Oh You Pretty Things: Pin Ups (1973)

bowie sax

Many people are under the impression that 1972, when Ziggy came out, was Bowie’s biggest year in the early 70s, but in fact it was ’73 — the Ziggy tour caught on in the US, and he managed to get out two further albums (Aladdin in April, and this one in December) — both of which went to #1 in the UK and did well elsewhere on the strength of Ziggy alongside their own charms. Pin Ups was, ironically, released on the very same day as an album of covers by Bryan Ferry (These Foolish Things) — his debut solo album. Ferry didn’t do quite as well commercially (merely reaching #5 in the UK charts), but received more critical praise (and, frankly, is the better album of the two). While Bowie stuck to covers from a very specific and influential period for him (the bands and sounds he most often tried to emulate in his pre-first album period, 1964–67), Ferry picked his personal favourites from all across his youth, from songs that predate him quite considerably (probably favoured by his parents) to his pre-teen and early teen years in the 1950s.


The original “face swap selfie”

We mention this not just because the two were such contemporaries, but because Ferry was pleased enough with the reception to do another covers album a year later (Another Time, Another Place, 1974), but Bowie — despite very much wanting to — did not. Pin Ups was, in fact, intended as the first installment of a two-part plan: it was intended to bring English songs specifically to a US audience that wouldn’t be that familiar with them, while the follow-up album (called, at least at one point, Bowie-ing Out) would have consisted of Bowie covers of US artists. A few of these selections were covered by Bowie much later (“God Only Knows,” “I’ve Been Waiting for You,” “I Took a Trip on a Gemini Spaceship,” and others). In 1973, though, Bowie’s hair was in full-on mullet mode, but as mentioned previously he appears to be the one male humanoid that made it work (ironically it became a popular hairstyle more than a decade later, among both men and women). The cover art with Twiggy was originally intended for Vogue, but they didn’t use it, so Bowie recycled it.

In addition to the two pretty things on the cover, Bowie also kicked off the album with his version of “Rosalyn,” a raucous rave-up R&B rocker based on the Bo Diddley sound originally written by the Pretty Things and issued as a single by them in 1964 (he also covered the band’s other notable single from that year, “Don’t Bring Me Down” later on this album), and referenced the band in at least two song titles in his career (“Oh You Pretty Things” and “The Pretty Things are Going to Hell”). Apparently he liked them, and it couldn’t be more obvious in his cover of “Rosalyn” — Bowie surprises by aping the Pretty Things’ lead singer Phil May so well that, to quote May, “[Bowie] even screamed in the same places I did.” The two versions are similar enough that Bowie fans would be forgiven for thinking that possibly May had guested the lead vocal on this one, with one of the few differences in the cover being Ronson’s meatier guitar work.

This segues directly into a cover of “Here Comes the Night,” a song of teenage angst and jealousy first recorded by future Bowie pal Lulu (it didn’t do well for her) and was later a #2 hit for Van Morrison and Them (though it was not written by Morrison) in 1964. Oddly, Bowie never committed anything written by Sir Van the Man to an album or b-side, though his band Hype did “Madame George,” and David incorporated Morrison’s “Gloria” into extended concert versions of “Jean Genie” alongside other song snippets, so there was clearly some regard there. I would speculate that Lulu may have suggested the number as a good choice for him.

Lulu’s version emphasised the sadness of hu9444ef04430fbde914dd7141e91ab1e6--david-bowie-is-s-fashionmiliation and regret; Them’s version (with Jimmy Page as a session guy on lead guitar!) focused more on the anger and jealously. On Pin Ups, the song is done in more of a rock-musical style with a very theatrical, exaggerated vocal that sounds a lot like what I’d imagine Patti Smith or Tim Curry (again) might have done with it. Naturally, the Pin Ups version again has sterling guitar work, but also a strong saxophone presence missing from Lulu’s violin-centric, slower take, or the Rolling Stones-style interpretation Them recorded. Bowie clearly borrowed from both singles.

From there we go to a proper blues cover, a song written by Billy Boy Arnold (one of Bo Diddley’s sidemen) using a very borrowed Diddley beat. The song “I Wish You Would,” is only heard in its complete form on Arnold’s original; the Yardbirds’ version rearranges and generally fools around with the lyrics, and omits a verse, where the singer is supposed to reveal that the reason his woman done left him is because he was a drinker (as heard in the original 1955 single, above). Bowie’s cover, taken heavily from the Yardbirds single, also leaves that bit off. Curiously, Bowie and Ronson opted to replace nearly all of the signature harmonica line that was a defining characteristic of the 1955 song’s “blues-ness” — faithfully aped and augmented in the Yardbirds recording — with more guitar instead. If Clapton’s first band “whitewashed” the lyric, Bowie’s take on it whitewashed the music as well. Again, as with “Here Comes the Night,” he chose to go with rock rave-up type vocals that further cut the emotional heart out of the thing as well. Ronson outplays Clapton on this, but gets ever further away from the roots of the song.

81e0742dd3d52300d51a7e62e316798e--ziggy-stardust-david-jonesThis leads us into a brief return of David Bowie mk1, in the form of his cover of The Pink Floyd’s/Syd Barrett’s “See Emily Play,” very much the sort of music Bowie himself created in his first two albums. His take on it sounds like a fusion of the vocal style of his debut mixed with the backing band that created “The Man Who Sold the World.” Bowie backs himself up on Varispeed vocals to create a chorus of mental demons — he absolutely has a lot of empathy for the material and Syd, having had many mentally-ill relatives, the tragedy of his half-brother, his acquaintance with Barrett himself, and of course at this point in his life the madness of rock stardom. Garson again provides a lot of augmentation, while Ronson, Bolder, and Dunsbar create an arrangement significantly better than the original. The addition of strings at the end can, as O’Leary notes, be interpreted as the introduction of soothing medicine or a sign that the heroine of the song has completely withdrawn into her own troubled mind. It’s a great song made greater by Bowie, but it’s still rather jarring in the track mix, sandwiched as it is between the more typical “I Wish You Would” and the more typical rocker “Everything’s Alright.”

Speaking of, the only reason I can think of that this lightweight pub-rocker was included on the album is that drummer Aynsley Dunsbar also played on the original recording by the Mojos. This is the sort of song the early Beatles might have done in their Cavern Club/Hamburg days, and indeed Bowie’s version ends with him doing a multi-tracked “ooooh” finale that sounds lifted straight from “She Loves You.” Compared to two contemporary covers from 1965 — a very good one by the Liverpool 5 and an even livelier one from the Robin Hoods — Bowie’s version sounds rather by-the-numbers, though as usual the instrumentation is pretty solid.

Side One comes to an end with a strangely slowed-down cover the Who’s “I Can’t Explain.” Bowie openly ripped off The Who for a few of his early singles, in particular infusing his own “Can’t Help Thinking About Me” with all the fury the Who themselves could have mustered (and got called out on it by Townsend at their first meeting).

The odd choice to do “I Can’t Explain” as sort of a torch-song version that, but for Ronson’s presence, sounds like it could have been in Bowie’s cabaret act from six years earlier can only stem from his fundamental misinterpretation of the song. Bowie sings it like the chorus is a metaphor for an expression of lust in polite company, when in fact the song is clearly about a teen or pre-teens first inklings of sexual awakening, where they haven’t yet got the vocabulary for what they’re feeling. Despite having Dunsbar on board, the Pin Ups version strips down the drums, removes the teenage angst, and essentially neuters the song.


Side Two kicks off with “Friday On My Mind,” a hit for the Easybeats in 1966. The band perform the song admirably, but Bowie literally sounds like he can’t decide how to approach this as he’s singing it. Half the time, he’s doing it in his recently-favoured rave-up style (there’s no doubt in our mind that Bowie had taken in a performance of The Rocky Horror Show after it opened on the West End in June of ’73 with Tim Curry in the lead role), but for other parts — including some high notes he can’t quite reach — he goes the Tony Newley route from his early days. It’s very disconcerting when Bowie himself is by far the weakest element on a given track, but that’s the case here. That said, Bowie follows this up with by far the strongest of his performances on this album, “Sorrow.”

imagesThe track — originally written by Bob Feldman, Jerry Goldstein, and songwriting legend Richard Gottehrer — was first recorded by the McCoys (who used it for a b-side in ’65) and then the Merseys (who had a big hit with it a year later). Despite being a cover, it seems both like a natural Bowie number as well as one for which he has some obvious affection. As Bowie discographer Nicholas Pegg notes, the arrangement makes it sound very much like something he’d have written for his pal Lulu, and adds that an ironic reissue of Bowie’s own “The Laughing Gnome” is said to have caused RCA to hold back the “Sorrow” single for a while (the “Laughing Gnome” re-release actually hit #6 on the UK charts, such as the popularity for anything with Bowie’s name on it by this point). Bowie’s version went on to become one of his most successful singles ever in terms of chart staying power; it lasted 15 weeks in the UK Top 40, peaking at #3.

Back to the blues for the next number “Don’t Bring Me Down,” the other Pretty Things number, and the entire band turn in a solid performance, particularly Dunsbar (finally allowed to really shine on drums) and Bowie himself on harmonica. For everything Bowie and producer Ken Scott did wrong with “I Wish You Would,” they certainly nailed the blues down solidly on this track, mainly by closely copying the Pretty Things’ version (only turning down the mod stylings a tad, letting Dunsbar ply his trade, and clearly having access to a better recording studio). As with “Rosalyn,” it’s quite obvious Bowie really did like the Pretty Things, although this time around he lends the vocal a more mature style that he would make more use of as he, well, matured. I could see Bowie re-recording this in the same style 20 years later with no appreciable difference in the vocal stylings.

Listeners might be forgiven for feeling a bit of whiplash as the record veers wildly again, into “Shapes of Things,” the second Yardbirds cover on Pin Ups and their first self-penned single. The original had a nicely-mid-’60s youth rebellion feel to it (and clever use of overdriven guitar courtesy Jeff Beck), but Bowie and Ronson amp it up into a much more psychedelic arrangement that better suited the late ‘60s (but seemed just a touch retro in 1973), complete with a background string section. Much more Jefferson Airplane-meets-Moody-Blues than anything else on the album, with Ronson paying due tribute to Beck’s searing original solo. Again, this wouldn’t have been much out of place on The Man Who Sold the World.

The following track is a second slice of The Who, this time 180 degrees away from the lounge-y “I Can’t Explain” to a full-on, no-apologies imitation of the band outright on “Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere.” Bowie does his best Daltrey, and Dunsbar does his best Moon — while Ronson and Bolder mostly refrain from trying to imitate Townshend and Entwhistle directly, yet they still capture the vibe. Apart from some tell-tale stylings, Bowie and the band manage to pull off a strong impression of The Who at their best (again). The album concludes with a faithful but again harder-edged cover of “Where Have All the Good Times Gone,” which (unusually for this album) was a Kinks b-side rather than an a-side. It’s a bit of a “response” in sentiment to the youthful worries of “Shapes of Things,” where a more cynical narrator bemoans his youthful idealism, and Bowie shows off how much he likes the Kinks with another homage-cum-impression, this time Ray Davies.

The 1990 Rycodisc release of Pin Ups includes two notable bonus tracks: an early Bruce Springsteen composition, “Growin’ Up,” which features Rolling Stone Ron Wood on guitar (!) for the Bowie version, and the long-delayed inclusion of Brel’s “Port of Amsterdam,” originally left off Ziggy Stardust and now added to this album of covers. Bowie likely came to “Growin’ Up” through the original demo version, before Greetings From Asbury Park came out in late ’73, but even way back then the Boss’ style and voice were quite distinct, and Bowie sounds (in hindsight) like he’s covering a Springsteen (or Jim Steinman) song, letting his fascination with Americana ride free. The cover was actually recorded during the Diamond Dogs sessions, and was likely intended for the US-centric sequel to Pin Ups, and thus doesn’t really belong on this album: the song was also appended (more appropriately) to the 30th anniversary release of Diamond Dogs.

Tony Visconti

Clockwise: Bowie, Visconti, Springsteen, Garson

Bowie (a year or so later) covered Springsteen again with “It’s Hard to be a Saint in the City” again from Brooooce’s debut album around the time of Young Americans and Station to Station, but although Bowie and Springsteen met during those initial sessions, and the former clearly had an affinity for what the latter was doing, they never worked together. Bowie, after meeting Springsteen and gathering that The Boss wasn’t too impressed with the cover, never released his version, which was actually quite prescient with regards to where Springsteen would later end up, and the track finally turned up on the compilation Sound + Vision.

The “Port of Amsterdam” cover — both the original “first mix” and the Ryko Pin Ups “second mix” bonus track  — follows Scott Walker’s 1967 English-language version pretty closely (there’s a pretty amazing video of Brel himself performing it live; see below), and brings all the power and poetry of Walker’s version to a simpler arrangement of just him (or possibly Ronson) on 12-string guitar. O’Leary notes that after deciding to leave it off Ziggy, Bowie apparently wrote “Rock n Roll Suicide” as a faux-Brel replacement. There’s another “clean” acoustic version of the song Bowie did, even more passionate in its performance, now on the Bowie at the Beeb CD. Bowie performed the song a half-dozen times times on the radio, but the first mix of the studio version ended up as a b-side for “Sorrow.”

Although it would have technically broken the theme of UK singles from the mid-60s, I think an appropriate bonus track (should they ever get round to doing another reissue of Pin Ups) would be the “White Light White Heat” cover Bowie originally started, but never completed, during those sessions. Mick Ronson later sought, and got, permission from Bowie to use the tracks for his own cover of the song on his album Play Don’t Worry. Bowie covered the song about a zillion times in concert, however, and there are something like a half-dozen versions recorded for the BBC floating around. This one (below) is probably my favourite of them, as you can hear Bowie aping Lou for all he’s worth. Mr. Reed himself joined Bowie in some live versions, including one as early as 1972, and most memorably for David’s 50th birthday concert.

Regarding Pin Ups as a complete work: while there are definitely occasions on Pin Ups where Bowie covered songs well, there are almost as many where he appears to have missed the point of the song entirely. Though Bowie claimed in interviews that most of the songs chosen for Pin Ups were singles or albums he had at home from his early days, none of these bands (bar The Who) seem to have been big influences on him.

While he might have enjoyed the songs (either seeing them performed live back in the day, as he would claim, or from the records), it can’t be a coincidence that almost none of these songs ever reached US radio listeners, making this “contractual obligation” album seem like just a new Bowie album to many American fans, or to younger UK fans. Pin Ups is an collection of focused (and occasionally un-focused) nostalgia at a time when that was really coming into vogue: in addition to Bryan Ferry putting out the same sort of album at the same time, it was around this time that the simpler mid-50s and early-60s rock songs, now looking dated by comparison with the contemporary 70s, became nostalgic “oldies” to those who grew up on that stuff as teens themselves.

A lot of the songs Bowie chose for the record are good, though a surprising number offer rather empty, throwaway lyrics; the simplistic “Rosalyn,” the abridged “I Wish You Would,” the pointless “Everything’s Alright” — odd choices by an artist known for his multi-layered and often-complex verses, and affinity for others who specialized in allegorical and symbolic lyrics. There’s a troubling feeling, however, that Bowie didn’t really put his full effort into, let’s say, half of the material. It’s quite possible the influence of “The Rocky Horror Show” was playing a role here, but much of the first side sounds like theatrical takes on the songs rather than heartfelt covers (his a-game is much more present on the second side).

For those unfamiliar with the originals, Pin Ups is an uneven but fun (and now, rather underrated) album featuring a variety of styles performed by an incredibly solid band — but I have to say I got more enjoyment out of re-listening to the various original releases, even when Bowie’s version was arguably better. While far from his worst record thus far, Pin Ups does at times feel like a “contractual obligation” record lacking in focus and effort, only periodically interspersed with songs or bands that he actually did hold in high regard. The album did very well — better than Ziggy in some ways — but those awaiting the next chapter in Bowie’s rapid development would have to wait one more year: Pin Ups is more of an entertaining intermission.

COW 20-May-2013 – “Candy and Records”

This is a super-fantastic new episode (well, recorded on the 20th of May, 2013), and I was back in Orlando as part of a Fringe Show a friend of mine did — he later went on to win Best Comedy! If you’ve heard of “rap battles” or a battle of the bands or even the double-dutch dance-offs between those New York City girls, then this delightful DJ duel is going to be a special treat.

Sometimes when WPRK DJ Phantom Third Channel and I get together, we challenge each other — with music! As Frankie says, when two tribes go to war, the audience is the winner. This show has a tremendous diversity of sound pulled from across several decades of indie and college rock, but with a definite 80s atmosphere. Over the next two hours you’ll hear bands like Wire, XTC, They Might Be Giants, Bruce Wooley, Veronica Falls, Roxy Music, PIL, Galaxie 500, the Stone Roses and John Foxx — and more!

In between songs, we chatter and gush over all the great stuff we play for each other. One of our best sessions, but stay tuned … there’s more new episodes to come!

You can listen to the episode below, download it from the web site or subscribe to it in iTunes for free. Let us know how you like it at crustyoldwave@me.com, and enjoy!

[audio http://www.buzzsprout.com/6230/172646-cow-20-may-2013-candy-and-records.mp3]

COW #173 — 20-March-1995 — “Bryan Ferry Cross the Mersey”

Here’s a treat for those listeners who remember the local band scene in Orlando and all the great concerts we used to have — this episode’s twin focus is on the upcoming Bryan Ferry appearances that were happening that week, as well as both concerts and a new seven-inch, four-track EP put together by a handful of great local bands.

Our pal Jim was on the show, bringing along the latest Bryan Ferry album (which we go all fanboy over) and news of his upcoming appearance, and the two of us cooked up plenty of familiar and obscure New Wave gems, a few rarities and dance mixes as well. We took a little time to spotlight the local band EP and our special guest Aaron of Thee Exotic Aarontones in the middle of the show, and we also have a special all-new “bonus track” at the end from NYC-based Rude Boy George, who do a killer ska cover of the Romantics’ “Talking in Your Sleep” with a guest vocalist from the English Beat!

You can listen to the episode below, download it from the web site or subscribe to it in iTunes for free. Let us know how you like it at crustyoldwave@me.com, and keep an ear out for part two of this shindig, coming soon!

[audio http://www.buzzsprout.com/6230/159724-cow-173-20-march-1995-bryan-ferry-cross-the-mersey.mp3]

The Idol of Idle Youth: COW Episode #86 — 23-April-1993

Well here we are with a completely amazing episode from April of 1993 — its so good in fact that I’m having to split it up into two parts so you get the full glory!

Your old pal Chas had caught the Nash Vegas fever of Webb Wilder’s incredible root-rock-a-tronic southpaw music, and he pops up a couple of times in a show dominated by the great New Wave and Art Rock songs that weren’t the biggest hits but scored a lot of points.

You can listen to the episode below, download it from the web site or subscribe to it in iTunes for free. Let us know what you, the loving public, think at crustyoldwave@me.com, and keep an ear out for part two of this shindig, coming soon!

[audio http://www.buzzsprout.com/6230/120742-cow-episode-86-the-idol-of-idle-youth-23-april-1993.mp3]

Bargain Bin Crusty Old Wave — 13-May-2013

Here’s another all-new episode of Chas’ Crusty Old Wave, this time recorded on the 13th of May, 2013 live at WPRK. With our dear friend Phantom Third Channel behind the board, we once again took to the air to bring out the long-lost and beloved treasures of the New Wave era — but this time we did things a little differently.

Just to change things up, Phantom and I took turn playing the kind of music that normally plays on our show when I’m not taking over the place. Naturally I brought my early 80s-centric songs, and he brought his avant-garde selection of eclectic thrift-store finds, lost gems from bygone decades and enough oddball curveballs to win a baseball game. It made for an interesting mix that saw John Foxx followed by Robert Johnson, Captain Beefheart opening for Lesley Gore and Roky Erikson going head-to-head with Steeleye Span. This episode is a wild one, to be sure.

You can listen to the episode below, download it from the web site or subscribe to it in iTunes for free. Enjoy.

[audio http://www.buzzsprout.com/6230/117021-bargin-bin-crusty-old-wave-13-may-2013.mp3]

COW #038: Girls! Girls! Girls!

Annnnd here we are with another fun-filled episode of Chas’ Crusty Old Wave! This episode (#38) comes to us from the first of May, 1992 is serves not only as a two-hour testament to how great some of the music of the 80s was, but also to showcase a little of the wonderful cast of characters that I was privileged to work with on WPRK at Rollins College in the 90s.

This episode has some unusual selections. You’ll hear obscurities from Noel’s Cowards, Gina X Performance, Jerry Harrison, Landscape, and Seattle group Uncle Bonsai alongside album cuts from XTC, Adrian Belew, Falco, They Might Be Giants, the Rutles, the Pet Shop Boys, Adam Ant and many more. It’s a party in the basement, and you’re invited! Let’s kick it off with a little sauciness from Duran Duran, and listen out for a cut from Sesame Street. Yes, Sesame Street.

You can listen to the episode below, download it from the web site or subscribe to it in iTunes for free. Enjoy.

[audio http://www.buzzsprout.com/6230/103038-cow-episode-038-02-19-35.mp3]

COW #168 – Rock On With Your Bad Self

Here it is, the latest episode of Chas’ Crusty Old Wave, fresh out of the oven! It’s a humdinger as well if I do say so myself, with lots of killer tunes. Heck, any episode with both They Might Be Giants and Weird Al Yankovic is bound to be good, plus you throw in lots of original punk, an interview and music from Orlando band Potential Frenzy, some particularly brilliant but less-heard music from Bruce Woolley, Bill Nelson, Modern English, Joe Jackson, The Assembly, the Buzzcocks, Paul Collins’ Beat, and Georgia bands The Woggles and Hillbilly Frankenstein.

Oh wait, there’s more! How about a rare remix from Yazoo, some ska from the Toasters and Madness, and more great local music from The Hatebombs? And did I mention a bit from Monty Python? It’s all here, friends, in two hours of delightful fun.

Get your dancing shoes on — by the time Malcolm McLaren’s “Double Dutch” shows up, you’ll already be out of your chairs and dancing down the stairs! Enjoy.

COW #168 – Rock It to the Moon

David Bowie – The Next Day (2013)

A lot of people had kind of given up on David Bowie, presuming he’d retired from the business we call “show” after a heart scare during the “Reality” tour in 2004. Reality (2003) was his most recent album and it was, like the previous five or six albums before it, a mixed bag. Some good stuff, some not-so-good stuff, nothing as dire as Tonight (1984) or Never Let Me Down (1987) but no one record that was a mind-melting as Lodger (1979) or as thoroughly A-material as Scary Monsters (1980).
After the nadir of Never Let Me Down (which let everyone down) and the diverting-but-just-not-right Tin Machine experiment (1989-1991), Bowie seemed to start finding his way back to the 50s-influenced-but-artrock-filtered niche he excelled at. By the time he got to Hours (1999), he was back on track — though no longer the cutting edge of art-rock, more a follower. But he had regained his vision and spent much of the next eight years honing it with a great band and more enjoyable albums that contained at least enough fine songs to be worth the purchase.
Then, suddenly, in 2004 the lights went out. No more Bowie. A lot of us hung on for a long time, waiting for the return. After nearly a decade, all but the most die-hard had given up, wished Bowie well, and resigned themselves that Reality and perhaps a few more scraps like the iSelect compilation (2008, which had a few re-recorded parts for the version of the best song off Never Let Me Down, “Time Will Crawl”), Bowie was done. He had a new kid and a new wife, he’d certainly earned his legend status, leave him alone.
I never gave up. Every month or so I would hunt for new pictures of Bowie, any scrap to indicate what he was up to, how he was doing. There wasn’t much — it was more like nostalgically looking up photos of a long-dead friend. So on January 8th, 2013, I finally understood what it might feel like to Christians if Jesus returned. I felt my faith finally rewarded.
So, what of this Second Coming? Well, after listening to it (the deluxe version of the album) for a couple of weeks, and on the eve of its official release, here’s the bottom line: it’s great. It’s just like the cream of his last few albums, with almost all strong songs done in his 2000’s style. It’s like the 10 years hadn’t passed, though I do detect a slightly rougher voice than previously.
But the thing most of the other reviews I’ve seen of this record have completely missed is that this is not a dour or contemplative mope-fest from an aging rock star back from a death scare — not at all. This is Bowie having a great time doing something he obviously missed doing: putting together an album in the studio. Yes, there are a lot of mentions of death (and life) on this record — but no more so than, say, a Decemberists album. Our Bowie has a black-humour streak, people! How can you not have noticed this?
I’m sure David takes the ponderous reviews of his “looking back on his life and output in a reflective mood” or “a dance through his greatest albums” blather and has a good laugh … all the way to the bank. As I write this, The Next Day is #1 in 34 countries before its even in the shops. “Where Are We Now?” aside, this is a joyous record that revels in its own style and exudes friends having a good time singing about the end of the world. Why can’t some of these critics see the joy that’s written all over this record — or the obviously gleeful mischief in the way he announced it and has (lack of) publicized it? It’s a mystery to me — the video for “The Stars (Are Out Tonight)” is a total knee-slapper. This is not an album made by a wistful recluse — he’s only 66 for heaven’s sake, not 86 with terminal cancer!
The album opens with a solid, kick-open-the-door thump that serves as notice that Bowie is back, and the opening number — the title track to the album — even goes so far as to tackle the long-time absence head-on, bellowing “Here I am, not quite dying” in the chorus. It’s a jammy, kicky anthem with a cocky, sleazy Bowie announcing proudly that he’s not interested in spending his golden years warbling sell-out remakes of the Great American Songbook, thank you very much. This is an energetic, balls-out rocker that I’ll bet Robert Palmer would have loved to have covered back in his Power Station days.
Quickly shifting gears, we suddenly find ourselves in a dark New York underground nightclub, full of honking saxophones and a crime scene/beat noir vibe. Vocal effects, verses in a (for Bowie) bluesy growl and a higher-key chorus, this song prowls around and lets us know we’re in for a ride. It’s followed by the slicker, but much more “typical” (for this period of Bowie’s career) number, “The Stars (Are Out Tonight),” which I liked a lot better listening to the album than when I first saw the video. Like a lot of Bowie’s material, this one grows on you — and could have been written for Iggy Pop (probably everything you need to know about the song right there).

The video is very amusing — Bowie and Tilda Swindon swanning suburban while their youthful doppelgangers do the rock-star routine and stalk them in their subconscious. Watching Bowie as the “empty nester” reminds you of what a great actor he is, and the song is a more direct stab at social commentary than we’ve seen (not counting “Where Are We Now?”) in quite a while. Again, great energy and the video shows off the great humour behind it.
This rollercoaster really starts to gain altitude, however, with “Love is Lost” — an ode to teenage angst delivered credibly without a hint of either cynicism or creepiness. This is us starting the clanky climb up the first hill — building some tension we know is going to get released later. A snarky line — “Your country’s new, your friends are new, your house and even your eyes are new, your maid is new, and your accent too — but your fear is as old as the world” — promises great things to come. The song itself tells the tale of a 22-year-old girl who thinks “is this all there is” at the height of her youth and beauty, like we all did after our first heartbreak — not able to see that there’s so much more ahead, instead seeing only decline and eventually death. The quick fading calls of “what have you done” make a brilliant ending.
This is followed by Bowie’s initial release “Where Are We Now?” — a red herring that is as out of place on this album as it was for a first song release. It set the stage for a lonely, wistful walk down memory lane — exactly what this album isn’t! It’s a stunningly beautiful piece, mind you — I absolutely love it, and it brought me to tears the first time I heard it after such a long wait.

It’s full of loss and resignation — but beautiful like a funeral in a cathedral. It’s built like a Roy Orbison song, an unconventional structure that builds to a climax and then adds a lovely denouement. The finale hits like a burst of sun on a cold, cloudy day. This is the final moment on that roller coaster before you plummet down, that catching of the breath, the height of anticipation — and it is a beautiful thing. A great song to accompany a good cry, and a genuine reflection on a world — and man — that’s changed so much since those days in Berlin.
“Valentine’s Day” is the plummet down that first giant hill — not the ultimate release, Bowie’s saving that for later — but as rootsy a Bowie song as he’s done in ages. It really pulls from his 50s-influenced style of songwriting, throws in a black tale of a crushed character and dresses the whole thing in teenage-angst drag, right down to his “Hunky Dory” (1971) voice. It’s that bit when the front of the roller coaster is over the edge, but the back end is still coming over the hill.
“If You Can See Me” is the full-on plummet, a welcome return to Earthling-esque drum ‘n’ bass laced with medieval metaphors and beat poetry. It’s even got a bit of vari-pitched “Laughing Gnome” vocal in spots (what the –??). Stripped of it’s jungle pretensions, the song isn’t that far from the sort of thing he was doing in Labyrinth or Absolute Beginners. If you liked Earthling (and I did), you’ll like this.
Act Two of this record begins with the lightweight and obvious radio single “I’d Rather Be High,” which will remind his long-term fans of Hours. A pitch-perfect blend of “contemporary retro,” with a lovely military-themed lyric. I could totally see John Foxx doing this number, influenced as he is (as Bowie is) with a good Beatles-esque turn of a chorus every now and then. “Brilliant and naked, just the way that lovers look” is such a great line.
And if that song fails to chart, there’s always Plan B — the encroaching-back-into-Let’s-Dance-territory “Boss of Me,” again with the honking saxes and a full complement of backup singers. It’s a bit crunchier than anything he did in the early 80s, but it’s definitely a mainstream number — complete with a killer mid-eight, a touch of Nile Rodgers, and a sprinkle of Thin White Duke. It’s a clever take on a love song, and continues the radio-friendly theme of this “side” of the album.
Which takes us to “Dancing Out in Space” — you can tell from that title that this is meant as helium-filled fun. No death, no military, no literary allusions. Hell, with some work this could almost be a B-52’s number, that’s how fluffy it is. But unlike his failed attempts way back when, today’s commercial-pimping Bowie is a lot smarter about this stuff. He’s catchy without being pablum or ordinary. It may rub some of his art-rock fans the wrong way, but it’s again very 50s influenced and, well, fun. Natural fun. Like a Ringo track on a Beatles album, you know?
He goes a lot darker with “How Does the Grass Grow” — the title and chorus of which are based on a chant from bayonetting soldiers — but the song is still relentlessly sunny and catching, framing the kill-call chorus with The Shadows’ “Apache” and plenty of ya-ya-yas. Despite the black tone, this is another song I can picture the Goblin King singing to his muppet-filled court. From the drums to the vocals, it’s all very 60s — this is probably Bowie’s idea of a dance number, and even has a faux-Fripp opening! One of my favourites on the album.
Putting all the cards on the radio table, we come to “You Will Set the World on Fire” — a perfect artifact from the 70s, with Bowie posing as the LA-sleazebag promoter promising some young starlet the moon and stars. “I can work the scene, babe, I can see the magazines” — this comes free with fantastic visuals in your mind of the ultimate rock movie, plus Bowie hits some impressively high notes here. It’s a total rave-up just this side of glam, with tons of energy. A perfect cross of his 70s and 80s work — and that works a lot better than you might think. Fabulous.
And now, the non-finale: the stunning, fragile, haunting “You Feel So Lonely You Could Die.” I know why this wasn’t the last song on the regular edition of the album — it’s too much of a sign-off, too emotional to be the last ringing chord, might have led to some suicides. Yeah, seriously.
It’s his signature Ziggy ballad all over again — Tim Curry is dying that he didn’t get to sing this in The Rocky Horror Picture Show. You can feel the searing spotlight, the ghost of Marc Bolan, and hear where the Nits get so much of their magic. This is the most purely glam thing since Bowie had Spiders for friends, featuring acoustic guitars to balance the sound flawlessly. This is perfect. Utterly perfect — it doesn’t get any better than this.
The regular edition of the album ends instead with “Heat,” a Scott Walker tribute. It’s a typical Bowie move to end the album on an enigmatic note. “Heat” is a lot like “The Electrician” and would have been comfortable on Outside, or maybe The Buddha of Suburbia. Brings the curtain right down.
The extended edition of the album adds three further tracks. The first, “So She” is another lightweight but catchy number that’s more synth-heavy than the rest of the record. It is neither great nor bad — pleasant and good, and a minute or so shorter than the average song running time up to this point. Reminds me of the group Komeda, but with Bowie vocals. To be frank, it’s a b-side. The second bonus track, “Plan,” is an instrumental and again is not unpleasant, but doesn’t take us anywhere and just kind of … lays there. An odd choice for an album track.
Luckily, the last bonus track redeems it all. A sound that recalls Scary Monsters beautifully, “I’ll Take You There” is another straight-ahead rave-up that rocks as hard as bands a third his age, just one more catchy, fabulous reminder that Bowie ain’t laying down just yet. You reach the end of the record recharged and ready for more. But another replay will have to do. This is an album that lives up to its hype, and hopefully marks the beginning of a new period of productivity. For 51 minutes, all is right with the world.

COW XX — 20 Years of Crusty Old Wave!

WPRK threw a party and invited me … and, by proxy, you … to a celebration of 20 years since the first episode of what would become Chas’ Crusty Old Wave. I returned to Florida for the first time in nearly two years, and we did not one but two two-hour shows featuring the music we all love so much — the red-headed stepkids of the 80s!

Today, three months after the event, we present the first of the two anniversary shows, hosted by Phantom Third Channel and myself. We get on terribly well and giggle like schoolgirls reading Tiger Beat magazine when we talk about music and bands and records and stuff, and this shows in our several extended conversation breaks — but don’t worry, there’s lots of great music there, with an emphasis on Brian Eno, David Bowie and Elvis Costello. A lot of the tunes on this episode slot neatly into that all-too-brief era between the fall of UK punk and the rise of commercial “alternative” music. For a bit there, before MTV and in a few cases even before punk rock, there was a period where Weird Was Good. We touch on a lot of that with things like the Stiff Records single You’ll Always Find Me in the Kitchen at Parties by Jona Lewie, or Bruce Woolley’s original take on Video Killed the Radio Star, or Bow Wow Wow’s call for sonic revolution, C30 C60 C90 Go!.

We also hit some songs that are sheer nostalgia for me personally, within and without the New Wave movement — such as Love and Loneliness the most over-produced record in the world, and Monochrome Set’s odd little B-I-D Spells Bid, one of the very few songs written by and about the lead singer of the band. There’s also some Ultravox from both “eras” of the band, some bona-fide classics like Gary Numan’s Me! I Disconnect From You and more. You can grab your copy from the website or directly from iTunes.


Punk Rock (and Chat) in Yer PJs!

While we wait for the May episode of Chas’ Crusty Old Wave, a special treat … last month Chas and his buddy Liz were live on WPRK once again, sitting in with DJ Maggie on her Punk Rock in Your PJs show.
We chatted about radio days, about Florida and mostly about Canada, and we also listened to some fun, poppy powerpunk (plus a few surreptitious selections from Chas). Great fun, but rather different than what COW listeners are used to …

If you’re in the mood for something a little bit different, head to Crusty Old Wave Central or iTunes and get your free copy.