronistically yuppified Mayfair advertising executive – was deeply disapproving, the soundtrack has quietly crept past the film's embarrassments to install itself in the shortlist of notable OSTs. Littered though it is with offerings from Sade, Ray Davies, Paul Weller, Jerry Dammers and Smiley Culture, it's the central writing relationship of Bowie and Gil Evans – former collaborator of Miles Davis, here in his full 80s folly phase – that gives shape to an otherwise meandering collection.
On first listening 'That's Motivation' foregrounds its showtuneiness, with its bleary horns irresistibly recalling Bernstein, but listen again: this tune is profoundly odd. Evans' central lead guitar motif (threaded through the entire production, including the introduction of the title track, Bowie's best-known contribution) is openly post-punk, a straight steal from XTC's 'Shake You Donkey Up', in fact, and Bowie's vocal is poised somewhere between Dick Van Dyke and Iggy Pop. The track bridges the unbridgeable with sheer craft; none of the soundtrack's other contributors manage to capture the relentlessly plastic quality of Macinnes' prose as Bowie does with this lyric. Performatively, too, this is a high point, though there'd be little to choose between Bowie as Partners and Bowie as Jareth the Goblin King (Labyrinth was released in the same year), were it not for the choreographic nods to Busby Berkely. See, he leaps from key to key of a giant typewriter like some Lynchian grasshopper, or tapdances in the sky, roaring the value of ambition. Why die lost in space when you can dance on a cloud? Energy is the thing, the root of the thing. Bowie in '86 had piles of it.
'Subterraneans' from Low (1977)
Bowie's most po-mo moment on Low, and also arguably the most beautiful, 'Subterraneans' is a multi-layered and celestial piece, a sonic painting brimming with referentiality and subtext. With a reversed bassline taken from his rejected The Man Who Fell To Earth soundtrack, Bowie references his attachment to the film, to his character Thomas Newton, and to the general sense of a man out of step, and out of time, with his surroundings – allegorically explored earlier in his work through his 'Major Tom' character. The main melody, a sweeping and encompassing phrase, contains a melody audibly mirroring Edward Elgar's 'Nimrod' from his Enigma Variations. Whether coincidental or deliberate, there are subtexts to be read here. 'Nimrod' is part of a series Elgar wrote in which each piece obliquely referenced one of his acquaintances. 'Nimrod' referenced Augustus J Jaegar, who convinced Elgar, when in a moment of great despair, to continue writing music, citing the German composer Beethoven as an inspiration. Bowie, too, was surfacing from a period of disillusionment, despair and drug induced creative drought – perhaps Visconti and Eno were his Jaegar? Or perhaps the idea of Berlin, and its isolated idealists, was his muse? The shimmering ethereal backwards melodics combined with synth-strings recall Eno's solo work significantly – on 'Subterraneans' more so than on any other Low composition. Lyrically, Bowie echoes the cut-up style of beat poetry, and a lone jazz saxophone answers the lyrical call, summoning surrealism and the creative fire of Burroughs and Ginsberg. Regardless of the replete referentiality of this track, its real beauty is that it works emotively, a contemplative and fragile beauty like ripples on a lake, Subterraneans' melodies flow organically. Ripples too, of its magic can be discerned in Vangelis' Blade Runner soundtrack, and most audibly in Angelo Badalamenti's collaborations with David Lynch – Subterraneans reaches towards futurity with a surreal and mystical architecture.
'Sweet Thing/Candidate' from Diamond Dogs (1974)
His Guernica. His Ulysses. His Ariel. More accurately, probably, his something by Jean Genet, but I don't know enough about Jean Genet to bluff it. What a movie this is. Before you crazy kids had your videos and your deely-boppers and your Sinclair C5s and stuff, we had to – wanted to – use our minds and imaginations to picture the scenes evoked in a lyric, and this monster was the motherlode. In the best of the Bowie books, The Complete David Bowie, Nicholas Pegg writes: "It's a stunningly bleak glimpse into the abyss and remains one of the most comprehensively imagined and dramatically performed of all Bowie's recordings." And it is a performance. The Diamond Dogs album has already given us foreshadowing – we're in a post-apocalyptic landscape, people – and now we're walking through its blackened streets. The initial section of the triptych is huge ballad 'Sweet Thing', then 'Candidate' is a quickfire cut-up recitation (I maintain that this was the first rap record, though I've yet to find an ally), then 'Sweet Thing (Reprise)' returns to crooning of such magnificent grandeur that it's just showing off really. Oh and then there's a bonfire of guitar feedback. Along the sight-seeing tour we encounter Charles Manson, Cassius Clay, "les tricoteuses", and many of the sassiest rhyming couplets ever conceived. That hissed "When it's good it's really good, and when it's bad I go to pieces" – the context, the urgency, the phrasing - has always moved me more than any line in the history of popular music, and always will. Strutting, vulnerable, cocksure, yearning: this is nine minutes of narcotized, narcissistic nirvana.
'V-2 Schneider' from "Heroes" (1977)
It fades in like the drone of an approaching missile, the rattle of snare drums in turn like gunshot in the distance, an ominous bassline beating like a nervous pulse: 'V-2 Schneider' may have been the B-side to the first 7" single I ever bought, 'Heroes' - second-hand from the Notting Hill Tape Exchange, natch – but it was way more exciting than its flipside, mysterious as Bowie's desire to swim with dolphins seemed. The V-2 rocket was a wartime Nazi ballistic missile and this lent the song a significantly dark aura, especially amidst the paranoia of Cold War politics. But like Bowie's best work the track had a human element to it, something that the addition to the title of the word 'Schneider' seemed to emphasise. (I had no idea it was actually a tip of the hat to Kraftwerk's Florian Schneider.)
The song continues with Bowie's (there's no other word for it) squonking saxophone and the disconcerting sound of his voice, phased and distorted, reiterating the title and slowly coming into focus as though it's clearing the clouds. And then there's one final guitar chord, a whammy bar sending it low as though the missile is divebombing, its engines on fire, inescapable, chilling. I could see it all, can see it all still, as exciting as it is terrifying. My adrenalin only subsides as the song fades, as though I have, somehow, cheated Armageddon.
'Lady Grinning Soul' from Aladdin Sane (1973)
The swooning epic romance of this song - such an unlikely, serene finale to the edgy, jittery, nervy Aladdin Sane - warped me for life at the most impressionable of ages. I am still mildly disappointed if my romances don't in every aspect resemble Brief Encounter, a Wong Kar-Wai film, or at least a Walker Brothers ballad. Somewhat disappointing, then, to find it was inspired by the same American soul singer who inspired The Rolling Stones' rather less idealistic 'Brown Sugar' – Claude Lennear, who worked with crusty worthies like Leon Russell, Stephen Stills, Joe Cocker. But always believe the painting, not the back story – 'Lady Grinning Soul', all ridiculously baroque piano, wonderful flamenco guitar from Ronson and a vocal that comes from a crumbling clifftop, is a torch song to burn for. And now you know where Suede got 'My Dark Star' (and one or two other songs) from.
'Something In The Air' from "Hours..." (1999)
Having effected an creative rebirth in the early 90s with a series of high concept releases, "Hours..." featured a good few songs which seemed inspired not by artful roleplay or po-mo posturing but by genuine human emotion. The verses of 'Something In The Air' are tense, clipped, detailing the decline of a relationship in blithely realistic terms while the verses represent the outpouring of grief and recrimination that accompanies the final death: "There's something in the air/Something in my eye/I've danced with you too long." The pain becomes all the more apparent during the song's extended coda, which homages Annette Peacock's 1972 avant jazz masterpiece 'I'm The One' with its chord sequence and the conspicuous use of ring modulation on the vocal. The effect of this is to twist and warp Bowie's words like guilt in the gut.
'I'm Deranged' from Lost Highway: Official Soundtrack (1997)
If any of David Lynch's films has fallen off the radar in recent years, it's most likely 1997's Lost Highway, and I'd argue that this is in some part to do with its soundtrack album, as compiled and produced by Trent Reznor. The music in Lost Highway is more 'of its time' than in any other Lynch movie, and thus much of it hasn't aged at all well, from Marilyn Manson to Rammstein, and the film's opening track, David Bowie and Brian Eno's 'I'm Deranged'. I actually really like most of it, although I do draw the line at the Smashing Pumpkins one. Originally on Outside , Bowie's 1995 album featuring the bombastic mashup of 'Hello Spaceboy' and sundry other over-ambitious, Matrix-ish techno-metal cuts that I suspect will one day get a reappraisal but maybe not yet, 'I'm Deranged' exploits the sudden vogue for putting a vaguely drum and bass rhythm behind everything, including adverts, that hit the mainstream in the mid-1990s. Here, it powers a melancholy, mellifluous vocal line that makes me think of Billy Mackenzie on Outernational, choppy guitars, and a wildly emoting piano straight out of 'Aladdin Sane'. It's pretty silly, perhaps, but it has a momentum, a synthesised sweep and a sense of dark space that, for me, is wonderfully inseparable from the juddering, frenetic yellow lines, pale headlights, and pitch-black road to nowhere of Lost Highway's iconic opening and closing sequences.
'God Knows I'm Good' from Space Oddity (1969)
Not one of the great Bowie songs - not even among the best half of Space Oddity - but there's something unique in his oeuvre about this. It feels as if it comes from a halfway house between his early Cockney dodger persona and the nascent alien freakoid. And the freakoid is observing these puny human/mortal types, not without compassion. As he watches a "woman hot with worry" caught shoplifting, he even manages to drop in an anti-capitalist, anti-corporate sentiment or two. What a hippy. Oh wait, what a decades-ahead-of-his-time seer. The beauty is in the detail: an old lady nearby faints. Honest people help her, even though the song's general tone is one of dismay at how greedy and selfish we are. See, contrasts and grey areas and no dogmatic absolutes - that's, like, proper writing. Dumb, catchy chorus too - and if you wilfully misunderstand it, you can sing along in a self-aggrandising fashion.
'Without You' from Let's Dance (1983)
Following the recommercialisation of Bowie's sound on Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps), Let's Dance is often dismissed as Bowie's MTV album, opening as it does with three singles: the gloriously accessible 'Modern Love' and 'China Girl', and the more complex, sinister funk of the title track. But the pop of 'Modern Love' and 'China Girl' is anomalous on this album, which is more often dominated by the carefully-constructed, lyrical post-disco of this track - a product of the co-production, with Bowie, of Chic's Nile Rodgers. Rodgers was soon to become notorious for his ability to inject disco infectiousness into pop records (he co-produced Madonna's 'Like A Virgin' album and many of Duran Duran's more interesting tunes), but here his sound is relatively restrained and minimal. 'Without You' benefits from a shimmery remove – Rodgers gives the multitracked guitars (including lead from Stevie Ray Vaughan) and Bowie's own multitracked vocal the same heft and prismatic treatment, with the sparse backing vocals providing the only clarity. The song structure, too, is shifting: unpredictable chord changes and a restless vocal line provide little comfort. "Without you, what would I do?" sings Bowie sadly, and the backing vocals respond with a cheerful "ooh-hoo." It's hardly the bluster we associate with the MTV video culture of the early 80s; this is one track whose delicacy of construction suffers for the association.
'All Saints' from All Saints: Collected Instrumentals 1977-1999 (2000)
This track, from the Berlin recording sessions which produced Low, is almost indistinguishable from early Throbbing Gristle. Play it back-to-back with TG circa 1979 (as compiled on 1986's CD1) and you'll see what I mean. A gnarly squall of low-end electronic noise punctuated by sprite-like coils of treble, this track more than matches the original industrialists for uncompromisingly ugly beauty and offers a stark contrast to the far less visceral instrumental pieces which made the album's final cut. In truth, Bowie's decision to leave this piece off Low is understandable; it seems likely that the other tracks would have simply withered in its proximity. Bowie wouldn't properly release anything as harsh as this until 1995's flawed but fascinating reunion with Eno, Outside, by which time the term 'industrial music' meant something completely different.
'Warszawa' from Low (1977)
Beginning ominously with a pulsing repeated chord, juxtaposed by a soft melody insinuating an almost spectral melancholy and resignation, 'Warszawa''s looped descant eventually builds to a cautiously optimistic sweeping note before resolving, then beginning its gentle upward swing once again. Berlin Trilogy collaborator Brian Eno lays claim to the repeated Chamberlin melodies and much of the construction of 'Warszawa': as the tale is told Warszawa's nascent stages were developed in the Château d'Hérouville (the same studio in which he wrote 'Pinups' and collaborated with Iggy Pop on The Idiot) by Eno and producer Tony Visconti's son whilst Bowie and Visconti were away attending a court case. Upon returning, Bowie adopted the sonic development, added tonal abstract vocals and fashioned complementary melodies, crafting the track into a paen to the still mythologised cities of Eastern Europe. Warsaw struck a chord in Bowie: hidden, trapped, struggling and exploited, but also cloistered and creatively fertile. A metaphor for the self, of course, as Bowie's self imposed exile in Berlin was imminent. The oft-quoted relationship with experimental sound construction is visible throughout Low's second side, and particularly in 'Warszawa': a simple exposition of counterpoint loops, creating a mournful tension, and yet a hypnotic grace.
'After All' from The Man Who Sold The World (1970)
The Man Who Sold The World is the no-nonsense, proto-metal, hard rock album. Except when it isn't. One of Bowie's most muted, whispered, sotto voce tracks ever, 'After All' is a trippy haunted-fairground waltz with faintly Buddhist themes. Maybe a dash of Aleister Crowley. It's those dubbed multi-octave refrains though, later deployed to great effect at the end of 'The Bewlay Brothers' on Hunky Dory, which make a poignant song profound. And it's fair to say a (meaningless? comical? po-faced?) refrain of "Oh by Jingo" shouldn't attain profundity. But it does. Here, it does. Cleanly inside any true Bowie fanatic's top ten, and nowhere near any populist Best Of.
'Always Crashing In The Same Car' from Low (1977)
They always call Bowie a chameleon, but rarely was he more so than on Low's 'Always Crashing In The Same Car', in which compassionate confession, paranoid frustration and a detached, almost paralysed sense of lethargy sit side by side. Almost certainly a metaphor for the cocaine abuse that had prompted his move to Europe, the song's impressionist lyrics obsess over his inability to resist, however hard he tries, from driving at speed at every opportunity until he crashes.
Bowie's voice remains tender over a backdrop of swirling electronic effects throughout the song's opening verse, but when the drums clatter at the start of the chorus his tone seems to switch to resignation, despite the optimistic arpeggio that climbs behind him into the bridge. Such euphoria is shortlived, however: he admits seconds later that he's spotted his passenger, Jasmine, "peeping as I pushed my foot down to the floor", and the utter futility of the experience is summed up succinctly in the image of Bowie "going round and round the hotel garage / must have been touching close to 94". The constant changes in vocal register exercised throughout hint at his unsettled, edgy state of mind, and his final howled "yeah, yeah, yeah" sounds practically traumatised, a desperate last attempt to fool himself. The song ends with a guitar solo – a third verse was apparently excised – that judders to an ugly halt a minute later, the electronics behind it now phased like police sirens. He's crashed again. Human weakness and the inability to avoid an inevitable fate have rarely been expressed so sympathetically.
'Be My Wife' from Low (1977)
Oh, more bleeding-heart desperate lonely romantic yearning disguised as cold haughty robotic heartlessness. Tears of a pierrot, fears of a machine. A perfect compact nugget of everything Bowie did best during the Low/'Heroes'/Lodger trilogy. You can say all you like about the influence of Kraftwerk and Neu, about Eno's studio experiments, about how Bowie's psycho-geographical switch to Berlin confused both sides of the punk wars so much that they shrugged and waved him through the barricades. Yet that canny advertising campaign – "there's Old Wave, there's New Wave, and there's Bowie" – was the most accurate sentence in the history of rock criticism. There are just eight brief, simple lines of lyrics in 'Be My Wife', but take them away and its consciousness would irrevocably alter. Bowie's personae spoke to us zealous fans, nailing it every time. We didn't give a fuck about Eno, to tell you the truth. Eno was for boffins and critics. And musicians. It was all about what our prophet was uttering, as Zen or Ziggy or soulboy or sultan. In this song he was just like us. The beauty of it being that he wasn't like us at all, so the mystery and enchantment continued.
'Fantastic Voyage' from Lodger (1979)
1979's Lodger witnessed the debut of a conspicuously 'clean' Bowie persona breaking free from the cocaine mayhem of the 'Cracked Actor' era and the grey purgatory of the Berlin period. Although generally discussed as part of a trilogy with Low and "Heroes", Lodger was recorded in Switzerland rather than West Berlin, and features no instrumental pieces. The lead-off track, 'Fantastic Voyage', finds Bowie in reflective mood, if somewhat perturbed. Addressing his own peripheral relationship to a world of trouble and admitting his confusion, he sounds a great deal wiser than the paranoid freak who gave an alleged Nazi salute at Waterloo Station just a couple of years previously. You can almost hear the cringe as he croons, "It's a very modern world/But nobody's perfect." The accompaniment to these rueful words is stately and unhurried, similar in feel and instrumentation to Eno's 'I'll Come Running' from Another Green World. With this tune, the newly rehumanised Bowie sounds as though he's emerging blinking from a hangover, or a nightmare, or both, although the the genuine danger of the world he is emerging into offers little in the way of comfort.
'Queen Bitch' from Hunky Dory (1971)
The glam rock highlight from one of Homo Superior's RCA-imperial phase book-end albums, was written on a formative trip to America. "The biggest thrill was meeting Lou Reed", he said on his return, stating the obvious. 'Queen Bitch' his tribute to VU and Lou was obviously a lot more heartfelt than 'Andy Warhol' - a great but weird ditty that apparently pissed off the soup tin king more than a soupcon. (It was certainly more inspiring than the tedious Song For Bob Dylan at any case.) At this point Bowie was a sponge feeding voraciously off New York and Lou, par-lifting and combining the riff, arrangement and, more importantly, feel of the Velvet's 'Sister Ray' and 'Sweet Jane' and Eddie Cochran's 'Three Steps To Heaven'. But he would be back less than a year later with his top coat and bibbity bobbity hat to more than repay the favour by producing Transformer. Meanwhile, and more importantly, 'Queen Bitch' really was one of the cornerstones of the whole Ziggy Stardust phase.
'All The Madmen' from The Man Who Sold The World (1970)
Oscillating between subdued feyness and macho guitar squalls, this set-piece from The Man Who Sold The World was Bowie's first attempt to give voice(s) to the voices in the head of his half-brother Terry Burns, who suffered from mental illness. (The South London hospital to which Terry was confined featured on the artwork of the album's US release). It's far from sentimental, often very grand guignol, and sympathetic: "all the madmen...are just as sane as me." And more fun than "the sad men roaming free". Some lines echo Kerouac's On The Road. Visconti and Ronson deserve great credit for the arrangements here. Many years on Bowie returned to the theme of Terry's state of mind in "Jump They Say". Clearly the issue, and this song, stayed with him. The surreal/nonsense closing refrain of "Zane, Zane, Zane, ouvrez le chien" was repeated in 'The Buddha Of Suburbia', and on the '95 Outside tour a huge sign reading OUVREZ LE CHIEN hovered over the stage. The phrase has become as much of an emotional trigger for Bowie fans as "Oh By Jingo..."
'Red Sails' from Lodger (1979)
As is probably the case for many of my generation, I heard music influenced by Krautrock a good while before I heard the genuine article, and this song would be the closest I came to the Utopian pulsebeat of Neu! until coming across a dodgy Germanofon bootleg of Neu! 2 in the mid 90s. Familiarity with Michael Rother and Klaus Dinger's linear innovations hasn't dimmed my affection for this track, however. Not only is it one of the most glaringly cheeky instances of Bowie's tendency for stylistic theft - he and Eno appear to have drilled the Dinger motorik firmly into the cerebral cortex of drummer Dennis Davis while Carlos Alomar's guitars contrive a perfect facsimile of Rother's vapour trail melodicism - it also boasts a bizarre piratical narrative which, like much of Lodger, illustrates Bowie's hitherto hidden capacity for playfulness. It's hard to imagine lines like "The hinterland! The hinterland! We're gonna sail to the hinterland! It's far, far, fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa far away! It's a far, far, fa-fa-fa-fa ta-ta-ta-ta-ta!" issuing from the bloodless lips of the Thin White Duke for instance. For more Bowie-instigated Neu! thievery, see also 'Funtime' from Iggy Pop's 1977 solo debut, The Idiot.
This article was originally published in January 2013