It’s a funny follow-up from a hit album, this: stylistically all over the place, but with enough of what people liked about Ziggy that they stayed with it. Bowie wasn’t kidding around when he killed off Ziggy: there’s no overriding concept, no clear “character” (though there is plenty of the drug-and-sex excess of the end-times-rock-star to be found, so it comes off as more of a sort-of continuation of Ziggy; Adam Ant would borrow this look and expand on it a mere seven years later), and while the haircut remains the same, the song does not (quite). Speaking of the haircut, it’s moving steadily into “mullet” territory, though amazingly Bowie just about manages to carry that off.
Bowie’s skill at aping others also rears its head again: having done credible pastiches of Lou Reed and Marc Bolan (among others) on the last album, Aladdin Sane kicks off with an “homage” to the Rolling Stones, “Watch That Man.” It’s a straight-up rave-up designed rather cynically to catch the ear of both radios station programmers (back when humans did that job) as well as fans who climbed on board with Ziggy — not to mention a great way to start off the album.
There are echoes back to “Suffragette City,” and another pointer towards his future backup-singer-heavy “white soul” period. It’s no accident that Bowie is (and this happened only rarely) buried in the mix on this song compared to Ronson’s guitars, Bolder’s bass, Woodmansey’s drums, Bowie’s own sax, and even the backup singers on occasion — reflecting perfectly the style of the Stones at this point in their career. It’s a great little rocker, and good enough that it would have been in “The Rocky Horror Show” if there were any justice in this fallen world. Certainly at least a Tim Curry cover version during Curry’s brief recording career would have been a fine idea.
This is followed by a straight-up psychic anticipation of future Steely Dan in the form of the title track, “Aladdin Sane.” It’s no accident that pop music raconteur Joe Jackson routinely covers both Steely Dan and Bowie on the road: perhaps Bowie had heard Becker and Fagan’s 1972 debut Can’t Buy a Thrill — and drew some ideas from the more piano-dominant songs (as did Elton John, no doubt). Where this song really shines, though, is new pianist Mike Garson’s utterly insane solo; surely one of the most anarchic and brilliant ever committed to vinyl, the highlights of his incredibly witty playing throughout the album. The wisdom of this curveball immediately following “Watch That Man” is questionable, but even early Bowie fans must have known that his forte was his unpredictability as much as his fluid sexuality.
I can’t claim to know what Bowie’s actual lyric calls for on the line, but I’ve always believed it was “Paris or maybe Hull,” since that’s funnier than the (probably correct and more widely posted) “Paris or maybe Hell,” as clearly heard in the video above. The song is very interesting, because really it’s quite a bit different than anything Bowie has committed to vinyl up to this point, and as mentioned I think Fagan and Becker were influenced by it in their own development, as it is brilliant jazz-theatre-rock (probably in that order). It’s remarkable to think that this could easily have been (only modestly) re-arranged and fit on Blackstar, 43 years after the fact.
The third track is often hailed as Aladdin Sane’s highlight — and indeed it was one of Bowie’s biggest hits in the UK, rising to #3; it remained unissued as a single in the US, however (RCA oddly choosing “Time” instead), and as a result did not appear on any of Bowie’s greatest-hits compilations until the 1990s. Although this reviewer prefers “Cracked Actor” as his own favourite track, that song’s explicit balls-out lyric made it unsuitable for commercial release. Thus, it was Bowie’s pastiche/update to the 1950s songs of his youth, “Drive-In Saturday” — which still celebrates sex, but far more subtly through the device of a SF narrative where people have forgotten how to have it — made for a more suitable choice.
The song itself — a fusion of 50s and Sci-Fi featuring some bloopy synth cameos that might remind some people more than a little of the then-new Roxy Music — kicks off a series of songs in which Bowie reverts back to his old habit of writing about half to two-thirds of the normally-required lyrics, and just letting the band and various filler yips and exclamations do the rest of the work. Still, it is more than sufficient to fire the imagination, particularly with this incredible band and Ken Scott’s earnest production work. It can be argued that between artists such as Bowie, Roxy, Elton John, Alice Cooper, and others at the time, rock music — as it’s own form, more distinct from either its blues roots or its progressive/quasi-classical indulgences — never had a better innings than it did in the early 70s.
You little Wonder, little Wonder you
“Drive In Saturday” is followed with a return to the sort of rock the Ziggy fans were probably looking for, “Panic in Detroit.” This would not have been out of place on The Man Who Sold the World, and this is unsurprising given that it was originally written during the Spiders’ first tour of America, where Bowie saw with his own eyes some of the decadent dystopian vistas he’d been writing about fictionally for years. It’s difficult to understate the impact Bowie’s first run through Nixonland (and it’s yawning chasms between urban and sub-urban lifestyles and incomes) had been on the young artist: the fascination he had for this dichotomy never faded, and so sustained his songwriting that he was still writing about it towards the end of his life, having become a permanent resident of the US and specifically living in the former epicenter of America’s inequalities, New York City. Ironically, over the past few years, Detroit itself has come to portray that role. The song was also said to have been influenced by Bowie’s discovery that a former classmate from Bromley had become a South American drug dealer. Danger and glamour — two things America and Bowie in particular seem to never get enough of.
“Cracked Actor,” starts off for all the world like a Ziggy song (and is considerably better that some of the substituted songs on that album), and continues the theme of decadence and degradation, ostensibly about a faded film star now reduced to hiring young prostitutes of various sexes for a high based off his former fame. Bowie saw a lot of this in LA, and the song is unusually explicit in being about that particular town. As O’Leary notes, this is yet another half-finished song in Bowie’s repertoire, relying on instrumental vamping and chorus repetition to stretch it out to about double the length of the lyric. It’s is interesting in its use of hard, short, words in its chorus (notably “suck,” but also “crack” and “smack”), and probably one of the most debauched of his official singles. Ironically, the title was later used for a documentary about how LA later corroded Bowie himself just a couple of years later; illustrating the lesson that if you get too close to the flame, you get burned.
The album then lurches all the way back to early Bowie cabaret style for the opener of Side Two and the intro to “Time,” though the lyrics quickly return to the sexual obsessions and the band eventually comes in to steer the song away from self-parody and back into the tributary of anthemic rock ballad. The lyric is, frankly, dumb and messy (albeit strong on visual imagery), and the “chorus,” such as it is, is quite unconventional in structure. Despite this, it is quite catchy — perhaps due to the singalong nature of the repeated verses, augmented by some powerful trading-off between Ronson’s guitar runs and Garson’s variety of piano tricks and counterpoints. Despite being something of a mess, it is at least a *hot* mess. One could easily see Queen covering this (and quite possibly doing a better job, though they would have had nobody who could match Garson’s contribution).
The really brilliant bit is Bowie’s sudden and somewhat seductive heavy breathing during an unexpected break in the second verse; this and some of the hidden connections in the lyrics, along with the anthemic chorus of “We should be on by now,” lift what would have been a pretentious tone-poem into a rock-n-roll-star triumph, nonwithstanding the limp and mullet-besotten “1980 Floor Show” version, which must be seen to be believed. So here, have a look:
Thus, we arrive at the misplaced-but-finally-appearing-on-an-album “The Prettiest Star,” done in a distinctly corrupted 50s arrangement that works better than the original single (but lacks Marc Bolan on electric lead guitar, as the earlier version has). The first release of the song, from early 1970, flopped as a follow-up to “Space Oddity” quite spectacularly — it sold fewer than 800 copies (originally backed with “Conversation Piece,” a Space Oddity holdover). Possibly Bowie thought the remade version would get a second shot at single status, or perhaps (as some believe) it was another attempt to reconcile with the song’s true subject, Bolan himself.
NOT his best hair day …
Whether Bowie really wrote the song about Angela or Marc, there was clearly something more than just the whitewashing excuse of “creative rivals” going on there — “Lady Stardust” was originally titled “Song for Marc,” and Bolan was known for having a larger-than-life ego/diva complex which Bowie, for all his excesses and periodic cold calculations, lacked. There was certainly a fascination with Bolan, at the very least, on David’s part, and I can’t help but think there was a bit more to it with these two than has ever really been let on — though exactly what that entails is, even to my mind, ill-defined.
At the start of this review, I mentioned how much “Watch That Man” was made in the mold of The Rolling Stones of the day, and as if to prove the point that he can do the Stones better than the Stones can, the next track — “Let’s Spend the Night Together” — is a straight-up (or gay-up, if you believe some interpreters) version of Keith Richard’s suggestive single. Bowie’s take, which is faster and delivered more confidently than Jagger’s original and more hopeful version, was considered so well-done that the Stones themselves took to performing it in the Bowie style on future tours. On Aladdin Sane, it comes off more as a (well-chosen) filler track, following a remake of “Prettiest Star,” as though Bowie had run out of material (when in fact he hadn’t — as with Ziggy, Bowie discarded some original pieces he felt didn’t fit and replaced them with these fill-ins).
Still, almost as though asking for direct comparison, Bowie runs back to his faux-VU style to top his Stones cover with one of his own, and one of the best blues-rockers he ever did, “Jean Genie.” The whole band really comes together on this one, with bassist Bolder acknowledging the song’s origins as a Bo Diddley riff (from “I’m a Man”) by simply playing the original’s bass line. Ronson and Woodmansley keep close to the riff, allowing Bowie’s Reed-esque rhyming rap free range (and an interesting use of emphasis, with Bowie tending to lean on the penultimate syllable in each line rather than the last one).
The song was, ironically, one of the first to be written for the album, and was acknowledged by Bowie to be about a lightly-factionalized version of Iggy Pop. Cyrinda Foxe, a sometime-girlfriend of Bowie’s he apparently saw a lot of on the *Ziggy* 1972– 73 US tour, can be seen as the dancer in Mick Rock’s promo film for the song, and Bowie is said to have written the lyrics in that style largely to entertain her as he was building up the song from the Diddley riff, inspired by a jam session with his band that happened on the bus heading to yet another city in the vast expanse of America.
The album concludes with “Lady Grinning Soul,” another change-up that switches into ballad mode. Garson’s piano brilliance returns with a vengeance, and Bowie’s vocal and the arrangement strongly suggest a movie’s closing title, or even a James Bond theme (as O’Leary correctly notes). The subject of the song is said to be the same subject as that of the Stones’s “Brown Sugar” — singer Claudia Lennear — who must have been an extraordinary woman indeed to foster such great songs about her. O’Leary also notes that this song was the last written and recorded for the album, and replaced another number about a woman not Bowie’s wife, “John, I’m Only Dancing.” Given that Bowie was fooling around with Cyrinda Foxe — and apparently others — on his American tour, if this album has a theme, it would be adultery and Stones homage, sprinkled with Glam and Americana in liberal doses.
For reasons never to be explained, Bowie loved doing this gesture. As did every eight-year-old afterwards.
Thanks to Ronson and Garson, along with the clever use of harmonica and the wholesale homages to both the Stones and the source of many of their own songs (Bo Diddley), the whole thing works very well. Many have seen Aladdin Sane as a lesser album than the (very slightly) more unified work of Ziggy, by in fact it is also a terrific and versatile rock record, varying up the glam-rock tempos while including enough lyrical sex-imagery and salacious riffage to keep the hard-rockers satisfied. Although “Aladdin” could (and was) seen as a different character to Ziggy, Bowie himself saw it more a development of the “postmodern rock star” Ziggy was designed to be. He once referred to the album simply as “Ziggy in America.”
It might be fair to say that it is Bowie’s most superficial record (during this period of his career, at least) — concerned as it almost exclusively is with sex — but it includes some of his best songs from this period as well, and is at least as essential as Ziggy in our view. The album art, featuring Bowie’s most iconic portrait (particularly since his death) was described by Mick Rock as “The Mona Lisa of album covers,” and frankly the shoe fits. The lightning-bolt makeup has inspired countless others, even reaching all the way into the (much smaller) version seen on Harry Potter’s forehead (oh yes Ms. Rowling, we see you back there). Although seen in the UK music press as somewhat weaker and shallower than Ziggy, Aladdin nevertheless went to the top of the charts in the UK, and reached number 17 in the US — Bowie’s best outing to date — and eventually sold some 4.6 million copies, making it one of his best sellers ever.
For this review, we used the 1999 EMI/Virgin version of the album, remastered by Peter Mew but keeping close to Ken Scott’s original production (just updated for modern systems more than anything else). If you’re into contemporaneous bonus tracks, the 2003 EMI/Virgin “30th Anniversary” release is the one you want, as it has the 1999 version but also includes an entire second disc of single versions (including the non-LP “John,” and a mono mix of “All the Young Dudes”), along with four live tracks from Boston Music Hall and one track from the Santa Monica gig later that same month, as well as one previously-unreleased live track from a Cleveland show that happened a month later. There is also a 40th anniversary release of the album proper (no bonus tracks), featuring a new remaster from AIR studios, but we’ve not had a chance to compare it to our 1999 version.
This is where almost all the 1970s-era Bowie fans really got on the bus, including me. Though Hunky Dory rightfully has a phalanx of proponents, the twists and turns, experiments (mostly unsuccessful), and constant reinvention of Bowie’s career up to this point ensured that any nascent fans were unsatisfied most of the time: he was easy on the eyes, but didn’t fit into any boxes for very long. David was talented, everyone saw that, but he was unpalatably unpredictable. You can get away with that if you’re already a reliably-successful artist; the problem was, he wasn’t.
There have been a number of people credited for this major leap in both Bowie’s cohesion as a performer and songwriter; Iggy Pop, Marc Bolan, Lou Reed, Andy Warhol, and (notably) the influence of both the Legendary Stardust Cowboy and Vince Taylor. As usual, throw in what Bowie had recently been reading (especially Nietzsche and Crowley) and what he was reading or seeing just then (notably A Clockwork Orange and Quatermass, but also 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Who’s Tommy,and even Warhol’s Pork show), and his visits to the gay nightclub Sombrero with friend Freddie Buretti, Elton John (according to Elton) and others, then mix well. Gay and bisexual culture is quite prominent throughout Ziggy, and although “subtle” is not a word commonly associated with this album, the references largely (but not completely) fly under the radar for listeners who were already staunchly heterosexual.
The one name that rarely gets sufficient credit for both Hunky Dory and Ziggy Stardust is Angela Bowie. As the Arnold Corns demos showcase, the two albums were written nearly together, and were in fact recorded back-to-back. In addition to providing Bowie with a “cocoon” writing environment at Haddon Hall (complete with the piano that made such a difference to his composing), she was likely the one who suggested chopping off and dying the long tresses of hair to create a new look (Angie’s hairdresser later refined that early Ziggy look), introduced him to so many people who would influence his work and look (like the London cast of Warhol’s Pork), and generally kept Bowie focused.
This role often gets overlooked, but it was just as important as many of the other elements that helped this breakthrough album come together. For a wife and mother, Angie’s seriously unconventional lifestyle kept Bowie’s inspirations fresh — and likely played a key role in his more-shocking approach to androgyny for Ziggy, as well as (perhaps) addressing that part of his past where he may (or may not) have been more of a “pracitising” bisexual than he would ever be after this album. She was a “kook,” to be sure (this author briefly met Angie in the distant past — and was immediately struck by her, um, free spirit), but she’s also under-credited generally for contributions to both his development as an artist and this particular period of his career. As has already become obvious, Bowie rarely did anything completely on his own, and that was by design.
Though Bowie still wasn’t yet as consistently strong a lyricist as he would become, his ideas were good, his melodies were strong, and the production was again exceptional. Ziggy covers a lot of the ground (thematically) as was the case with the previous two albums, but hits a commercial half-way point (especially musically) between the heavier Man and the lighter Hunky Dory that turned out to be pure dynamite, complimented with a heaping helping of androgyny, a loose “concept” coupled with the first of his “characters,” and splashed with some appropriately scandalous press interviews (including, apparently, the one that drove a wedge between him and Elton, sadly never to be repaired).
To most, this is a landmark rock album — to some, it was a life-changing head-spinner that re-defined sexuality and indeed even rock music at a crucial point in their lives. Whether intentionally or not, Bowie (augmented with The Man Who Sold the World’s UK cover) found a look that attracted both men and women, and blurred those previously-rigid gender and sexual-identity lines towards the butch (whereas the “man dress” had blurred it towards the “nelly”), making it an instant identifier with anyone in their youth who didn’t feel like they quite cut it in the traditional gender roles, and went looking for a “third way.” If Bowie was already something of a gay icon by this point, Ziggy picked up a fair number of lesbians and “bois” with the new look.
It’s hard to underplay what an impact this idea had on people, but one should remember that this was the era in which people dismissed you if you told them Liberace was gay (to quote Harvey Fierstein). Being what we would now call “gender-fluid” and promoting a vision of “omni” sexuality with a blurring of “beauty” differences was a completely new outlook, at least in the mainstream, and it inspired an entire generation to reconsider where they thought they were sexually, or (if they already knew they were a member of the deviant class) to become more open about it.
A big part of why this enlightenment was so successful was the confidence Bowie exuded in selling both the music and the image. This wasn’t one shocking photo of a man in a dress (reassuringly back to pants by the back cover): this was your wild new boytoy your parents would hate and who would lead you down into the secret clubs and basements full of forbidden pleasures. The cover, the band, the publicity stills, the music: even if you ultimately went back to the staid existence of suburban norms, you had seen things (and perhaps done things) you couldn’t un-see or undo. This album made a lot of “normal” kids into very different people. Perhaps it’s a lot to put on Bowie’s shoulders; he was hardly alone in pushing a somewhat androgynous image in that period, but Ziggy just took it all too far — but boy, could he play guitar.
“Sweet Head” (above) was a perfect example of this: although it was ultimately kicked off the album (presumably by the record company if not Bowie himself), it’s a glittering example of Ziggy’s worldview; a killer tune with some great playing (though the lyric is much too explicit and. nowadays, rather too politically incorrect) and indulgence-obsessed sentiments. It’s a raw rocker that really puts it all out there — and though it became an abandoned and forgotten song until Ryko added it to the 1990 reissue, it’s a pretty clear statement of where Ziggy’s (and let’s be frank, Bowie’s), er, head was at.
Speaking of which, some have argued that another cut track, “Velvet Goldmine” — another song rather explicitly about oral sex — was cut along with “Sweet Head” because they are flip sides of the same coin: paens to given oral sex to a man with the former, to a woman with the latter. The lyric is artistic (read: ambiguous) enough that this interpretation may be dead wrong, but both songs were probably judged too explicit. If “Sweet Head” was an outstanding showcase of the Ziggy sound, “Velvet” harked back to more of a Hunky Dory sound, and that also might have led to its removal from the slate that made it onto the album. Unlike “Head,” though, “Velvet” did actually make it to a single — a b-side on the 1975 reissue of the “Space Oddity” single.
That sort of sexual and performing confidence was the linchpin that made this album and the entire Ziggy concept such a success, and influential legend. Bowie undoubtedly knew — long before this album hit the stores — that he had the best band in the land, strong songs, and a look that would create sensation and headlines. This was his best shot at being a star (a point made repeatedly in the album itself), and had it flopped I suspect Bowie’s music career might have faded away at that point.
The Spiders were once confused by a BBC executive who ran across them in the broadcaster’s canteen as likely to be the “monster of the week” for Doctor Who — and I’d bet money that these were the outfits they were wearing when that incident occurred.
Bowie’s manager, Tony DeFries, was credited with telling Bowie that if he wanted to be a rock star, the secret was to act like and be seen as being one already. This is a rather clever take on the old writer’s key to success “write what you know,” or perhaps “do what you love [like you’re already making the big bucks for it] and the money will follow.” It is likely the genesis point for this album, which was written in large part during Bowie’s tour of the larger-than-life USA promoting The Man Who Sold the World: Bowie invents a “fake rock star” he can hide behind (possibly as “insurance” if the album was yet another flop) in order to put DeFries’ theory about success to the test. He had little to lose, given his track record to that date. Luckily for us all, the trick worked (for Bowie, more than once it must be said).
He again takes co-producing credit with Ken Scott (who also served as recording and mixing engineer on the record), and the band was made up of Ronson, Woodmansey, and Bolder (who took on more duties this time round, as Rick Wakeman was only used on one song — having joined Yes in the interim). George Underwood, the man who was responsible for Bowie’s childhood eye injury (which turned out to be responsible for a good portion of Bowie’s otherworldly visage), did the cover as another mix of old-fashioned hand-coloured imagery with a touch of A Clockwork Orange about it.
The “concept” behind this “concept album” (note to future musicians: just admit you’re writing a musical from now on, yeah?) revisits Bowie’s seemingly-endless love affair with doom and despair, but channels that dark energy into a catchy, somewhat gospel-inspired musical direction. Essentially, Ziggy is meant to be an omnisexual rock star who gets contacted by an unseen alien “starman” who arrives on Earth, and in the Earth’s end times Ziggy uses its advice to become a messianic figure, delivering the aliens’ message of love and hope (saviour complex much, Bowie?), only to find that the kids currently have everything they want — and so they’re kind of numb to the finality of it all (unlike the adults, who just lose their minds).
Ziggy’s penchant for excess (ironically to be further acted out by Bowie himself across the next decade) mirrors the collapse of society in the conventional sense. Eventually, the fans and indulgences kill him, but Ziggy is resurrected and used by the aliens (called “the infinites” and described as “black hole jumpers” by Bowie, very much referencing the work of William S. Burroughs) to give them a physical presence. At least, that’s what David has said is the “story” of the album, though there isn’t really that much evidence for all that in the record itself —and even less that any sort of coherent storyline was concocted before the album was released.
Looked at this way, fans will recognise reworkings of most of his darker concepts from previous albums (going all the way back to at least the second album, if not the first) into more alluring formulas by tossing in more sex appeal and dead sharp glam-rock arrangements. The album offers songs to set the narrative (“Five Years,” “Starman”), examples of songs Ziggy performed (“Moonage Daydream”, “It Ain’t Easy,” “Hang On to Yourself,” “Suffragette City”), and songs about Ziggy (“Ziggy Stardust,” “Star,” and “Lady Stardust,” though some of these are pretty clearly patterned on Marc Bolan more than Bowie.
Unsurprisingly, some of the best songs on the album come from the “rough drafts” recorded during the Arnold Corns and pre-Hunky sessions, having had some time to stew. Bowie did indeed want to stage Ziggy as a television special or musical, and clearly intended the story to have an ending (thus substituting Jacques Brel’s “Amsterdam” for the later “Rock n Roll Suicide”). Had this idea come to fruition, it is likely that songs such as “All the Young Dudes,” “Velvet Goldmine,” “Sweet Head,” and the later “Rebel Rebel” and “Rock n Roll with Me” (all clearly written with this album’s motif in mind, and most of which would likely have been included if the longer playing time of the CD format had been around at the time) would have been included to fill it out. Chuck Berry’s “Around and Around” and Jacques Brel’s “Amsterdam” would likely also have been used at least as b-sides, as they were at one point or another slated for the album. They all ended up as such, or bonus tracks (or both) in later reissues.
Don’t even try to tell me a young John Lydon or Malcolm McLaren didn’t see this photo and think to themsevles “aha!”
This is unquestionably Bowie’s strongest work to date, and Ronson’s arrangements and piano playing again share much of the credit for the success. Although a bit “first draft”-ish in its lyrics, “Five Years” both sets up the story and paints a number of vivid pictures, just as “Life on Mars” had on Hunky Dory. As often happened on Bowie records, “Soul Love” was a pointer to his next big direction, with some clear R&B influence mixed into the song.
The sole cover song that made it onto the album, Ron Davies’ “It Ain’t Easy,” is an odd choice; it would have fit in better on the The Man Who Sold the World, album as a sort of sequel to “Memory of a Free Festival.” Before we get all that, though, we really should start with the album opener, which is so memorably and startlingly effective at setting the scene: “Five Years” is probably one of the all-time great “story” songs in the history of rock. The “story” of this album starts with the news that Earth’s ecosystem will collapse in five years, and Bowie-Ziggy documents both his own reactions to the news and those of the others. In the song, people pretty much lose their minds and try to make amends or act out their darkest impulses. While the lyrics are very much the observant Bowie’s own visions, the core idea of this came from a poem Bowie used to recite in his cabaret act; passengers on a bush learn that the end is nigh, and immediately plunge into instantaneous relationships, for there is nothing else they can do.
What’s really new with this particularly remarkable song is the blatant use of doo wop-style chording, American slang (“TV” rather than “Telly”) and other techniques to support the apocalyptic lyric. The arrangement is as spectacular as (and borrowed from) “Life on Mars?”, with Ronson showing off his no-Wakeman-but-damn-fine piano and orchestral skills alongside the guitar work, and Bowie augmenting the “reality” of the song with semi-spoken vocals for the verses undoubtedly influenced by Lou Reed, which then shifts to a more powerful sung chorus following the softer opening. The technique lends believability to the storyline at the beginning, and cleverly includes the line that the “newsguy’s” face was so wet with tears “that I knew he wasn’t lying.”
There are a few moments where the lyric hasn’t aged well (references to “the black” and “the queer,” the observation of a woman attempting to kill “tiny children” after losing her mind), but they remain effective at painting a picture of the myriad reactions to such news (the same news, incidentally, that all the young dudes were carrying — is your mind blown because when I figured that out, mine certainly was). Bowie’s description of Ziggy having to “sing the news” because rock as entertainment was dead — a reference, perhaps, to the return to the “folk” era of political and protest songs that had only recently (in 1972) fallen completely out of fashion (ironically due in part to the rise of entertaining-but-hedonistic “glam rock”) — was never more clearly illustrated as it is here.
“Five Years,” as much as or more than any other song on the album, hits Bowie’s goal of “song as painting.” Unsurprisingly, perhaps, painting became a strong interest of his in later years, and indeed it is perhaps just as well that music videos weren’t in fashion when this came out — listeners’ imaginations were fired by the lyrical imagery throughout this album in a way that any actual visualizations would have failed miserably to capture.
“Soul Love” is, as mentioned, a clear path to Bowie’s later interest in soul and R&B that would eventually lead to Young Americans, but of course if you’ve ever played sax for any length of time you probably chose the instrument in part because of interest in the black roots of rock, blues, R&B, or at least ska music. More importantly, the song serves as a kind of zoom-in/close-up of the world-ending despair offered in “Five Years,” which is probably why it segues into it rather quietly — a change of perspective on much the same scene.
In the song, a mother grieves for a dead soldier of a son, two lovers are besotted with new love, and a priest blindly believes an invisible and all-knowing power cares for him. In this now-ending world, though, all of these are even more exposed as delusions than they already were. The mother’s son “died to save the slogan,” while the lovers’ “idiot love will cause the fusion,” and the priest is at least happy, but “blind” to reality. This is the kind of morose stuff Man Who Sold the World was full of, but this time wrapped in a beautiful R&B melody, albeit a bit undercut by Bowie’s wailing but merely serviceable sax playing. This Ziggy fellow certainly seems to be done with the concept of love, and Bowie himself in an interview in 1976 disparaged love as a “draining” thing, referencing (10 years after the fact, and while he was still married to Angie) the heartache he had experienced losing Hermione Farthingale. Although recorded innumerable times by other artists later, here’s my present favourite cover version:
As with “Five Years,” “Soul Love” likewise segues into the next song, “Moonage Daydream,” again to connect the three numbers that are sung by pre-alien contact rock star Ziggy. This song — if you’re trying to make a somewhat-coherent storyline out of this thing (which is more than Bowie did with it) — is what Ziggy does for a living: fake rock songs from a fake rock performer, only now he’s been contacted by an alien being. The album version is fantastic by comparison with the rather limp “Arnold Corns” version, thanks mostly to Ronson (both on guitar and orchestral arrangements), along with Trevor Bolder’s clever bass and of course Scott’s production. The opening gambit (which screams “entrance music”) was probably the most electrifying song opening that came out that year, and really kicks off the “rock” portion of the “glam rock” manifesto here by finally (finally!) amping up the electric guitars to be the dominant sound for the first time thus far on the album.
Like “Five Years,” this song oddly enough was inspired by the music of the 1950s young Master Jones heard in his youth. The opening line of “I’m an alligator” was said by Bowie’s band mates to have come by way of Bill Haley’s “See You Later, Alligator,” while the piccolo-and-baritone-sax solo in the middle was inspired by a b-side song (“Sure Know a Lot About Love”) by The Hollywood Argyles. As with many great rock songs, the lyrics don’t make any sort of conventional sense, but certainly sound great; since I first heard the song, I’ve always been amused by the lyric “the church of man-love is such a holy place to be,” though in truth Bowie is almost certainly reverting to a UK-ism there, talking to the listener and saying that “The Church of Man, luv, it’s such a holy place to be.” Given his alleged escapades during this time and earlier, you can read it either way; perhaps that is what Bowie really intended.
This brings us to “Starman,” which really establishes the alien part of the “plot” of the album. Bowie seems to be using the concept of an alien with a universal message of love and happiness as a device to (continue to) work out his feelings about religion. On previous albums, he has explored his conflicted feelings plenty, but — while expressing plenty of spirituality — never quite seemed comfortable with embracing any of the established structures (“Saviour Machine” being only the most obvious example). Bowie was hardly the first to explore the idea that our ideas of religion spring from extra-terrestrial sources (the book Chariots of the Gods came out just a few years before, and was a mainstream hit), but the use of this metaphor allows Ziggy to promulgate values and beliefs often adopted by religions, without actually being seen as “religious.” In the lyric, the “Starman” is apparently only understood and embraced by the youth, compared to the fear and misunderstanding of the parents (“Don’t tell your poppa or he’ll get us locked up in fright”), mirroring the reaction authorities had to Jesus in the Bible.
As O’Leary notes, the image of Ziggy Stardust as a great hard-rocking album is at odds with the singalong pop catchiness of most of its numbers, including the more anthemic melody of “Starman” (and “Soul Love,” “Lady Stardust,” and others). O’Leary also slyly draws a parallel from Ziggy and the “stranded” alien to the concurrent Jon Pertwee years of Doctor Who, where the god-like and enlightended Time Lord was exiled to Earth for a period, and mostly worked to bring peace between humanity and various invading threats about which the general public could do nothing. Bowie was a big Doctor Who fan his whole life, according to Pegg, and thus it is most amusing that one can (with only a little finessing) draw comparisons between the constant regeneration (and periodic genre shifts) of the venerable UK TV show and his own career — right down to both of them seeing a return to form in the late 90s after an extended decay, ahead of a full-fledged revival in the early 21st century.
As with “Life on Mars?”, the chorus in “Starman” also relies on a vocal leap (take straight from “Over the Rainbow”), up a full octave. The outro is, um, “inspired” by more Bolan, and thanks to the above memorable miming of it on Top of the Pops ahead of the album’s release (note how he looks dead-on to the camera with a come-hither gesture on the line “I had to phone someone / so I picked on you-oo-oo”), the single made it into the top 10. Really, this should have been the end of Side One on the original album, but instead we’re treated to a straight-up rock song, performed exactly to specifications, which has no discernible connection to the concept of the overall album. Given the wealth of alternative options that would have both tied in better and given Bowie royalties for having written them, why “It Ain’t Easy” is on there at all is a puzzler. There’s nothing wrong with it, certainly, but it is a far more “basic” rock song (albeit memorable and oft-covered) that one can only speculate was intended as a palette-cleanser before Side Two gets cued up.
A rare pre-1976 photo of Bowie and Bolan together, likely circa 1974,with a couple of fans. Bowie looks thrilled, doesn’t he?
The second side kicks off with another song every bit as lovely and soulful as “Soul Love,” the aforementioned tribute to Marc Bolan, “Lady Stardust.” Bowie and Ronson invent a few things on this record, but this is where the gender-bending really kicks in. In addition to referring to Lady Stardust as “he” throughout, the lyric clearly has “Ziggy” strongly attracted to Bolan (“I smiled sadly, for a love I could not obey”). Bolan and Bowie had a mercurial relationship, appearing to be quite close at times, and estranged rivals at other points. I don’t pretend to know the highs and lows of their relationship, but I’ll note that Bowie had something of a similar relationship to Mick Jagger, though in the other direction — he would (with affection) diss the Stones early on, but got friendlier with Jagger (very friendly, allegedly) later, culminating in a collaboration decades later.
“Star,” which was originally demoed as “Rock n’ Roll Star,” is for me one of the most interesting tracks on the album. The piano banging opening reminds me of Brian Eno’s “The Paw Paw Negro Blowtorch” and John Cale’s early piano work, the backing vocals remind of the Beatles’ “Lovely Rita,” and the parting shot of “just watch me now” is also taken from the Velvets. It’s such a perfect example of glam rock that it wouldn’t have been even slightly out of place in The Rocky Horror Show. The song was actually written even before Hunky Dory was recorded, lending credence to Bowie’s later claim that Hunky was in fact a contractually-required album rather than the bold and much-loved artistic statement we have all thought it was all these years. It is both wonderfully catchy and, frankly, more autobiographical (“I could do with the money”) than he might have admitted at the time. It was certainly more prescient than he could have imagined. Bowie actually offered the song (in an earlier form) to another band, the Chameleons, who recorded their own demo:
The song mirrors Ziggy’s aspirations, or maybe how Bowie saw himself at that moment: successful as an artist, but not yet really a star. For all his talk about his work and his art, it is his naked ambition that shines most brightly (alongside his amazing looks and obvious talent) across the singles and records up to this point, and in hindsight it seems clear that his taste of commercial success with “Major Tom” was the fuel that drove him forward to this point. He wouldn’t know how well the album did (or what a powerful influence it would be) until after it was released, but from this point onwards we are no longer dealing with David Jones, the Bromley bloke struggling to be a financially-successful artist; we’re dealing with Bowie the rock star from here on out, and that made quite a difference — particularly for the next five years of his career.
Even here, at his most commercial, however, Bowie’s essential weirdness peeks out from under the covers. In the song, he compares his desire unfavourably to that of a soldier fighting in “the troubles” in Northern Ireland, and also to some friends who is out to save the nation (or the world), but the song remains the anthem of anyone who ever posed in a mirror with a hairbrush for a mic. The next track, “Hang on to Yourself,” completes this second trilogy of songs on the album: “Lady Stardust” is how Ziggy is seen (or wants to be seen) by his audiences; “Star” is both his worry that people “will see the faker” and his goal; “Hang on to Yourself” is a song Ziggy performs. “Hang on” was another song that was written and demoed early; indeed it was conceived and recorded while Bowie was on his first big US tour, where he met Gene Vincent (who may or may not have been present at the recording, depending on who is telling the story).
Ironically it is this song, and not the eponymous “Ziggy Stardust” track, that serves as the start point for this album. This was, according to interviews, Bowie’s first attempt to write a song for his “fake rock star” concept which he was developing. America, the very land of “fake it till you make it” and artifice as reality, no doubt provided plenty of grist for Bowie’s imagination mill. In addition to a demo recorded in the US, it was also part of the Arnold Corns project, and came out quite differently, as you can hear here:
And with that, we finally get to the meat of the album: Ziggy’s requiem. Wait, isn’t that in “Rock n Roll Suicide,” you ask? Nope, it’s here in the title track. If we follow Bowie’s (loose and articulated only after the album was recorded) “storyline,” the aliens and the kids who selected Ziggy as their spokesperson now decide to kill him off, only later (in “Rock n Roll Suicide”) to be reanimated in order for them to deliver their message to humanity directly. Or that was all bollocks, and Bowie deliberately announced his “death” at the last Ziggy show as a way of making the song a self-fulfilling prophecy, or perhaps — sensing what an enthusiastic cult he had created as he toured the album — killing the character off out of fear of becoming exactly what he was singing about.
In the meantime, we get this biographical song of Ziggy at the height of his powers, possibly recounted by one of band members themselves (“Weird and Gilly” are said to be nicknames Bowie had for Bolder and Woodmansley, respectively, though others claim “Gilly” was one of Bowie’s schoolmates who had attitude). Ronson beautifully builds on Bowie’s demo to give Bowie’s acoustic playing a rock edge and greater credibility to the Ziggy character. They lyric mixes great insight into the life of rock-n-rollers (“just a beer light to guide us”) and some — well, let’s be frank, substandard lyrics (“the kids were just crass, he was the nazz”). As a word painting, though, the success of the song is unmistakable — for all those that never got to see Ziggy-Bowie in concert on that tour, the imagery of the lyrics (supported by the endless stream of “outrageous” photos of Bowie in costume as Ziggy and his electric haircut and colour) fired the imagination and filled in the details.
To cement the deal, we get one more straight-up rock-n-roller song to remember Ziggy by, “Suffragette City.” a very 50’s-inspired rave-up that, had Bowie not been a mediocre player, would have had Clarence Clemons-level sax fronting the mix. The lyric is again deliberately androgynous: the singer desperately wants his bedmate/boyfriend to clear out the flat for a while so he can bring over a girl to have sex with. Ronson and Bowie, who O’Leary notes saw A Clockwork Orange shortly after release, were apparently quite inspired by it — and that amps up the arrangement as well as puts the lyrics in context with Alex’s sex scene in the movie (you’ll note the use of the term “droogie” as he tells Henry “don’t crash here, there’s only room for one and here she comes/here she comes”). Any young fellow who’s ever been anxious to get some “alone time” with a “new friend” will see this as their anthem, despite the light reference to homosexuality.
The album proper concludes with the requisite resurrection/redemption song, originally slated to be Jacques Brel’s “Amsterdam” but replaced in favour of “Rock n Roll Suicide,” a sort of hybrid number: it starts off as a Brel-like ballad (Specifically “Jef,” which includes the words “you’re not alone” in its lyric), then builds up (again employing the trick he used in both “Life on Mars?” and this album’s “Five Years”)to a chanson belter in the style of Edith Piaf, and finishes with a theatrical version of a deranged James Brown finalé, with a Beatles-esque last stabbing note on violas as the cherry on the cake. It was, according to reports, Angie’s idea to have a concluding number with a big finish that would double as the show closer on stage, and of course it worked tremendously well. In his 1966 cabaret act, Bowie used to end with the Rogers/Hammerstein number “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” and he was surely thinking of it as he wrote the ending for this song. As the end of an emotional journey, the song is devastating — and was made more so when Bowie announced at the last Ziggy show that it was the last concert he (Ziggy, not Bowie) would ever do. The audience was in shock with disbelief. Always leave ’em wanting more.
Although Bowie would go on to further explore theatricality in rock concerts, from an emotional standpoint I don’t think he ever got closer to the goal than this: subsequent tours and even another couple of “concept” albums (what became Diamond Dogs and much later on, 1. Outside) never again completely enveloped an audience as much as the story of a man who became an alien and rock god, even as disjointed and unclear as the “story” is presented on the record. The trick, though, was that the concept was underwritten and under-explained enough that fans filled in the details themselves, making the final impact nearly as great as Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds radio play.
When it comes to a recommended version of the album, there is no single CD version I can suggest, as the best option really depends on how completist you want to be about this album. For the purposes of this review, I selected the 1990 Rykodisc reissue, remastered by Dr. Toby Mountain from the original tapes. It sounds a bit over-bright but good, and has what is now considered a modest number of bonus tracks, including the contextually important “Velvet Goldmine” and an outtake version of “Sweet Head” from the Ziggy sessions, as well as the demos of “Lady Stardust” and “Ziggy Stardust.” Annoyingly, it also throws in an unwarranted 1979 remix of the “John, I’m Only Dancing” single. The more recent 40th anniversary reissue (from EMI/Virgin) finally corrects the horrors of the 2002 30th anniversary reissue with a fresh (well, 2012 – heh, “Five Years” ago!) remastering, but the single-CD version contains strictly the original album with no bonus tracks (so that’s the best one if you just want the original album, straight up).
The 2002 EMI/Virgin 30th anniversary version had the potential to be really great, as it had a second CD with a tonne of relevant bonus tracks (including the two cover songs that were recorded for the album but tossed very late in the day, “Port of Amsterdam” and Chuck Berry’s “Round and Round”), but it reversed the original left/right channels (what?) and edits out the segues between some of the songs (what what what?!). The sound is also quite a bit muddier than the original release, but it packs in many bonus tracks of interest, such as the two Ziggy songs from the Arnold Corns project that were later re-recorded for Ziggy (“Moonage Daydream” and “Hang On to Yourself”), along with the original “John, I’m Only Dancing” non-LP single, a 1971 re-recording of “Holy Holy,” a “new mix” of “Moonage Daydream,” and an alternate version of “The Supermen,” – the latter of which is also on the Ryko version of Hunky Dory.
For the truly “compleat” 1971–72 version (beyond just the original album), you’d need to get the Ryko and the 30th Anniversary EMI/Virgin version and cobble together your own CD, ending up with two versions of “Sweet Head” but leaving off the alternate “The Supermen” (since that rightly belongs with Hunky Dory) and the 1979 remix of “John.” The 40th Anniversary version is by far the best-sounding, but the bonus stuff includes only Ken Scott’s 2003 remixes of album tracks. Someday, a definitive edition will be released, I am sure, but until then getting all the right material together in one place is a DIY affair.
In another turnabout in the Bowie saga that rivals the jump from derivative but talented rock-n-roller in his earliest recordings to the Anthony Newley-gone-weird MOR fodder of his first real album, Hunky Dory (his first album for RCA) arrived just eight months after The Man Who Sold the World (his last album for Mercury), and represented yet another reinvention as the young artist slowly crept closer to the winning combination. For those of us who have been carefully following Bowie, this album also signals the successful completion of the Home Perm Grow-Out phase.
Having just put out a record with a completely new band that surprisingly dipped more than a toe into heavy metal, hard rock, and glam earlier in the year, Hunky Dory seems to be something of a throwback to gentler mainstream rock, with more than a few nods back to his hippie/folkie background. On the surface, the softer arrangements and highlighted piano leads might seem like a retreat from the bold (and occasionally exotic) Man Who Sold the World, but deeper listening shows evidence of lots of lessons learned from the foray into heavy guitar rock.
Bowie, much more the leader on this record than the previous one, was exploring ground not wholly dissimilar to what Elton John was doing at the time (Mick Ronson, in fact, played guitar on the original version of “Madman Across the Water,” later included as part of the October 1970 album Tumbleweed Connection — and while we’re at it, early Bowie bassist Herbie Flowers played bass on that album as well). It turns out, in the oddest of coincidences, that John and Bowie knew each other as teenagers (when they were David Jones and Reg Dwight) and often talked about music in their youth. It’s mysterious that they didn’t ever work together later, but clearly they kept track of each other’s careers.
Both Bowie and John were being ridiculously prolific at the time — between late 1970 and late 1971, Bowie had issued both The Man Who Sold the World and Hunky Dory, as well as undertaken his first US tour; John had put out Tumbleweed Connection (a “old west drama“ concept album), the album Friends (a soundtrack for an obscure film), a live album (17-11-70, documenting his first US tour), and Madman Across the Water. If you don’t count getting married and having a kid, as Bowie did, then John clearly wins the productivity contest.
For this album, Bowie kept Ronson but lost (most likely due to the unprofessional attitude Bowie showed during TMWSTW) bass player and producer Tony Visconti; he was replaced with Ken Scott and Trevor Bolder, respectively. As the Arnold Corns sessions in between the last album and this one showed, Bowie was stewing on the glam-rock personae and a band to match that he would eventually present to the world as Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. In the meantime, however, he had started composing on piano rather than guitar, which substantially changed his then-newest songs back to a more melodic-centred sound; this is what that dominates Hunky Dory in terms of music, even as many of the lyrics kept the dark edge that was more highlighted in the previous album.
A colour photo of the outfit worn on Hunky’s back cover
To highlight his return to being fully in control of the record, Bowie is credited on the album as a sort of assistant producer (more like back-seat driver for Scott, for whom this was his first time in the producer chair), as well as the “simpler” piano parts; he recruited Rick Wakeman (who had played on the Space Oddity album, but was now a member of the Strawbs) for the heavy piano lifting. Speaking of, the new sounds are startling and notable right from the opening notes: Wakeman has said that Bowie had him lay down his piano parts first “with as many notes as you like,” and then instructed the band to play around Wakeman’s work.
This is certainly obvious in “Changes,” which starts out for all the world like a pop-jazz number for the first 10 seconds before Bowie calls in the beat and (his own) sax. The song is very unconventional in structure (as often seen in jazz), and includes both uneven sections of flowery piano during the verses, and a vocal that follows the melody in the chorus. All that, plus shifting time signatures like jazz, and an outro that would be perfectly at home in a Sade song. Bowie’s influence on Joe Jackson is very clear in this number, and Jackson returned the favour years later with a different but very good cover of Bowie’s “Heroes.”
Sax appeal aside, compared to the Black Sabbath-esque opening of the previous album, you really couldn’t offer buyers of that record anything more different than “Changes.” One wonders how Bowie’s nascent fan base took it at the time; this and “Oh You Pretty Things” are the complete other end of the scale from “The Width of a Circle.” Speaking of “Pretty Things,” Bob Grace of Chrysalis (who had arranged the Arnold Corns sessions and generally acted as another of Bowie’s managers for a time) loved the demo version so much he promptly sold it to a young Peter Nobody (sorry, Noone), who had a hit with it the summer before Hunky Dory was released (even though his version was dire). Doh.
“Oh You Pretty Things” is a wonderful mix of a rather dark lyrics with a cheerful music-hall romp, but more importantly it’s yet another take on the Nietzschean concept of “the Supermen,” only this time told from a completely new perspective: someone who is in the process of spawning a child. The future Duncan Jones, it turns out, is the “Homo Superior” that is going to subsume Bowie’s existence for a decade or two and then, with luck, go on to still greater heights (as all parents expect of their children), at least according to Chris O’Leary of the “Pushing Ahead of the Dame” blog.
The Complete David Bowie author Nicholas Pegg, meanwhile, points to this factor alongside Bowie’s reading list as the prime inspirations: sure there’s Also Spake Zarathrusta, but the lyrics also betray a knowledge of Bulwer-Lytton’s The Coming Race and Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End, plus a rather jaunty yet domesticated piano. When the rest of the band finally kicks in on the chorus, it’s very much a “Elton John Meets the Kinks” moment to these ears. I would have been much amused if John had ever covered this song, using his youthful tenor voice to sing “gotta make way for the homo superior.”
The first hint of the guitar really being allowed to stand up in the mix comes in the third cut, “Eight Line Poem,” and Ronson doesn’t really get to go to town until “Song for Bob Dylan.” That said, you can hear it earlier — although the album is dominated by piano and strings (generally arranged by Ronson, who had a natural gift for it), the chorus of “Life on Mars” finally brings the guitars in for dramatic and brilliant effect as much as with the orchestral backing. From “Dylan” onwards, the album shows off various ways to mix the heavier sounds found on Man with Ronson’s more classical training, creating more versatile sounds with more colour and fill in supporting Bowie’s acoustic, taking a turn here and there as lead, with Ronson generally acting as a strong supporting player rather than the overwhelming presence his playing was on Man.
Rejected potential cover photo
“Eight Line Poem” is, as O’Leary described it, a “trio for voice, piano, and guitar.” It’s a lovely piece that starts on the same chord as the end of “Oh You Pretty Things,” a deft touch for what is a fairly meandering but lovely bit of introspection. Soon, we’ll stop getting songs like this, that are so nakedly personal, but for now we can enjoy what amounts to an interlude before the cinematic masterpiece of “Life on Mars.” If composing primarily on piano for the first time recharged and expanded Bowie’s previous songwriting gifts, I think it is fair to say that these new more sophisticated pieces and Rick Wakeman’s playing make for the unquestionably best work Bowie had done as an artist to this point, and for me this album is the one in which he broke out from being an “entertainer” or “singer-songwriter” into being a great artist … and he knew this at the time, according to Angie Bowie.
While most of the credit goes to Bowie of course, Ronson’s absolutely superb arranging, particularly on “Life on Mars,” deserves a lot of credit, and this is “the one” where the band’s ingredients totally gel. The most amazing part of this song isn’t the stunning orchestral arrangements, the cinematic piano, or even Bowie’s remarkable lyric: it’s the fact that this song started off life as Bowie’s English lyric for the song “Comme d’Habitude” by Claude François, which had been in hit in France back in Bowie’s “tin pan alley” early days. His submitted lyric was titled “Even a Fool Learns to Love” and was rejected. Paul Anka eventually wrote a different lyric, and the song became a hit again for Frank Sinatra as “My Way.” Bowie never forgot the song, though, and rewrote it with sufficient differences to become “Life on Mars.” That’s the meaning behind the scrawled “Inspired by Frankie” next to the song title on the album’s back cover.
Continuing my Elton comparisons for a moment longer, to the best of my knowledge John never covered “Life on Mars,” and that’s a great pity; this song seems well-suited to him and reminiscent of what John would later accomplish on his own a short time later. While the two were very different artists, the different angle piano composing gave Bowie (and Lennon, for that matter) was second nature to John, and thus the two in this particular period of their careers wrote personal, beautifully-crafted piano songs that could conceivably have been performed by the other to much the same effect.
On this song, at least, even a dedicated fan would forget that Tony Visconti wasn’t there (sorry, Tony), given how well Ronson and Bolder plug those gaps. There’s also an interesting bit of trivia about the piano used on this album: it’s the same one used for “Hey Jude” by the Beatles, Harry Nilsson, and … Elton John’s early albums (this exact same piano would also later be used for Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” as well — this studio piano was having a better career than Bowie at this point!). The lyric is also dashed clever: the first part talks mostly about the “mousey” outsider heroine, but then shifts to what’s on the screen that is captivating her, then pivots to the screen looking out at her.
In interviews, Bowie claimed that he basically wrote it in a day. He subsequently created a number of great live versions of the song over the course of his career, but my personal favourite non-album version is the one he did with Arcade Fire in 2005, in what turned out to be his last performance of the song. The piano part in particular is a worthy successor to Wakeman’s original, but Bowie himself is also in surprisingly strong voice, even chuckling while singing it at one point. Even as a partial rip-off of “Comme d’Habitude,” it’s a stone cold masterpiece — and so well-performed that nobody (even Bowie himself) has really been able to top it. Smartly, he doesn’t try (at least on this album).
The next song, “Kooks,” is written about Bowie’s new baby son — but it is a total throwback to his first two albums stylistically, likely composed on guitar and featuring the bands’ best impression of Love You Till Tuesday-era Feathers. If it wasn’t for the tell-tale piano, you’d swear it was a recovered out-take from the Deram era, complete with a spot of trumpet and a tea-time melody that emphasizes sweet paternal (and martial) love versus the observational intellectualism that has dominated the album to this point.
“Kooks” also kicks off a string of more-guitar-dominant numbers, including the last song on the original side one, “Quicksand,” which indeed does seem like an acoustically-arranged version of a song that would have been electrified (and sung more forcefully) if it had been part of The Man Who Sold the World. Still, Bowie remains in the ballad-y “sweet” mode here (completely with multiple layered acoustic guitars) so as not to be too alarming, even as he shifts gears to the dark side and directly references Alastair Crowley , Himler, Garbo, Nietzsche, and the Buddhist concept of the Bardo (an in-between place between death and rebirth). Heck, the song explicitly includes metaphors to drowning powerlessly in quicksand, and the line “knowledge comes with death’s release.” Did Bowie invent emo? I think he might have!
The arrangement of the song is so gorgeous that casual listeners might only be dimly aware of how relentlessly fatalistic it is, how much Nazi imagery is in it, or its beseeching the listener “don’t believe in yourself” — and if you think the song is a bit dark, you should hear the demo; It’s an even more stark collection of Bowie’s often-disturbing black thoughts (as with “Please Mr Gravedigger”) rather than the orchestrated, softer production for the album. There is a surprisingly touching duet version (with Robert Smith of The Cure) recorded as part of Bowie’s 50th birthday celebration, and another live version sung with Gail Ann Dorsey (with video clips showing off his clear affection for her across the years they toured together).
Side Two kicks off the first cover song on a Bowie album (well, not counting the rewrite of “Comme d’Habitude”), a number called “Fill Your Heart” written by, of all people, Paul “Rainbow Connection” Williams and comic Biff Rose. The song is so straight-up old-fashioned — and lame — that its inclusion after “Quicksand” seems amusingly perverse, especially as the arrangement and singing are sweet-shop-treacle saccharine. Despite it’s placement in the lead-off spot for the flipside, it was in fact a last-minute substitution, replacing “Bombers” and to borrow a great line from O’Leary, the chipper little cover “goes far beyond the realm of squares, really: it seems best suited to appeal to delusional old people, toddlers and good-tempered dogs.”
Bowie’s final sax squonk on the number segues into some digital noodling and studio backchat tomfoolery before a hearty laugh and the launch of the acoustic guitar that kicks off “Andy Warhol,” along with some oddly-recorded percussion (seems like Bowie and band are busking just outside the men’s room where a couple of Morris dancers are practicing, or something). As others have said, the second side of the LP is mostly a series of tributes; the Williams cover, then original songs about Warhol and Bob Dylan, followed by a pastiche of Lou Reed/Velvet Underground (“Queen Bitch”), before finishing up with a song some have claimed is a “diss” song aimed at John Lennon (and Paul McCartney). I don’t subscribe to this theory, but it does allow the otherwise-out-of-place song to “fit in” with the loose “tribute” theme of the second half of the album.
The lyric for “Warhol” is sublime and cutting; the man himself reportedly disliked it a great deal, but that’s only because the observation Bowie had hit the nail on the head. Bowie himself was a fan of the artist, and had hung out with many of Warhol’s gang when they were doing the Pork show in London (Angela was apparently a big fan). Oddly, Bowie and Warhol never really developed a friendship, though they cordially met several times and Bowie did a “screen test” for Warhol. Bowie later portrayed Andy (again with uncanny accuracy, killer vocal impression, and one of Andy’s actual wigs) in the film Basquiat. Funnily enough, Bowie apparently wrote the song intended for his friend Dana Gillespie to sing (which she did, though it wasn’t released until three years later on a hit album).
“Song for Bob Dylan” may be one of the oddest tracks on this album chock-full of odd moments: Bowie starts off by trying to imitate Dylan (not badly, we should add, and there’s a spot of Elvis imitation thrown in later). The way the song unfolds also seeks to mimic a Dylan song, but ends up becoming one of several songs written about Dylan’s strange absence from the scene in late 60s and early 70s (others include “To Bobby” from Joan Baez, and “Hey Bobby” by Country Joe and Fish), calling for Dylan to return; Bowie’s plea asks for “a couple of songs from your old scrapbook.” What makes it so odd is the lack of overt Dylan influence on anything Bowie had done up to this point (or after, for that matter), and the lingering feeling that Bowie is actually taking the piss out of Dylan, or more specifically the hero-worship he engendered and aggravated with his long absence. David noted in a later interview that, in part, Dylan’s exit from the scene he helped create caused a leadership void among the hippie culture that helped inspire this “tribute.”
So then — finally! — there’s the glam and yet another vocal impression to go with it in “Queen Bitch.” As with “Song for Bob Dylan” and the vocal impression correcting the pronunciation of Warhol’s last name that starts off that song, Bowie doesn’t try to stay consistent with it for long, but for a fleeting moment you’re not sure if Lou didn’t drop into the studio. “Queen Bitch” is certainly one of the best VU songs they never wrote or recorded (a bit like how Weird Al Yankovic’s “Dare to be Stupid” surpassed mere parody and became of the greatest non-Devo Devo songs ever, as Mark Mothersbaugh later admitted). Indeed, years later when Reed actually sang the number with Bowie on stage (again part of the 50th birthday concert), there were moments where he looked (alternately) amused by the homage and — occasionally — a bit concerned that maybe he should be suing Bowie, not singing it with him. David in that performance was clearly having the time of his life; his joy is utterly radiant in the performance (and he politely dropped the Reed imitation that time), in contrast to Reed’s laconic performance (he only sang with Bowie on the second half of the number).
The last regular album track is “The Bewlay Brothers,” another one of Bowie’s occasional “deliberately inpenetrable” songs where the lyrics are all right there, clearly written and sung, but still don’t add up to anything that listeners can quite get a handle on, other than the occasional chorus. We know that “Bewlay” was a type of pipe Bowie once (briefly) smoked (sold by a chain of stores called “The Bewlay Brothers”), and that he (and likely his half-brother Terry) attended an arts centre as kids in a village called Beauliere the locals pronounced as “Boo-lee.”
We also know that most critics think the song is another tribute/identification with his mentally-ill half-brother (something Bowie occasionally said himself as well), and that a number of the lyrics seem to conform to schitzophrenic “clang” — a stringing together of words related in obtuse ways, such as rhyming or starting with the same first letter. If “Quicksand” could be read as a worrying decent into madness, “Bewlay” seems to be where the elevator stops and the passengers get off; the first circle of hell (albeit the catchiest circle). There also appear to be some homosexual references throughout, including instances of American gay code and “polare,” but again that doesn’t seem to be what the song is “about,” and could just be Bowie noticing the similarity between some of Terry’s disturbed utterances and other types of “code” people speak.
Bowie claims it was entirely composed and recorded after the producer and band went home one night, and although other instruments were added later, it does give the impression of a late-night drug session where the stream-of-consciousness lyrics and stylized performance (including the use of Bowie’s vari-speed manipulated background vocals of crying madmen in the coda) were born. Personally, I think it is a combination of drug influence and all of the above, including Bowie’s own ability to spook himself with dark thoughts (again). It isn’t “about” any one thing, but a mosaic of several topics that were, at the time, on the top of his mind: from religion to sex, from Terry to his own worries about his own mental health (all topics he would come back to again and again). As mentioned, some think the song is about the Beatles, and specifically about Lennon’s increasingly obtuse lyrics and drug-influenced songwriting (Bowie and Lennon went on to become firm friends later, so this interpretation, if true, would be a bit awkward — like Warhol’s reaction to “Andy Warhol”).
Listeners have tried interpreting it for decades, and this blog is not going to be the one to crack the mystery, except to say this: the only really clear thing about this number is that Bowie intended to be mysterious and inscrutable, and after the song’s release he very deliberately refused to nail its meaning down, fueling more speculation. Hopefully, he can tell us all about it in the next Bardo.
The best version of the album remains the 1990 EMI reissue, which restores the overly-cloying and oddly-exaggerated “Bombers” (apparently meant to be something of a … let’s say tribute … to Neil Young), the song was originally planned to open side two of the album, but dropped in favor of “Fill Your Heart.” In hindsight, it was best that it be left off, as it didn’t really fit the album: the music-hall style performance reminds one of something from the Love You Till Tuesday period, but with more mood-altering substances).
There’s also a very different version of last album’s “The Supermen” recorded during the Ziggy Stardust sessions that I personally like much better; it’s the style Bowie used for the song in most live performances. The demo version of “Quicksand” is also included, along with a very similar (almost indistinguishable but for added stereo effects and reverb) alternate mix of “The Bewlay Brothers.” Like the album that came before it, Hunky Dory is quite the mixed bag; there are some utterly amazing bits in there, and a few missteps, downers, and oddball moments — Bowie never lets us forget he’s got a weird streak, and I’m not talking about the Aladdin Sane lightning bolt that Harry Potter later adopted as a birthmark.
The one thing most of the songs have in common with each other is that they are uniquely Bowie, but that they really take flight in the hands of gifted arrangers and producers: Bowie, great as he is, has fully come to understand that he relies heavily on a good team to realise his vision. This and The Man Who Sold the World really set a stage for the shifting personas and the multiple ch-ch-ch-ch-changes that were to unfold in the years ahead. The darker moments on this record also hint at the roots of Bowie’s “Aladdin Sane” identity, just as all the tributes and impersonations are evidence of his interest in characters. Between the Arnold Corns sessions, Man and Hunky, what is clearest to see is that Bowie is putting his new team and his upgraded talent through the paces, and his vision for rock-n-roll performance art and a career built on acting as well as singing is starting to coming together.
This is — sort of — where I first got on the Bowie bus. I’d heard “Space Oddity” on the radio, but I did not associate it with anything — I was young enough that I didn’t notice band names too much, apart from the Beatles most likely — and just judged songs I heard by whether I liked them, on a case-by-case basis.
But I had started tentatively buying some singles by this point, and looking at albums. That’s how this one got me — that cover. The US version had a completely different “cartoon” cover that would never have caught my attention, but I had the (good? bad?) fortune to see the provocative UK cover featuring Bowie in the “man dress.” It’s hard to express fully what a completely mind-blowing (and erotic) concept this was for a reasonably sheltered young lad to see — the blurring of gender concepts that, at the time of my upbringing, were bright clear lines never to be crossed.
It was both the utter audacity of a man looking like a girl (what with the long hair and the dress, etc) and the fact that he looked fantastic in it that just criss-crossed all kinds of new neural connections in my brain, but although I could barely stop staring at it I made sure my parents didn’t see it (even then I knew I had wandered “out of bounds” of my supervised environment). It would be many years before I got to buy a copy, but that cover made a huge impression on me and how I looked at gender roles — and ensured that his next one, Hunky Dory, would be my first Bowie album. It cracked open a door that Ziggy Stardust would later kick wide open, and ironically that impact is beautifully re-enacted by Bowie and Tilda Swindon (with Andreja Pejić and Saskia de Brauw as their doppelgängers) in the video for “The Stars Are Out Tonight” some 45 years later.
Rejected UK cover
So, mid-1970 and much of early 1971 was a period in which big new influences came (and in one case, went) into Bowie’s life. For the period leading up to the album, the most important of these people were (in ascending order) Tony Visconti, who figured out how to record him; Mick Ronson, who gave him a new sound; Bowie’s new manager Tony DeFries, who got him better deals; and of course the most important of the bunch in this time-frame, Angela Barrett, his new girlfriend (quickly fiancé and then wife). There’s another much more shadowy figure that also played a big role, since he was the person who brought Barrett and Bowie together — a music executive named Calvin Mark Lee of Mercury Records. It is said (by Bowie himself) that he met Angela (later Angie) because they were both, um, “dating” Lee.
It’s difficult to track down any definitive evidence of Bowie’s own self-proclaimed bisexuality, but this reviewer has no trouble believing that — in his early years at least — he was. Lindsey Kemp has said he had a relationship with Bowie, Angie says David and Mick Jagger fooled around, Angie and David were both friends with gay designer Freddie Buretti (who lived with him and Angie at Haddon Hall for a while), they hung out with loads of other gay people, and Angie was another self-proclaimed bisexual. Despite any homosexual acts being prosecutable in the UK at the time, and despite Bowie’s later seeming exclusivity with women, there’s a handful of people who say Bowie was at least willing to experiment. It is undeniable that he found gay culture at the very least fashionable and fun — there’s a fair amount of polare and other gay slang littered amongst his early-70s work, and then there’s that dress and the long hair and the beginning of the gender blurring.
That said, Angie had gone from helping David with the Beckinham Arts Lab “free festival” by cooking hamburgers for sale in a wheelbarrow in early 1970 to marrying him and giving birth to his son, Duncan Zowie Haywood Jones, in mid-1971 (she’d actually started off as a personal assistant/road manager, roles she continued after they fell in love). Still, the subversive influence that Bowie courted with his confessions of bisexuality (during the Ziggy period in particular), coming on the heels of his toying with gender stereotypes (ranging from his campaign for long-haired men as a boy to this album cover and his later androgynous years) had a lasting impact on the impressionable youth of the day, as seen by the rise of glam rock and its (for a brief time) total invasion of the previously uber-macho world of rock. Men and boys who would have rather died than be thought as “effeminate” were wearing Lycra (Spandex), makeup, and glitter by the time the mid-70s rolled around.
Although many would point to the next album, the regressively softer Hunky Dory, as the moment when Bowie really found his full footing (and indeed, there are many who list it as one of, if not the, favourite album of his), The Man Who Sold the World is the record where all the elements began to fall into place. It seems odd that “settling down” with Angie, having a kid, and owning a home (albeit more of a commune; his bandmates, friends, and even his half-brother Terry would live there for periods of time) would presage his exploration of gender and sexuality roles, and foreshadow arguably his most famous period of strong songwriting and performance, but for Bowie nothing was ever what it seemed on the surface; even domesticity.
The first song on TMWSTW has an unusual public pedigree: for listeners who went from the previous album to this one, “The Width of a Circle” simply sounds like a bizarrely deep excursion into heavy metal, with a tripped-out wandering lyric that covers Nietzsche, Khalil Gibran, and Alastair Crowley/HP Lovecraftian tones with one of Bowie’s early acknowledgements of bisexuality (in this song, particularly, gay sex with demons). But there is some documentation of the evolution of this number.
Before the album came out, Bowie and Ronson performed a version of the song for BBC Radio, as found on the outstanding Bowie at the Beeb compilation album. Ronson, who had assisted with the reworked and more rocked-out single version of “Memory of a Free Festival,” had re-acquainted himself with Bowie (who was in search of a new lead guitarist … and a more rock-oriented direction) only two days before the Beeb performance, according to Chris O’Leary.
This version of “The Width of a Circle” was the “original” one Bowie likely wrote in 1969 while working on the last album, and bears more of a similarity to that record. While Ronson is an unmistakable presence on the BBC version, it’s nowhere near as metalled-out as the eventual album cut, with Bowie’s singing and lyric still taking center stage at this point, and the song running less than five minutes. At the end of the performance, the announcer asks if Bowie is going to take this newly-assembled band on the road, and in turn David asks “Michael” (Mick) pretty much if he wants to stay on and do that. Bowie jokes that “looking at this lot, no” but then says “yes” he likely will. Bowie even mentions on-air that “Michael” has just come to him from a referral from the drummer (John Carmichael of the Rats, who knew Ronson from that Hull-based band).
As others have said, Ronson sounds like he is still grappling with the number, and to be fair, it’s a compositional mess in the “tradition” of “Unwashed,” “Wild-Eyed Boy” and “Memory of a Free Festival” — part structured, part jam, with highly allegorical and inpenetrable lyrics, Bowie’s very public rebelling against the kind of structured songs he’d been pressured to write and which hadn’t worked out for him.
The official album version became even more so, following Bowie’s desire that this album be much more of a “hard rock” sound than his previous efforts, for which of course Ronson was the perfect choice. Visconti and Ronson essentially wrote new second act for the song and had Bowie provide additional lyrics not heard at all in the BBC version. The guitar and bass parts, having started out much more heavy metal, get a bit more “rolling” than rocking in the last half of the expanded 10-minute number, in contrast to Bowie’s new and far darker homoerotic Crowley-meets-Black Sabbath fantasy lyrics.
On tour, the song would get stretched out even further (up to 15 minutes) to act as a hard-rock jam that allowed Bowie to change costumes and perform an accompanying mime bit. Yes, really. It’s important to remember where the music scene was in 1970: bands like Yes and King Crimson were doing some of their most important work, and song lengths were swinging as far away from the no-more-than-three-minutes idiom as possible. The wide proliferation of casual drug use was, no doubt, the fuel that allowed musicians to reach for such hypnotic and shamanic (at best) or over-indulgent (more typically) heights, and for audiences to accept them.
This “long jam” style in Bowie’s hands, though, was fodder for his first runs at introducing more theatricality into the concerts, which would of course play a vital role in the near future — and which had a lasting and profound impact on not just progressive bands like Genesis (under original frontman Peter Gabriel), as well as many other bands and their audiences. This was the period where “showmanship” started to become an important factor alongside musicianship. Bowie and Ronson (and Marc Bolan) may have invented glam rock, but at this point they were still cooking it up in the lab.
“All the Madmen,” though, was straight-up Black Sabbath, and for good reason: like Ozzy, Bowie figured it was his fate to eventually go mad. The soft-rock opening (featuring some recorder by Tony Visconti) that wouldn’t have been too out-of-place on his Deram album gives way to Ronson’s electric guitar fireworks before returning (briefly) to the eye of the musical storm with a short spoken-word bit before returning to its catchy chorus, while Bowie sings about how much he’d prefer to remain at the asylum, as he’s more comfortable there (in some interviews, he indicated that the song is very much about his half-brother Terry Burns, who suffered from schizophrenia).
“Black Country Rock” is a different beast, but it’s still an imitation of others: in this case, pretty directly riffing off Bolan and T. Rex, who would very shortly become glam stars themselves. Bowie, who has always had a gift for mimicry, both pays homage and to some extent sends up Bolan with an uncannily-accurate copy of his style and phrasing. The song remains a primer for riff-ridden guitar rock, and one could easily see it covered by any number of “southern rock” bands such as the Allman Brothers — the fact that Bowie only wrote one verse (and then repeats it) for the thing lends that comparison some credibility.
Then, suddenly, we’re totally back to the first album again with “After All,” yet another song about children with a dark underbelly and a doomed fate awaiting them (reminding us of Charles Addams’s work, and predating A Series of Unfortunate Events by 30 years) that recalls “There is a Happy Land” from his debut, and echoes the darker sides of the non-LP “When I’m Five,” only this time with a dollop of sea shanty mixed in. This song could, in fact, have fit in easily with the recent Netflix adaptation of Handler’s “The Wide Window.” That darkness carries on with the clownish yet violent opening vocal for “Running Gun Blues,” which seems to draw from the Vietnam conflict for its theme of an ex-soldier turned wannabe mass murderer.
Much of TMWSTW seems to cover depressing ground as much as Space Oddity did, but in large part thanks to his new collaborators, Bowie has by now figured out how to drape sour songs with exciting riffs, pyrotechnic arrangements, and dramatic vocals so as to make the darkness alluring. Thus, naturally, his up-to-this-point favourite theme of the Messiah figure gone horribly wrong is revisited with this new treatment, resulting in the best of his many attempts to capture this neo-Huxleyesque vision of the future, the song “Saviour Machine.” Nearly a decade ahead of Douglas Adams (but four years after Doctor Who tackled the topic, though they would again numerous times later), Bowie invents the greatest computer in the world and of course it becomes the center of a new, subservient religion, to its chagrin and protest.
It’s another weird exercise in musicality, and again nods to “heavy metal” in lots of ways — quite apart from its doomsday/no-god-to-save-us scenario, the song features extended guitar breaks, shifting time signatures, and a particularly careering vocal. As noted by O’Leary in his “Pushing Ahead of the Dame” blog, the first and third of the solos oddly lift their chorus from Bowie’s own non-LP song “Ching A Ling,” as un-metal a song as there ever could be. Of his many attempts at a dystopian futurescape (which in fact was a common theme in UK science fiction in the 60s and 70s — that eventually the world would be wholly dependent on some kind of supercomputer or super-network of computers to run everything, and that it would go horribly wrong), this was his best effort to date, though Bowie would of course top it years later with the longer-form works Diamond Dogs and 1. Outside.
O’Leary (quoting Pegg and Visconti, among others) notes that one of the reasons this album has such a distinct new sound is that Bowie was almost a guest artist on his own record: newly married to Angie, “he left Visconti and Ronson to arrange the sessions, play most of the instruments, edit and overdub the tracks … Only at the end, mainly during the mixing stage, did Bowie show up (sometimes having just scrawled out a final lyric) to record his vocals,” it is claimed (an account only weakly disputed by David himself). This seems very evident on at least “She Shook Me Cold,” which sounds very much like Mick Ronson doing his best Cream impersonation, with a sprinkling of Hendrix thrown in. Very much out of character for Bowie, his lyric is not far above your typical grunt-rock “love song” centering around sexual conquest, including an extended “orgasmic” moaning vocal and guitar break.
That this is the song just ahead of what is by far the most sophisticated and mature track on the album, the title number, just seems as though Bowie sailed in to the recording studio, heard what Ronson and Visconti had come up with, thought it fun and wrote an immature teen-boy lyric to go along with the crotch-rock stylings — and didn’t think too hard about where to put it in the running order. Nevertheless, “The Man Who Sold the World” seems all the more exotic in its placement between “She Shook Me Cold” and yet another stab at Nietzsche in the album’s final song, “The Supermen.”
Featuring a masterfully restrained guitar limited to extremely simple parts (the chorus itself is mostly just scales) and above-average bass (by Visconti again), the arrangement and rhythms of the song transport the listener to another time and place not otherwise found on this album — a mysterious arena where riddles and enigmas murmur sweet nothings in our ears.
Following Nirvana’s cover 23 years later, the song became a staple “hit” in Bowie’s subsequent collections and tours, but in fact it was never a single for him — it was the b-side of the following album’s “Life on Mars?” in the UK, and for the reissued “Space Oddity” single in the US. Lulu, of all people, had the biggest hit with it — she took it to #3 in the UK charts. Up to this point, Bowie had written a number of derivative-but-good songs, and was now writing some original-but-good songs — but this, in your humble reviewer’s opinion, was his second truly “magical” song (following “Space Oddity”) and by far the most “Bowie-like” (when viewed in later context) song that would foreshadow his future career highlights.
Despite (so the story goes) only having the lyric and vocal delivered while the producer and band waited around on the final day of album production, it is a glorious fusion of the gentle rock that had marked his first and second album with a more eloquent lyric addressing his own demons (and angels) than anything he had managed up to this point. It does borrow, yet reinvents, lines from diverse sources such as Hughes Mearns “Antigonish” and Wilfred Owens’ “Strange Meeting,” both poems from the early part of the 20th century (and let’s not forget Ray Bradbury’s “Night Meeting”), but places them in a wonderfully atmospheric new context that imprints Bowie’s own psyche onto those concepts.
The extended Ryko version of the album throws in a previously-unreleased track, “Lightning Frightening,” the non-LP single a-side “Holy Holy” — the latter of which was good enough to get Bowie a new publishing deal — and a pair of 1971 (and demo-like) versions of “Moonage Daydream” and “Hang On to Yourself,” recorded under the pseudonym “Arnold Corns” (A Corns in UK institution-speak) for legal reasons. It is said that the oddball group name was invented to recoup the cost of the demo sessions without violating Bowie’s existing Mercury contract). These songs wouldn’t reappear until two albums later — on The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars — and though these versions, recorded in the studios of Radio Luxembourg, are an interesting testament to those songs’ development, let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
If Bowie’s first album was notable for catchy tunes (albeit in an outdated style, with some blended-in quirkiness), what are we to make of his second, also eponymous, album? Who does this guy think he is, Peter Gabriel? 🙂
For those only familiar with Bowie’s major hits and not much of his history, it will seem like he has undergone a huge stylistic and personal change from his first to his second record, but there is more of a transition to be discovered than is obvious from just the long-players — as with every subsequent Bowie album. There was, for example the Love You Till Tuesday promo film, made to showcase Bowie to other labels, which included a strange (to the audience) mime/story sequence in the middle, and several non-LP songs ranging from downright juvenile to a new, more hippy/folkie tone than seen on the Deram-issued album. Some fans refer to the second album as the first “proper” Bowie album, a perception I’m sure Bowie himself fostered at the time.
To really understand this second album, it occurs to me that the hidden context is crucially important. No less than five major negative events occurred between the release of the previous album and the one now most commonly known as Space Oddity, and they reshaped Bowie in several ways. The first was having his debut album not do well and, despite recording some interesting (and more commercial) new songs for a planned second album, his label dropping him. This, on the heels of his unsuccessful singles, must have been a difficult blow. It was followed in rapid succession by more tragedies: his first real love left him (though it was, as he later admitted, his own fault); his delvings into hippie culture and creating an arts community didn’t pan out to his satisfaction; he split with influential manager Ken Pitt; and his father Haywood Jones, who had been supportive of his artistic efforts, died rather unexpectedly.
It wasn’t all bad news, though: there were at least five positive events as well. Bowie and his new manager landed a new record deal; he became more aware of Bob Dylan and other poet-songwriters; he met Tony Visconti, who shared a mutual interest in Buddhism and other offbeat topics; he met a new girlfriend, Angela Barrett; and western society was, in the year of his “second debut” album, becoming fixated around a single cultural event: the space race. Understanding the cultural context of the period in which the work was created gives a lot of insight into the work itself, and at this stage of his life Bowie was still more of a mirror than a leader. Most of these various good and bad happenings in his life can be found throughout the second album
The two US versions: A recreation of the 1969 Mercury original issue on the left, and the 1972 reissue on the right
It was issued simply as David Bowie on Phillips in the UK, and as Man of Words, Man of Music on Mercury in the US. That’s not the half of it, though: when the album was reissued in 1972 after Ziggy Stardust became a monster hit, it was renamed by Bowie’s new US label RCA after its lead track, “Space Oddity.” To avoid confusion with the earlier Deram album, we’ll use the reissued Space Oddity title in this review. Bowie’s life was clearly in a lot of flux between late 1967 and late 1969 musically and personally, but there were other things going on as well; it’s fair to say that there was an increasing influence of some various mind-altering substances, he was continuing his rapid post-school cultural education and cultivating a variety of interests — including mime and performance — along with his increased love of reading; and he was experimenting with a new look via home permanents kits (apparently).
That his hair seems to have “exploded” both on the Phillips/Mercury original and more punk-looking RCA cover (where he looks for all the world like a young John Lydon) is oddly symbolic of the growth of both his mind and talent, and the UK cover was a strong visual indicator of the hippie style he had now fully embraced rather than just flirted with. As it turns out, it was a blessing in disguise that Bowie’s first album didn’t do well; had it done, he would have been unlikely to follow some of the various paths he eventually took, becoming more of a conventional and “pleasant” pop star in the mold of a Barry Manilow or Neil Diamond (though undoubtedly a bit darker and odder than either; imagine an entire career similar to the work he did in Labyrinth).
Of course, his natural restlessness might have lead him away from mainstream success anyway; his friendship with Visconti right at the end of his Deram period certainly changed his sound significantly, and he was already demonstrating a more mature lyrical sense, but there is still a lot of obvious influences, from the Beatles (“Karma Man”) to the Stones (“Let Me Sleep Beside You”) to the Kinks (“London Bye Ta-Ta”). Still, one track not released for decades after he left Deram, the Visconti-produced “In the Heat of the Morning,” is a clear indicator of the direction Bowie was heading in, and is said to have been the blueprint for what would have been his second Deram album. It was probably a “thank you” to Visconti’s influence on his sound that Bowie re-recorded “Let Me Sleep Beside You” and “In the Heat of the Morning” for his unreleased 2001 Toy album; Visconti’s role in helping David define his vision is hard to understate, though the producer and sideman wasn’t the only one who fed Bowie’s flame.
Also as previously mentioned, Bowie’s determination to become famous was not slowed or broken by his seemingly-endless string of failures to this point, and this was vital to how he eventually became successful: constantly rehearsing for success, and always looking forward, never back. Thus, there really was only one path he could take in his career at this point: re-invention. As with the TV show Doctor Who, this methodology was periodically re-deployed to give him an almost-unique place in pop culture: a seemingly never-ending set of “fresh starts” to go along with his “regenerations” of looks, and a genuine unpredictability that guaranteed new attention and an infusion of fresh audiences each time. Elton John, among others, certainly seemed to take note of how clever that gimmick could be.
As a diary of the rapid “growing up” Bowie was doing, complete with “highs” and lows, Space Oddity is a remarkably candid document. As a commercial album, on the other hand, it had some clear faults: for starters, any fans Bowie might have picked up from his first solo effort would be just as put off by the “new direction” of his second album as folkies were when Dylan went “electric” three years earlier. Not only that, but nearly every song starts with and/or heavily features David on 12-string guitar. It is also fair to say some of the songs ramble a bit, with “Unwashed and Somewhat Slightly Dazed” or the entire second half of “Memory of a Free Festival” as examples. Loads of talent on display, not a lot of discipline.
Bowie himself has said (contradictorily) that the former song is about how he felt in the weeks following his father’s death, and also that it was about the class difference between him and his girlfriend, which caused some friction (another reference, most likely, to Hermione Farthingale). There are certainly elements of both in it, and the song also marks his first encounters with members of the Hull-based group The Rats, who would continue to pop up in his life for decades to come (one of them is responsible for the harmonica on this song, while another is the drummer on the album).
Structurally, the song is a downright manifesto of Bowie giving up on folk music for rock, starting with a softly psychedelic and gentile opening, then across an unusually long bar devolving into basic blues chords and finally spending its final three minutes in a Grateful Dead-style jam. In its original form (and restored in the 2009 remaster), the end of the song is appended with a short separate jammy outtake, called “Don’t Sit Down,” that foreshadows the “candid” outtakes and ad-libbed moments in Hunky Dory.
Bowie performing with The Strawbs in Beckenham
Other problems with the album include repetitious subject matter (“Unwashed” references the same time period as “Memory of a Free Festival,” which also touches on his disillusionment with the hippie movement). The song also revisits the Farthingale breakup, which is also the subject of the very next track, “Letter to Hermione” as well as “An Occasional Dream.” “Cygnet Committee” revisits the theme of previous album’s “We Are Hungry Men,” and the messianic character trope is revisited yet again in “Wild-Eyed Boy From Freecloud,” which itself is another paean to Buddhism — in common with the then-unreleased “Karma Man.” There are as many throwbacks to the style of his previous album (“Letter,” “An Occasional Dream,” and the lovely but sad “God Knows I’m Good”) as there are pointers to the next one (he would essentially remake “Cygnet Committee” with “Saviour Machine” next time around, and the jam half of “Unwashed” is a foreshadowing of “Black Country Rock”).
On top of all this, as you might expect, the weight of the negative events that fuel much the songwriting cast a dour mood across the record most of the time, which can’t have helped sales. One further issue was that the lead single, issued four months in advance of the album originally, and a brilliant blend of Bowie’s folk stylings and sci-fi lyrics, was nothing like the rest of the album — and thus the long-player was perceived as disappointing. Although the single made Bowie a household name in the UK, where it reached #5, it was largely not played in the US until after the Apollo 11 astronauts had safely returned to Earth (credit where it’s due: the lyrics would have been seen as disturbingly prescient if all hadn’t gone according to plan). Indeed, the album didn’t do terribly well on either side of the Atlantic until it was re-released under the Space Oddity title three years later, in 1972, following Ziggy Stardust).
The song “Space Oddity” is a real gem, very imaginatively recorded by Visconti’s then-assistant Gus Dudgeon (Visconti himself felt it was a bit of a “novelty song” and didn’t want to produce it — in context, he was absolutely right, but Dudgeon’s production and Bowie’s strong lyric made it something a bit more than that, and Visconti has since admitted as much). When the album was reissued in 1972, photographer Mick Rock created a short film for the song featuring Bowie’s “Ziggy Stardust” look (so different from the version in Love You Till Tuesday). As a youngster in 1972, this short film (which got a lot of play on TV for some reason) hit me like a mind bomb.
I think what attracted me so strongly to it was both the startlingly-androgynous man I already knew about, the new-to-me look, and the ambivalence of the lyric — as a child, of course, I’d heard it more as a song about the strangeness of space travel; the drug allusions were completely lost on me, but I was struck by the fact (even then) that the story didn’t have either a happy or sad ending. On two different levels, Bowie was telling me there was “in-between space” in things — nuance rather than than clear-cut lines — and that was a concept I was just old enough to start grasping when I heard the song in 1969. Subversive stuff, that number, and a nice appetizer for what was to come later.
Apart from the lead track, the rest of the album paints less of a beguilingly-alternative picture than it does a confusing one. A number of the songs, at least in a casual listen, teeter between two conflicting ideas in its main motif: Bob Dylan-like songs about how awful hippies are, sung and performed in a hippie/rock style (with occasional forays back to folk). The disenchantment Bowie had experienced with his dabblings in hippie culture (such as the Beckenham Arts Lab from whence the “Free Festival” tableau is drawn), which had started years before in his first TV appearance promoting long hair for boys as stylish, was an important rite of passage — the crashing of idealistic political and social dreams against the rocks of reality. This must have been disappointing, but it along with some other elements of the culture — free love and drugs among them — helped push his songwriting out of his previous local focus and made him start painting on a bigger canvas.
Bowie at the Beckenham Free Festival from whence the song originates
While Visconti’s production on the album is mostly very good, the sequencing (whoever was responsible for it) is another obstacle. While “Space Oddity” explores the heavens and “Unwashed” tears up his folk stylings for electric rock, “Letter to Herminone” is a last-album relapse — a roughly-sung but folkie love letter to a lost girlfriend from a young man who still can’t quite let go, and sitting between “Unwashed” and the malevolent break-up with the hippies that makes up “Cygnet Committee,” it’s like the album has taken a turn down a bitter alleyway. “Cygnet” can be taken as a ego-centric indictment of the Beckenham Arts Lab, which Bowie apparently hoped would become an artistic-development haven but turned into “I’ll do all the work and you guys just enjoy it and do nothing” (hello and welcome to the world of civic volunteering, young master Bowie!) and even as a “goodbye” rant to the entire hollowness of the late 1960s hippie culture, it likewise meanders and indulges itself to nearly 10 minutes.
The closing chanting of “We/I want to live” is an unsettling cry of someone not really sure where to go from here; cut off as Bowie was from his childhood ideals, from his former friends, lovers, and management, and even his supportive parent, it sounds like a young man who suddenly finds himself more alone in the world than he realized, and is striking back angrily. It’s uncannily echoed on the future “Rock and Roll Suicide” and later numbers.
Next up, “Janine” is an Elvis-like number that paints itself warning to someone trying to get close — there’s a dark side here that I’m not sure I can control, Bowie seems to be saying (“You don’t wanna get mixed up with a guy like me,” said Pee-Wee. “I’m a loner, Dottie. A rebel”). With a motif that would later be more identified with “Southern Rock,” the bluesy flavourings of proto-glam show off an early Bolan influence, though there is also a bizarrely-similar song by Gordon Lightfoot called “Walls” from his 1967 album The Way I Feel, but the thought of Bowie nicking ideas from Lightfoot is too bizarre to contemplate, so I’m putting that down to coincidence for once. This song is more notable for the references to multiple or alternate personalities, a theme Bowie would make a centerpiece of his 1970s work. Not content to let these bad relationships go, following this is “An Occasional Dream,” again about his missing Hermione. Of all Bowie’s albums, this one might be one of the most up-front about his turbulent emotional state at this time in his life.
Skipping over the aforementioned “Wild Eyed Boy,” we get to another real gem in the album — “God Knows I’m Good,” which to these ears sounds a bit like Bowie’s take on “Eleanor Rigby” if Dylan had written it. The song is an observational tale of a desperate woman stealing some food and getting caught, sprinkled with slight Flamenco touches. It is a direct folk song wrestling with the wisdom of believing in a monolithic God, a subject Bowie would return to throughout his entire career. It also references a 1984-type dystopia, which will of course pop up again later.
The last song on the original release is the previously-mentioned “Memory of a Free Festival,” and it is not much like anything else Bowie ever wrote for a variety of reasons: aside from the odd structure of the number (including an entire second half spent chanting just two lines) and it’s “Hey Jude”-esque finale, it has the unusual intro of Bowie actually announcing it over his own (badly-played) organ intro, giving it a misleadingly funereal air, before (very awkwardly) shifting gears into a festival-style singalong that morphs into a slightly-restrained choral rock jam-out, repeating the two new lines for another three-and-a-half minutes.
With no second single released after the pre-release hit “Space Oddity,” Bowie finally convinced his label — seven months after the album was released — to do “Memory” as a single. By now it was mid-1970, and there was much change in the air musically. The record company balked, but a compromise was reached: the song would be re-recorded to be closer to the glam rock sounds Bowie was already shifting to, and cut in half so that the more repetitive chant part was the b-side, with the a-side rearranged to get to the true heart of the song faster. This turned out to be fortuitous indeed, as the single version of “Memory of a Free Festival” is not only vastly better, it’s also the first Bowie recording Mick Ronson appears on, and the impact is very obvious right from the start.
Despite the clear influence of Lennon/McCartney, these lyrics still have a distinct Bowie flair: the lines “Touch, We touched the very soul/Of holding each and every life/We claimed the very source of joy ran through/It didn’t, but it seemed that way” hit on his now-trademark ambiguity, and the closer on that verse of “I kissed a lot of people that day” has exactly that touch of wistfullness and androgyny that would prove so potent in the near future.
Amusingly, English producer Paul Spencer — recording under the name Dario G — managed to unlock the full potential of that hippy-dippy second half of “Memory of a Free Festival” by building a house-y dance track around those two lines of Bowie’s lyric, eventually securing the permission (and isolated original vocals) of the man himself. The re-working also included a specially-recorded flute solo from Tony Visconti to make a track that wallows in its repetitiveness to the point that it comes out the other side as a brilliant dance number. The song became the title track of Dario G’s album, Sunmachine, and reached into the top 20 on the UK singles chart in 1998, probably Bowie’s most indirect entry into the top 20 ever.
Speaking of chart action, the original 1969 release of Space Oddity — despite posting a massive top five hit single, again didn’t perform well as an album. Furthermore, the single didn’t do well in the US either, reaching only #124. When the album was re-released in 1972 following the success of Ziggy, the album reached #17 in the UK chart, and #16 in the US chart. “Janine” was mooted as a possible follow-up single, as was a remake of “London Bye Ta-Ta,” but in the end Bowie went with the non-LP “The Prettiest Star,” about his new girlfriend Angela (more about her next time as well) backed with another non-LP cut, “Conversation Piece,” an unusually candid portrait of a frustrated thinker that really should have gone on the album. The original single of “The Prettiest Star” is now most notable for featuring Marc Bolan of T. Rex on guitar; one of their rare recorded collaborations.
The 2009 Rykodisc release of the album also includes a second disc chock full of interesting stuff, including a previously-unheard demo of “Space Oddity” that has Hutch taking the lead vocal, the much-more-earnest demo of “An Occasional Dream,” stereo mixes of “London Bye Ta Ta” and “The Prettiest Star,” (later to be remade for 1973’s Aladdin Sane) along with “Conversation Piece.” While many have said that “Cygnet Committee” is Bowie’s first real masterpiece, I think “Conversation Piece,” while not first, is an overlooked gem — like “God Knows I’m Good.”
There are also a clutch of BBC Radio versions, alternative mixes, a very orchestra-ed up version of “Wild Eyed Boy,” and the winner for “most bizarre song Bowie has ever done” award, the completely new lyric (sung in the rare Bromley-Italian dialect) for the Italian version of “Space Oddity,” known as “Ragazzo Solo, Ragazza Sola” (Lonely Boy, Lonely Girl). Yes, odder even than “The Laughing Gnome,” primarily for the explanation from the translator, someone named Mogol, about why the lyric had be completely changed: “there is no way to translate [your lyric] in a way that Italians will understand.”
Let’s start with the obvious: even in the context of 1967, this record was rather behind the times — and if you’re unfamiliar with Anthony Newley’s career around this time, but do know what Bowie achieved later, this album may seem borderline unlistenable, though it is not far out of line with what Deram was charged with putting out — what we might now refer to as “high-concept chamber pop.” As with his pre-album singles, Bowie seemed to need a musical motif to glom onto, and for reasons never really clear — but probably his own — for this first long-player the overriding influence (but not the only one) was Newley. This was presumably due to Bowie’s determination to succeed where his unfocused earlier efforts had not (and indeed, the record got some kind reviews that called it “fresh” and a talent worth watching). That said, there is still a growing songwriter with a decidedly bent view and a flair for psychedelia poking out from under all that “cabaret/music hall” styling.
For the purposes of this review, we are using just the first half of the two-CD David Bowie: Deluxe Edition set that includes an entire second disc of material, including single and alternate versions of LP songs, non-LP a- and b-sides, and even a few songs intended for a second Deram album that never ended up happening. The first disc has both the stereo and mono versions of David Bowie as released on 1-June 1967 (indeed, it was one of the first to get both a stereo and mono release in the pop genre) and while there are very minor differences between them, they are essentially equivalent for all but the nit-pickiest of listeners. The deluxe release is highly recommended for its rich supplementary material and the definitive remasterings of the original album mixes. It is truly the alpha and omega of Bowie’s Deram period, and expands what was going on with the still very much developing songwriter and singer beyond what the original album release imparted.
If Newley was the template, Bowie was equally determined to subvert it in various ways, most often lyrically — and so even in this relative step backwards from his progression as a songwriter in the Decca/Parlourphone/Pye period, we see the growth in some areas. You can hear it right off on the lead track, “Uncle Arthur” — a quixotic little Kinks-esque tale of a socially inept man who lives with his mother until he meets a girl, marries her, and makes a break from the oppressive thumb of his parent. As the song unfolds, though, we learn that he quickly returns to the fold, all forgiven and his safe-but-unhappy status restored. There’s a bit of Tony Hancock in Bowie’s story-ish lyric for this, and that influence turns up again on some other songs in this period as well.
This one also, as noted by brilliant Bowie blogger Chris O’Leary of Pushing Ahead of the Dame, is one of the rare tracks on this album told seemingly from a boy’s perspective (rather than a man’s, as most of the other tracks seem determined to prove Bowie to be): Uncle Arthur returns to his domineering mother because his bride can’t cook, and of course is referred to as “Uncle” throughout the song. By contrast, track 2 (“Sell Me a Coat”) is a much more poetic and worldy-wise affair, a sad sonnet of a romance that went south using the age-old summer/happy, winter/sad metaphor you might have heard on a Moody Blues record of the period.
Bowie’s previous producer Tony Hatch was once quoted as saying Bowie was a definite talent, but tended to spend too much time writing about “London dustbins” — that is to say small, ordinary subjects with decoratively vivid but arms-reach details, such as the description of the coat here, or in the Victorian flavour of “Come and Buy My Toys.” The descriptions are certainly more intricate than you would find outside of The Kinks or Van Morrison typically, and the “vision” of many of the songs is narrowly focused: one person, one area, one town, one girl. A later (long thought lost, but rediscovered) 1968 demo which is sadly not included on this expanded release, called “April’s Tooth of Gold,” really shows off how much influence the Kinks had on Bowie’s late-60s songwriting, and perhaps the direction that a second Deram album would have gone in.
More so than on his previous recordings, Bowie’s voice on his debut album is always placed front and center — and also unlike his previous records, the production and arrangements quality is top-notch. Today we’d call this “quirky soft rock,” or the pre-80s definition of “pop” at best, but it features some very high-quality guitar playing (in part from the now-legendary John Renbourne) and other instruments from “Big Jim” Sullivan, among other session musicians added to augment The Buzz.
Still, the youthful fire of his previous singles is all but extinguished in an attempt to make Bowie sound more adult and sophisticated. That’s not to say it’s all vocal-heavy elevator music: “She’s Got Medals” is a ballsy (in-joke, that) number that rocks along nicely and proves that the story-song jokey-narrator motif can really work: the number — about a tomboy who disguised herself as a man to join the army, then deserted just before an enemy attack by reverting to female gear — is just clever and grand from start to finish, not to mention his first-ever hint of the gender-bending/androgyny/bisexuality he would indulge in his near future. It’s one of my favourite songs on the album, and would have worked brilliantly in the hands of Marc Bolan, or Mick Ronson when he was working with Bowie … alas, that wasn’t yet in the cards.
That said, most of it is pretty tame stuff, with holdover folksong and pop-type arrangements you’d have run across more often in the very early 60s, distinguished primarily by Bowie’s oddish lyrics and strong voice. Occasionally, Bowie hit on a great combination of the two: “Love You Till Tuesday” is genuinely witty as well as lovably catchy, and unsurprisingly became the third (and final) single related to the album — and the subject of a surprising long-form promotional film intended to help shop him to another label when Deram declined to do a second album. Interestingly, a remixed version of “Sell Me a Coat” was used in the later “Love You Till Tuesday” promo film, but overdubbed with new backing vocals from Bowie’s then-girlfriend Hermione Farthingale and then-collaborator John Hutchinson that were mixed much too loud, resulting in half of Bowie’s lyric and voice being drowned out.
The Love You Till Tuesday promo film, despite heavily supporting a (mostly) a pretty disjointed album, is chock full of gems — and constitutes Bowie’s first “videos” if you take them as separate pieces. Firstly, this is your only extended look at Bowie’s first great love, Hermione, as well as Hutch in the trio configuration they referred to as Feathers. The movie features four songs hat didn’t appear on the album (“When I’m Five,” about which we’ll chat later, the lovely and grown-up “Let Me Sleep Beside You,” the Feathers version of “Ching-a-Ling,” and the original version of “Space Oddity” — yes, more than a year ahead of its album arrival!). Of the latter, the original version is jazzier and more beatnik than what we got later.
There’s also a Bowie mime (something he was really getting into by the time this was filmed, studying under Lindsey Kemp) with narration smack in the middle of this, which also tackles both the underside of fame (ironically, at this point) and explores his predilection for putting on “characters.” Fans of Bowie’s trousers in the 1980s film Labyrinth will find much to enjoy throughout Love You Till Tuesday, a showcase film best seen as perhaps the prototype for the “Electronic Press Kit” (EPK) which is now the industry standard. The film as a whole makes even the weaker numbers more palatable, in hindsight, being as it is a time capsule of very early Bowie — but like everything else thus far, it was not much help to his career. Worse, Farthingale (later the subject of the songs “Letter to Hermione” and “An Occasional Dream”) gave up on Bowie — who had been philandering, by his own admission — during filming, and ran off with one of the dancers. Ouch.
Back to the album proper, another strong entry is “Silly Boy Blue,” which certainly sounds like it should have been a hit for somebody to these ears. As O’Leary refers to it, this number is “Bowie’s first great song,” a “stately” number that gives voice to Bowie’s ongoing interest in Buddhism. It features an unusually (for this album) passionate vocal performance, a third verse of chanting la-la-las (he uses this fill-in-missing-lyrics trick a lot in his early work), and a beautiful multi-tracked ending. Along with the wildly different and cheeky “Love You Till Tuesday,” these are both the album’s highlights and an illustration of why the album doesn’t work: the subjects and treatments zig-zag between light and dark, straight and odd, serious and whimsical — robbing the album of thematic coherence.
It’s no surprise that Bowie opted to include “Silly Boy Blue” in his 2000-2001 sessions for Toy (with a more appropriate atmospheric arrangement, that offered sitars and chimes along with more upbeat flourishes) — this is the number where you can see that Bowie will not be a one-hit (or, at this point, no-hit) wonder. It has “great artist” and “real songwriter” written all over it. Billy Fury thought so, evidently — he covered it the year after it came out, in a very faithful but frankly better production, though it continued the curse of not being terribly successful for him or Bowie.
The first single with Deram, incidentally, was “Rubber Band,” another story-song about a former soldier who loses his girl to the leader of the titular brass band. This was actually the first song Bowie did in this “Next Newley” style, and part of what got him a very unusual full-album contract on the strength of this and two other pre-contract, post-Pye recordings. “Rubber Band” is claimed in some circles to have been heard by, and influenced, the Beatles and their “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” song — but while there is eerily similar subject matter, the connection, if any, is a bit tenuous (though the two albums came out on the very same day, bizarrely enough). This was Bowie’s very first recording for Deram, and it fairly shouts out its change of direction: it depends heavily on its orchestrated arrangement with woodwinds aplenty. All that greasy rock-n-soul stuff was right out.
The “Rubber Band” single was backed with Bowie’s first real leap of lyrical sophistication, “The London Boys,” which had started life as a rejected single for Pye. It was turned down due to an explicit reference to drug-taking then, but under Deram it was preserved, albeit relegated to a b-side. Ironically, Deram — the company that finally gave Bowie his big break — was a new subsidiary of Decca, the first label to record (and reject) the young songwriter.
It is, perhaps, poetic justice that Deram didn’t do much better with him this time round, though by all accounts Deram brought its folly upon itself by not promoting the record. Apparently, the executive who had signed Bowie left before his album came out, causing the rest of the company to take less interest in him. As with other failures, Bowie used his time at Deram as a learning experience; part-time manager Ken Pitt’s taking him to West End shows and sharing his own musical tastes with Bowie undoubtedly aided and abetted his decision to go for a more poetic, older approach aimed at more adult buyers than the teen scene he had previously pursued.
“Now is the time on Schprockets ven we DANSE!”
That post-school mentoring, the interests he developed in mime and other artforms, and — in a funny way — the failure of his first album also turned out to be the push into expanded horizons that would lift his songwriting out of the “what I see around me/describe my own life” mold it had been in up to this point. As others have noted, if he’d had a hit with any of the songs on his first record, he might have stayed in the safe, comfortable world of “adult contemporary” and been a Vegas staple by the 1980s.
Oddly enough, the second Deram single for Bowie was a non-LP cut, the notorious “Laughing Gnome” (backed with the far darker and again non-LP cut “The Gospel According to Tony Day”), which was marketed as a novelty record (a popular trend in the mid-60s, even for some bands that were usually more “professional”). While it is best approached as a light-hearted aberration from Bowie’s then-current (and all other) fare, it does show off both his fascination with vari-speed recording (a technique frequently used to more serious effect right up to and including “Blackstar”) and his sense of humour. Beyond the silliness of the song proper, there are various (Tony) Hancockian-like “asides” that rattle off a string of “gnome”-related puns. Listeners can only catch them all with careful and repeated hearing, which is probably why few people are even aware that they’re there, but they are in fact quite amusing, as is the song itself — if one can overcome the jarring effect of such a comedy bit from the earnest fellow who wrote and performed “Please Mr Gravedigger” straight-faced.
That the b-side is a slab of black humour sung in a dour style which couldn’t have been a worse choice to help with the single’s commercial prospects, but does succeed in showing another side to Bowie’s humour, as well as how personal his lyrics could be — this one rattles off a string of presumed friends, as if he’d lost a bet where the penalty was to incorporate them all into a song. Other friends and collaborators have frequently described Bowie as a genuinely witty and funny fellow: seen as an “outtake” not unlike some of the Beatles’ fan-club singles, or the Monkees’ lighter efforts, “The Laughing Gnome” becomes somewhat more charming and marginally less farcical.
Some of the other songs point to future Bowie development: “We are Hungry Men” in particular foretells a recurrent dystopian fascination that runs right the way through his later and more signature work, from “Cygnet Committee” on his second album and “Saviour Machine” on his third, into the 1984 influence on Diamond Dogs and cyberpunk flavours of 1. Outside, as well as the messianic qualities that would later decorate “Oh You Pretty Things” and his periodic revisits to Major Tom, among many other references. “We are Hungry Men” also stands out for breaching a number of “taboo” subjects (as with the b-sided “London Boys”) as he did again in his early 70s work and the Berlin trilogy (and lots of other places), even though it starts off with Bowie’s best Goon Show impersonation of a German newscaster for a darkly silly intro. The song is remarkably ill-suited for the album, except perhaps as the “telegraph” of his next direction Bowie claimed was found in most of his albums.
“Join the Gang” is another mismatched-with-the-album’s-theme effort to cover much of the same lyrical ground as “The London Boys,” and “There is a Happy Land” (again a song sung from a child’s perspective) is not the last time he would revisit child-viewpoint or the idea of children as a better class of human than adults. For what is undoubtedly Bowie’s most cringe-worthy attempt at capturing a child’s perspective, please see the non-LP ditty (accompanied by an equally appalling visualisation in Love You Till Tuesday) “When I’m Five,” found on the bonus disc of the reissue. The song has some value in that it appears to be semi-autobiographical (referencing his grandfather’s name, for example) and funny in spots, but it comes off as cloying, precocious and far more ham-fisted than comedian Lily Tomlin’s not-dissimilar “Edith Ann” character.
Which brings us to “Please Mr. Gravedigger,” a non-musical sung soliloquy told from the point of view of a murderer who has killed a child and is watching the gravedigger dig her grave. This is not just bizarre and dark, it gets positively creepy: at mid-point in the piece, the murderer decides he will need to kill the gravedigger as well (to hide evidence of his crime, possibly). It’s just him and some sound effects.
Bowie would later (very often) claim he usually didn’t know what his own songs were really about, but this one goes right to the heart of his psyche — scarred as it must have been from the tragedy of his mentally-ill half brother Terry — and the history of such problems running through his family tree. Everyone has dark thoughts at times, but most people don’t record and put them on an album, complete with detailed voice and sound effects. This is a singularly-unique diary of some very disturbing ideas, and reminds us that even Bowie’s brightest numbers are often inhabited by oddball and ominous characters — perhaps influenced by Syd Barrett as much as Ray Davies. It’s quite a dark, Edgar Allan Poe-ish ending for a record that, despite its mostly upbeat pop overtones, grapples with a darker side much less gracefully than was seen in Bowie’s later work.
One thing is very clear: David Bowie was, from before he even left Bromley Tech, very determined to do whatever it took to become famous. He and his musical compatriots managed to convince Decca, Parlourphone, and most notably Pye Records that there was something about them — and in particular, him — that deserved a shot at the big time. Although the singles recorded during this early period weren’t too successful, they managed to position Bowie (then just Davy Jones) as a leader and potential star with definite talents in singing (if not quite yet songwriting).
Over the course of six 45rpm singles that came out before he ever landed an album contract, Bowie quickly goes from blatant mimic to testing the waters of his own style. With each release, there’s more of the emerging artist adding his own element to the stew of styles and techniques. Although he goes off in a very different direction for his debut album (for a variety of reasons we’ll explore when the time comes), these early recordings with various bands and his first forays into songwriting were clearly vital in shaping Bowie’s own artistic vision and identifying his strengths.
Taken as a group, one can say this about Bowie’s earliest recordings: they’re quite derivative, they’re stolen from only the very finest, and they’re quite a bit more fun to listen to than his official first album. This is, really, how one learns songwriting (or painting, or fiction writing, or most other crafts): you start off by aping heavily from your influences, adding your own bit of a twist or stamp on it, and over time the borrowing (usually) recedes to a minimal degree — allowing one’s own personality/talent/originality to fill it in. In Bowie’s case, these first records with his various sidemen-bands (he was always chief songwriter and lead singer in these setups, right from the get-go) show you what he was listening to, as well as why various record companies and industry figures took such an interest in him: he could sing, he could write, and he was obviously growing into a real performer. The only question was when.
He never gave up being the bandleader, he was always most comfortable with his singing talent, and he never stopped borrowing. He was hardly the first artist to get into the spotlight this way, but there is a lot of mash-up and blatant lifting evident in both the early recordings and his later work throughout his entire career — even when the artist he was “borrowing” from was his own younger self, all the way through to “How Does the Grass Grow” from The Next Day — co-credited to The Shadows’ “Apache” writer Jerry Lordan for the direct lift in the chorus, and the song also smuggles in some bits of thematic resemblance to Bowie’s own “Boys Keep Swinging.”
Writer W H Davenport Adams was believed to be the first to say, referring to poets, that great ones “imitate and improve” but lesser poets “steal and spoil” in 1892. This was later reversed by T S Eliot in 1920, who said that “immature” poets borrow, while “great” poets steal. Variations on this thought have been circulating for more than a century, changing “poets” to “artists” — Apple co-founder Steve Jobs often mis-attributed a similar quote to Pablo Picasso. In any event, the pre-first album recordings from Bowie fit Eliot’s version of the idea to a T: he was a good artist, on his way to becoming a great one.
Ain’t nothing but a hair-hopper!
Sometimes because of how blatantly the influences are on display, and sometimes because of Bowie’s strong performance or the twist he put into his nascent songwriting, most of his singles from before 1968 are highly listenable (if occasionally a bit awkward) and “borrow” from still-recognisable sources — making Bowie’s take on them enjoyable in their own rights. It is nothing short of exciting to hear Bowie start off as a “dedicated follower of fashion” with identifiable role models, and then listen as he starts to branch out, stretch and mash up the forms he has appropriated, and infuse more of his own perspective and personality into budding “original” compositions.
Many sound like they were, if we’re being charitable, written as songs to be sold to other artists, and tailored for them. Our own view is that Mr. Jones — as he was known then — and his record companies thought the fastest way to climb the ladder of show business was to cleverly (or ham-fistedly on occasion) “borrow” and rearrange existing hits into familiar-but-slightly-different new works (not unlike book publishing, let it be noted).
While not completely definitive, the compilation Early On from Rhino Records gathers together most of the early stuff from Davie/Davy (the former sometimes used to distinguish him from that Monkees singer) with the King Bees, The Manish Boys, The Lower Third, and The Buzz. By the time the latter band was formed, Davy Jones was long gone — and David Bowie was now the marquee name, despite the string of flop singles. The failure of these homages to gain chart traction likely led Bowie to be willing to drop the pretense of a backing band, and adopt a completely different, more “cabaret” style under new part-time manager Ken Pitt for his first “real” album later on. That said, the early singles are very noteworthy (and mostly very good) in and of themselves.
Gathered together as they are in Early On, listeners can really follow the progression of Bowie both as a singer and, later, a songwriter. The single “Liza Jane,” his first record, came out in June 1964 on Decca (who had famously rejected the Beatles) with The King Bees, and was as one might expect very Beatles-influenced — right down to a Lennon/McCartney-esque vocal, with some early Rolling Stones thrown in for seasoning — Bowie later re-recorded this song for the unreleased Toy album in 2000/2001 (which we will get to in a future digression). The b-side, a cover called “Louie Louie Go Home,” is even more of a Beatles homage, including a “woooo” straight off “She Loves You,” which had become a hit single for the Liverpudlians just two months earlier.
In this first b-side, we see Bowie throwing in multiple influences, changing the original Paul Revere and the Raiders’ title of “Louie Go Home” to a nod to the Kingsmans’ version of “Louie Louie,” and just flat-out ripping off the “a little bit louder now” call-and-response bit from the 1959 single “Shout” by the Isley Brothers (though more likely Bowie stole it from the Beatles’ performance of the song in May 1964 for a TV special called Around the Beatles). His discerning ear and good taste in what to lift was already apparent.
His next single, for Parlourphone, was a straight up blues-driven R&B number, a cover of Bobby “Blue” Bland’s 1961 single “I Pity the Fool.” It features a nicely smoky vocal from Bowie (going all Mr. T on us), but the song is most notable for its guitar work by a young Jimmy Page. The record is poorly produced, muddying up the nice horn work and, according to former Manish Boy members, eliminating some counter-melody and other complexity from the final mix.
The b-side here, “Take My Tip,” is Bowie’s first original composition to make it to a record, though ironically US singer Kenny Miller managed to get a cover of the song out on a b-side for one of his own singles a bit before the Manish Boys’ delayed version appeared. Again using Page (this time as a rhythm guitarist), it’s also a derivative R&B type number that is informed and inspired by Georgie Fame’s “Yeh Yeh” — but introduces us to the story-song style Bowie would employ more frequently in his early songwriting, and keep as a colour in his musical palette for decades.
Third single, again for Parlourphone (now with The Lower Third) but released under just “Davy Jones,” was “You’ve Got a Habit of Leaving,” and the a-side’s theme this time was “let’s be like The Who.” The 1965 version features some extremely Who-like guitar freak-outs redolent of the period. Bowie re-recorded this song 36 years later, also for the Toy album. The 2001 version shows off why Bowie liked this one — it’s a real diamond in the rough — and even tacks on an explicit homage to The Who once again on the end of the newer version. The flip side, “Baby Loves That Way,” is so blatantly a faux-Herman’s Hermits number that this reviewer actually guffawed in surprise upon hearing it for the first time. Interestingly, Bowie also re-recorded this song for Toy, slowing it down and making it less obviously Peter Noone-inspired, to the later version’s detriment.
Six months later, in January of 1966, we get the fourth single (now billed under the name “David Bowie and the Lower Third” and on Pye): “Can’t Help Thinking About Me” backed with “And I Say to Myself.” It’s a rather self-centred pair of songs, but for this reviewer the pairing amounts to the first full-throated, full-on Bowie single. Again a very Who-inspired number, “Can’t Help” was his first single to make it to the US (on Warner Bros), but like the others didn’t do well. Still, we get a terrific vocal performance with real enthusiasm that rivals the more-established bands he so often aped.
The b-side is equally joyous in delivery, though the influence of the day switches to Sam Cooke, with obvious thefts from “What a Wonderful World” and a Righteous Brothers-style arrangement (as noted by Nicholas Pegg in his brilliant The Complete David Bowie, your humble narrator’s top go-to for trivia research). We also get another retread of Bowie’s favourite subject (at this point in his life): a woman who has rejected the hero of the piece. Both songs are wonderful, benefitting greatly from the musical direction and better production of Tony Hatch (best known as the producer-songwriter behind some of Petula Clark’s biggest hits, among many other accomplishments).
The fifth single, again with Hatch but now with The Buzz replacing The Lower Third (but the first single to be credited to just “David Bowie”), was another R&B-style number with a rather Tom Jones-meets-Elvis sort of vocal called “Do Anything You Say,” featuring yet another stolen call-and-response courtesy of The Who. Listened to out of its original mid-60’s context, it’s quite a charismatic number with a bold delivery (albeit lacklustre backing vocals) that still holds its power to thrill.
Even better, the b-side (“Good Morning Girl”) sounds for all the world like a time-traveling song by Swedish garage-rock, late-80s band The Creeps, featuring a bit of scat singing (!) from Bowie. The Creeps (who are definitely worth looking up) were devoted to sounds like this, with the song borrowing styles and phrases from the Spencer Davis Group and other contemporaries, with a bit of Dave Brubeck jazz thrown in for good measure. As Pegg notes, it should have been the a-side; it’s a damn catchy mash-up.
Bowie’s last single for Pye was another milestone: “I Dig Everything” came off as almost original in origin (though very much a product of its time, and marked by some more Georgie Fame borrowing). While it still has that now-trademark Sam Cooke style to it, the song dispenses with most of the soul/R&B trappings, has an interesting story presumably drawn from Bowie’s own life as a bohemian at the time, and a surprisingly much-more-hippie influence than had been previously seen (and wouldn’t been seen again until his second official album). As a forerunner of what was to come after his faux-Newley period, it captures the flavor of 1966 very well indeed. The 2001 Toy sessions’ re-recording of “I Dig Everything” is disappointing by comparison — the “swing” of the song is removed for a slower tempo that slicks up the backing vocals, though the remake retains its hippie flavourings.
The b-side of the 1966 single was a fairly forgettable number (“I’m Not Losing Sleep”) that is surprisingly jaunty (and suspiciously “Downtown”-like, being produced again by Hatch) given its rather bitter subject matter, a calling-out of a betrayed friendship. That said, the vocal performance is similar (but much richer and more powerful) to “Do Anything You Say” in terms of presence, and really foreshadows (vocally) the more mature voice he would bring to Ziggy and later efforts. This is the first time Bowie really sounds like a grown man, rather than a college student, even if the lyric itself is embarrassingly juvenile.
Speaking of bitter, it is no coincidence that this entry covering some of his first recorded works has appeared on the first anniversary of Bowie’s tragic death from complications due to liver cancer. We have no set schedule when future reviews might appear, we will commit to nothing, except that we’ll try to update things often enough that you’ll remember to check back for new entries. As Bowie himself made clear following a decade of relative silence: here we are, not quite dying … and the next day, and the next, and another day …
Next up: Deram a Little Deram With Me — the first album
This project is in honour of David Robert Jones, aka David Bowie, and starts today — what should have been his 70th birthday — with a little preamble of what Bowie Base One is all about. What we will do in this space, or try to do at least, is listen to and review his full studio and live album discography — and this will take however long it takes. There could will be a few notable detours; I think he would have liked that.
It is impossible to fully assess the impact this artist had on my life; I’ve tried to put my feelings into words for a year now, and have experienced a rare failure to be sufficiently eloquent for the job. Perhaps it is best to simply say that I happened to be the right age at the right time for exposure to his music and artistry, and that it opened up an entirely new world to me that took me in a very different direction than it would have otherwise on multiple levels — from showmanship to sexuality. It is no exaggeration to say his influence on me throughout my entire pre-teen, teen, and adult life has been profound. His sudden death two days after Blackstar was released, on the 10th of January 2016, was the closest I have ever come to what being hit by lightning must be like, and it too changed me on some deep levels. I am glad to have been alive during most of his residency on this planet, and sorry to have been here for the terrible year which was foretold with his passing.
We’ll continue on the first anniversary of his passing with a look at some of his earliest, pre-first-album material, followed by his official UK albums in order (with notes on deluxe editions and other ephemera). In addition to offering a wealth of great (and sometimes not-that-great) music and visual imagery, the albums and related work also paint a portrait of an artist coming into being, flowering, branching out, exploring his possibilities, combusting, re-inventing, selling out, roaming the wilderness, getting his mojo back, retiring, and eventually surprising us all with a brief second flowering before retiring from this planet.
Few indeed are the artists that offer such a complete timeline of their development, warts and all, across six decades. What we hope to accomplish with this project is to get to see this artistic growth and change in full through this series, as well as enjoy a lot of inventive, commercially-risky, artistically-daring (most of the time), mainstream (sometimes), fascinating (always), and memorable music.
Or, why The Force Awakens is fun but will ultimately make you angry
I want you to see the new film Star Wars: The Force Awakens (also known as Episode VII). I want everyone to see it. If you’re looking for a light, fun, space-adventure movie to see on the big screen, you’re not going to find anything better. It is a visual treat on many levels, it brings some great new elements into the larger story, and of course it is wonderful to see some of the characters from the first Star Wars movie back again. I’m sure you’ll enjoy it, so go see it, particularly in IMAX if you can.
Just don’t think about it too much afterwards.
Obviously, from here on in we will be mentioning all kinds of spoilers (both plot developments and insights that will ruin some of the film for you). So please, I’m asking you nicely and seriously, stop reading this if you haven’t seen the film. This analysis is for people who have seen it and would like more insight into where the story does and doesn’t work: it will annoy the crap out of you if you read this first and watch the film afterwards. So don’t.
The TL;DR version of the critique is that although the film is executed very well and the new elements are welcome, the story is almost a play-for-play remake of A New Hope (the first of the Star Wars films, also known as Episode IV), only with some light twists (nothing wrong with that) that depend greatly on utterly ridiculous coincidences, character decisions, and filmmaker choices. So in short, it’s very much like Star Trek: Into Darkness in its interior badness. Because the film is very fast-paced, visually exciting, and has lots of explosions and fights, even serious fans will probably not notice this on first viewing, because the film is genuinely fun and cleverly made — and we also said this exact same thing about Into Darkness: it’s eye candy and then it grows increasingly silly until you’re finally angry at how completely empty the movie actually is.
Let us start, however, with those things that rightly deserve praise, because they do, and because nobody likes a wet blanket who can only talk about the problems with something and not acknowledge the good things. It was great to see some interesting new characters, major and minor, and while there are some questions lingering over Rey that hopefully will get answers in the future films (like “if she’s supposedly Luke’s kid, why has she got a British accent?”), but I have nothing but praise for her performance. Likewise, I thought the idea of showing that Stormtroopers are real people and can have changes of heart was an intriguing idea (yes, I know this was explored in other media, but I’m limiting myself to someone who mainly knows the Star Wars saga through the movies), and I thought John Boyega’s casting was fresh and good.
I’m unsure how to judge the characters Poe Dameron (Oscar Issac) and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) just yet, since their characters are clearly going to be developed further, but my initial impression is that Poe is (sorry) kind of a two-dimensional and all-good mix of Luke and Han, Finn is a mix of pre-A New Hope Han Solo and A New Hope-era Luke, Rey is a mix of Luke and Leia and Chewbacca (yes, you heard me), while Kylo is a remix of Prequels Anakin and Empire Strikes Back-era moral-quandry Luke. I’ve rarely had an issue with the casting in JJ Abrams’ movies, apart from Chris Pine, so his continuing the tradition of adding some unknowns was a great move (as it was when Lucas did it the first time around), and they’re all interesting choices and a good mix. Simon Pegg’s disguised cameo as Unkar Plutt was delightful — I often wish we got a bit more time and story on these interesting minor characters.
Since it is heavily stolen from A New Hope with elements of The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi (and even a bit of the Prequels) thrown in, the story is naturally fun and exciting — a lot of older fans have said “it made me feel like I was 10 years old again,” or however old they were in 1977, which isn’t surprising since it is little more than a remix of that movie. That said, of course we’re thrilled to see the original characters, major and minor, and of course we’re pleased to see the effects updated to modern standards but otherwise left un-messed with. I thought the effects throughout were just great, including the mix of physical and CGI effects, the nice use of 3D in the 3D version (present, but not overused, and for once not dimming of the film overall), the expansiveness of the IMAX version, and the effectiveness of the music.
You can even get the film in a “D-box” version that rattles your seat when explosions happen, and jerk you around in the battle scenes, or the whole triple-play (3D/IMAX/D-box) if you shell out enough. I haven’t seen the “ordinary” non-IMAX 2D version yet, so I can’t judge on that, but I’d bet it loses none of the emotional or visual thrills for it. As I said at the top, if you’re just going to this movie for fun and thrills, it’s great. You won’t be disappointed — unless you wanted something substantive, because there isn’t that much here for people who care deeply about the entire saga, but there’s a lot of resonance for people who only remember Episode IV from their youth. A ton of it, and it’s not unwelcome at all.
It’s only when you start to think about it — like the recent Star Trek, or Star Trek: Into Darkness — that it starts to fall apart, and you realize the Emperor — sorry, Supreme Leader — barely has a stitch on. I’ve seen some other criticisms of the film harsher than this one will be, such as “40 Unforgivable Plot Holes in The Force Awakens” (which was followed up with another 20 additional problems, by the way!) — but about half of these are either subtle stuff he missed, or will probably (I say “probably” because you can’t trust JJ Abrams on this at all) be addressed later, or weren’t really either plot holes or unforgivable.
Still, most of the critics of the film I’ve read are more right than wrong — there’s nothing wrong with some homage to what came before, particularly at this point, but Abrams just went waaaay beyond that point into cribbing A New Hope wholesale, which ultimately makes The Force Awakens not fit in the saga at all. Say whatever you like about the three Prequel films, and believe me I did not enjoy them, but they did in fact add to the unfolding story. You can summarize the first six films by saying “there was a boy who was strong in the force and was eventually turned to the dark side, and as a man became the face of the Empire, but his son and daughter, led by a former mentor of the boy and a friendly but rogue stranger, teamed up to defeat the evil Empire and stop the mass slaughter of billions of freedom-loving people … and then, in Episode VII, they did that again.”
The Force Awakens doesn’t really advance the plot: it rehashes Episode IV in a sort of re-telling that appears, at the end of the day, only to exist to hand off the lead roles to some new people and bring casual people up to speed on where we are (which, this being a sequel to a 1983 movie, was important — but it’s all that’s here, with precious little actual new content).
Here’s what happened in the (let’s say) 25 years since Episode VI, since Episode VII is supposed to follow it: following a presumed period of peace, the New Republic (which is good, mostly, but seems ambiguous in the new film) have been running things, and the Republicans (sorry, the Empire — no, ’scuse me, the First Order) have sprung up and are fighting the New Republic (why? No reason given, sorry). For reasons also not mentioned or even hinted at, the New Republic has decided to fund a group of rebels (sorry, Resistance) within the systems controlled by the First Order to fight against them, and the First Order’s reaction is — in a stunning lack of imagination — to yet again (third time!) build a new Death Star (sorry, Death Planet — it’s bigger!) to destroy the Resistance and New Republic, and murder billions of apolitical innocents. Cuz righteousness, or … well, as I say, don’t think about it too much.
Han and Leia have split up because their son, Ben Solo, turned to the Dark Side of the Force, having previously been “the strongest in the Force we’ve ever seen,” at least since the last “strongest in the Force we’ve ever seen,” Anakin Skywalker — Ben’s grandfather, and of course the former Darth Vader. Luke, who was training Ben, was so devastated when he went bad and murdered the other students that he has spent several years (let’s say five?) years in hiding, doing absolutely nothing, it would seem. When we finally see him, he is literally doing nothing at all.
Ben has taken the name Kylo Ren and is now a slave of the Emperor, sorry Supreme Leader Snoke, and is a very high-up in the Empire (dammit, sorry, First Order) during this very short period (but let it slide, that’s not an unforgivable plot hole). Luke may have also abandoned his daughter (Rey, perhaps, we don’t know for sure but seems obvious) when she was around four years old to go take off somewhere for some reason, or maybe (likely) to protect her because she was so strong in the Force and he didn’t want the First Order to find her. Seems kinda harsh, but let’s reserve judgement on that, as that’s essentially what Obi-Wan did to Luke and Leia. C-3PO got a red arm and sounds kinda funny now, and R2-D2 has been in low-power mode since Luke left him behind following the massacre of his students, and will only awaken when the plot demands it — since he just happens to have the rest of the map they need to find Luke.
Han reacted to this situation by running away from it, rejoining with Chewbacca to go back to being a dodgy-but-lovable rogue smuggler (violating the laws of … the Republic? The First Order? Not clear) and Chewbacca seems completely unaffected by the passage of time (indeed, he’s gotten spritelier it would seem!). Leia has returned to being a General and leader of the Reb– sorry, Resistance, along with a bunch of old Rebel characters.
Interestingly, at least to those of us who found the backstory alluded to in the early Star Wars films, and fleshed out quite a bit in the Prequels about the only interesting thing in those three later films, there’s been a lot of political changes going on in the background that leads up to Episode VII, but sadly we get too little information about it; a clever fellow at Vox has put together a really good summary that actually adds to, rather than detracts from or spoils, the new film, and if you’re interested in that aspect of the story you should read it.
In the actual film, it just ends up being the Empire (sorry, First Order) is again building a Giant Killing Thing to wipe out Mostly Innocent People (because mustache-twirling EVIL, that’s why) and the political establishment (making them, ironically, the rebels!), but a plucky band of Rebels (sorry, Resistance Fighters) manages to destroy it through a combination of one person turning off the shields (sounds … familiar …) and a bombing run where the bombs have to hit a small target by flying low in a suicide run (sounds … really familiar …).
Oh, but wait. Did I mention that the early part of the film covers the political awakening of a young man who was just trying to do his job (and a girl stuck on a desert planet with big dreams and few opportunities to achieve them — like I said, Finn and Rey have a lot of Luke between them) when the evil of the First Order’s machinations drive them to grow up quick and make huge life changes they are surprisingly well-prepared for, all revolving around a droid that contains a hologram of plans that are vital to the Resistance in the struggle to fight the Sith-led villains? Oh, and there’s a Cantina scene with pilots that will take you off-world for a price (though happily, Han shoots nobody in this scene … this time, and a sage old person who has Anakin/Luke’s light saber?
Finn seems to be a crack shot when (and only when) he needs to be, Kylo Ren is strangely bad at using his powers judiciously (you’d think someone would have noticed this after all the damage he apparently does when angry), Rey appears to be an ace pilot for no reason at all, and has huge untapped Force powers that emerge almost the minute she learns that the Force actually exists that allow her to be as world-class Jedi as a fully-trained Luke within a day, Han Solo just happens to be orbiting the very planet where the Millennium Falcon just happens to be sitting undisguised in the largest town (and Han is aware of the person who has it!), and though it hasn’t flown “in years,” it works more-or-less perfectly and somehow wasn’t destroyed by the First Order … oh dear, really I could go on like this for another few thousand words (and I am not kidding at all) on the silly contrivances that take careful observers out of the movie and into eye-rolling territory.
There’s a lot I’ll forgive in the name of fun, but there does come a point where you say OH COME ON!, and I should make clear that this is not the only movie I feel this way about: I’m not one of those people who get angry that we can hear sounds (like explosions) in space (where you actually couldn’t), but I do find that the utterly impossible physics in Peter Jackson’s films that can’t be hand-waved away by saying its a fantasy world (they’re all fantasy worlds, that’s why we call them movies, kids) really hurt the later Lord of the Rings movies, and in particular The Hobbit (as much as the stretched-too-thin storyline in the latter trilogy), the ridiculous stunts in the JJ Star Trek movies (of course you can fall many miles from a starship to a planet without being harmed! Of course you can be shot out of a photon cannon without a scratch!) really get to a point of ridiculousness where it takes me out of the movie, and that’s really annoying — like a fly buzzing around when you are trying to read a really good book.
I was really a lot more fearful for the JJ-led Star Wars going into it, and relieved this wasn’t as awful as Into Darkness, which I’m going to credit, unfairly and entirely, to Lawrence Kasdan. Kasdan’s no Harve Bennett, mind you, but he is generally a force for good story sense. It’s a pity he didn’t write this screenplay outright.
So, at this point let’s agree that The Force Awakens, um, borrows too heavily from A New Hope, and that this means things get awkward if we want to view Star Wars as an (in)complete saga. Unforgiveable? Maybe not, though we are left at the end of this movie with a setup that harkens back to the second chronological Star Wars movie so much that Episode VIII might end up being called The Emp — I mean, First Order Strikes Back: a young person who is strong in the force and has no immediate family we know about has left their old life behind, and arrived on a lush green world to be trained by a long-exiled Jedi Master, meanwhile the leader of the evil forces will plot revenge with his miraculously-saved apprentice, and the weakened Resistance will bravely fight the forces of the Empire (ack, sorry again, First Order), despite feeling the loss of a major character, who was murdered by the film’s chief antagonist.
I hope I’m wrong about Episode VIII, but come on, where else would a remake of A New Hope leave us? I actually love it when later films in a series “call back” to earlier films, but this is just way, too much. I would remind you also that I haven’t even gotten to some of the big, obvious (at least to me) issues or just plain dumb moments in the film: let’s take one just for starters — at the point where Snoke asks Hux to go get Kylo Ren, there is no possible way, even in Convenient Movie Time Stretching, for them to locate him, rescue him, and get him off-world in time. Rey’s rescue was a Lucky Coincidence too, but at least we saw them starting to go after her well before they reach her.
Yet, we know for sure that Kylo Ren will somehow be in the next movie, and now will need that mask he was conveniently wearing for no reason at all for reals. I’m hoping that if they go down this road, we get us some more Lando Calrissian. DO NOT go all Creed on me here, JJ — I demand 100 percent authentic Billy Dee Williams! If you’re going to remake Episode V, then I want Bespin and Lando and a Kylo Ren trap where they have to have an awkward family dinner, god dammit!
Speaking of Kylo Ren — why does he use the Force against nearly everyone except Finn? He knew something was up with Finn (FN-2187) early on — he noticed the trooper’s change of heart remotely, and knew it was him that helped Po escape. He has a lightsabre battle with Finn, but not only can he not beat him (even though Finn has never used a lightsaber in his life and is not very good with it), he doesn’t even really try to use any of the control tricks he used on Rey. Incidentally, Rey can speak Wookie, and droid, and at least one other language (when she yells at the scavenger who initially captures BB-8). The fact that she can speak droid might be explainable, but Wookie? Which doesn’t surprise anyone, like say Chewbacca or Han Solo, at all?
Finn, who worked with droids all the time as a Death Planet janitor, can’t speak droid. Nor can a lot of people in this movie, except Rey. If this doesn’t prove she’s Luke’s daughter, I don’t know what to tell you. There’s a number of other subtle and not-so-subtle hints that this may be the case; when we first see her, she’s dressed exactly how George Lucas and original Star Wars concept artist Ralph McQuarrie envisaged Luke looking when they were (briefly) considering making the character female, just as an example. Oh, and also, are there really only three kinds of planets: desert worlds, lush green planets, and permanent-winter hollowed-out Starkillers? How boringly familiar.
When she touches Luke’s lightsaber (get your mind out of the gutter, you pigs!), she hears voices, including a bit of Yoda and more clearly Obi-Wan Kenobi (voiced by Ewan McGregor, in a nice touch). That lightsaber, or lightsabre if you’re British, was unguarded and unprotected in a chest that looks similar to the one seen in A New Hope, and if you remember the films was actually lost when Luke lost his hand near the end of Empire Strikes Back. It fell to the bottom of the cloud city, so who could have retrieved it and brought it back for safekeeping? GEE I WONDER.
Like I said, there are a number of questions the film raises that could be addressed later, so I’m not going to belabor every one of them, but I do have to wonder about what kind of warped comment on solar energy it is when the Starkiller base (which actually kills planets, but never mind) depends on sucking dry the energy of a sun (which the planet could not possibly hold, but again — let it go). Indeed, when you think about it, that’s really all the weapon had to do: without a sun, every planet in that solar system will rapidly die, no PEW PEW PEW missiles of death needed. If our sun went out, Earth would become uninhabited in about a day, at most.
Other than for plot-mystery reasons, why can’t Rey remember her family? She just remembers them leaving, and being placed in Unkar Plutt’s (!) care (shades of Oliver Twist here, really …). She claims she “couldn’t imagine” a world as lush and green as the first one she gets taken to after leaving Jakku, but Kylo Ren noted that she dreams of exactly such a world, so … and while we’re at it, Leia appears to either know or intuitively understand who she really is (she just met Rey, but lets her be the one to go find Luke), but says nothing to her … presumably for only plot-reveal reasons later. That’s fine to a point, but it will look silly later if I’m even half-right about this.
I’m actually being easier on this film than it deserves — there are a lot more oddities/belief-stretching coincidences/“oh come on!” moments that I’m willing to defer since this is the first film of a new trilogy. There will be a lot of people who might read this and say I’m taking it too seriously, that Star Wars is meant to be nothing more than light adventure, and that there’s a lot of boom and wheee and pewpewpew and zoom, whiz, lightsaber sound effect and droid squawk, and that’s all anybody other that dorky nerds want out of it. Fair enough.
The problem is that Lucas and Kasdan and the writers since then have (well, for the most part) infused a rich backstory into what is more obviously shown on screen, one that intrigues and rewards looking deeper into the films, and that it really wouldn’t have hurt The Force Awakens to get that stuff right — almost every issue I’ve raised with the film could have been avoided with a single line of dialogue in the right spot. Another issue is that in trying to pay homage to the classic three films (Episode IV, V, and VI), Abrams is just unbelievably unoriginal and ham-fisted about it.
You want proof? Okay, let’s forget, for a moment, that The Force Awakens is very nearly a remake of A New Hope. Let’s forget that the Millennium Falcon has been lost for a dozen or more years, but gets found roughly five minutes after it is fired up for the first time in “ages.” Let’s forget that BB-8 is just another R2-D2, and that it’s still odd that with all that advanced science around, nobody seems to be able to make small droids speak English. Indeed, let’s doubly forget that at least 25 in-movie years have passed since the events of Episode VI — presuming Rey is Luke’s daughter, and looks to be in her 20s, and Kylo Ren looks to be not much older than that — and yet the technology for ships, blasters, stormtroopers, et cetera does not seem to have changed even a little from 1977. Put that all out of your mind.
There’s a moment where Finn bumps the chess table on board the Falcon, and the chess game turns back on. In the original film, this was a cute moment — and a tip of the hat to stop-motion special effects master Ray Harryhausen, who had just a few years earlier done some masterful work in the Sinbad movies. In the new film, the game picks up exactly where it was left at least 25 in-movie years earlier. Does that seem credible to you, given that the Falcon was acknowledged in the film to have been owned by several different beings, and looks to have been on many different adventures since Episode VI? There — that’s the whole problem with this film in a nutshell. It’s fun, it’s flashy, it’s exciting, but it is really not too credible.
Once again, JJ Abrams delivers enough bangpow to enthrall audiences, but the moment you stop and think it through a bit — you realize you’ve been had. This is a pastiche of the old films, not a new chapter in the story at all. The man doesn’t seem to be able to come up with a sensible original story to save his life, and when he thinks to go the safer route of remaking an old story, he mishandles it.
I’m relieved that someone else will be directing Episode VIII, because I don’t think this franchise could handle another Abrams hack job. I actually do care about this story; that’s why it disappoints me that we didn’t move the needle much forward, particularly with such a great cast and some lovely new ideas. So much more could have been done, but someone — either Abrams, or someone higher up at Disney — felt like a rehash of the one that had the big impact the first time around would be a better approach. This is just plain old lazy storytelling.
(Above: who is “The Pilot?” Did you see this in the film? Is he important? Nope, just more merch for you suckers to buy! Buy buy buy!)
Sure, they’ll make a gajillion dollars, and maybe that’s all that matters — there are more merchandise characters than actually appear in this movie, and some that do appear as toys would have you believe are far more important to the film than they turn out (at least so far) to be, and maybe that tells you something about where the creative energy in this project was really directed. I’m sorry to have to say it, but The Force Awakens is the movie equivalent of reality TV — visually appealing, popular, and fun — but kind of empty and unsatisfying, and not very good for your brain in the end.
Still, let it be said that the next related movie we’ll see — Rogue One — takes a different approach to working with what’s come before that could be quite interesting, and perhaps Episode VIII will finally take us someplace both new and complementary to the bold, brash, come-from-nowhere experimentation and energy that powered the first, and particularly the second, of the original movies. That’s my “new hope,” if you will.
To the extent that The Force Awakens is better-made than the Prequels, I am glad. To the extent that most people will find it thrilling fun that deeper subtext doesn’t matter to them, I am glad. To the extent that we still have a hope of getting a kick-ass chapter the likes of The Empire Strikes Back, I am glad and hopeful. Why, with so many great people working on this film, we couldn’t have gotten a torch-passing film that embraced the big dreams of the original classics instead of a remixed pastiche (that often wandered into parody … “you can always blow these things up!”), I am mystified. Playing it safe is the very last thing you should do with Star Wars.
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!