David Bowie 1974-1982

Part 2 of my Bowie retrospective project transitions out of the Ziggy Stardust years and ends with the last gasp of the Berlin years. There are one or two detours along the way, including a bonus appearance from Nena Hagen in 1980, because she’s always good value and I’d just seen her in a film as my Bowie project collided with the We Are Global Film Festival.

Bowie album #8 – Diamond Dogs (1974), partially inspired by Orwell’s 1984 (as reflected in the selected video). It’s possible this was the first full official Bowie album I listened to and it’s a good one (and ties off the loose ends of Bowie’s early 70s period). I had trouble selecting a song again, but I ended up going with “We Are the Dead” (partly because it doesn’t segue directly in or out of another song). It’s a melancholy piece alternating between more conventional shorter verses and longer sections of ever-accumulating words propelled relentlessly forward. Probably not the cheeriest way to the end the week – if you want a pick-me-up, go with the surprisingly disco-tinged and poppy “1984” (which I’m sure was a big influence on the sound of Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds).

Bowie album 9a – The Gouster (1974). This is one of Bowie’s “lost” albums, basically an abandoned concept from the sessions which later would become Young Americans, released a few years ago in a box set. I didn’t have to cover it, but I decided to do so anyway and somehow retained the will to live. Look, I’ll say this for it, if you like Young Americans you’ll like this, and there are two YA tracks which appear here in earlier versions which I think are better versions. But there’s only one song here I can really say I even half like and that’s “John, I’m Only Dancing (Again)”, which is nowhere near as good as “John, I’m Only Dancing” (1972). But once you get through the first 3 minutes and it departs any attempt to resemble the original, the funked up vamping sort of works and I can actually start to enjoy it.

Following on from the pseudo-9th album, Bowie’s actual 9th album was Young Americans (1975), and how the title track became popular I will never know. The best song on the album is the other single (“Fame”) but since I’m trying to highlight non-singles, the only choice left to me is the other song with a John Lennon connection, the Beatles cover “Across the Universe”. It’s not a revelatory cover, but it’s not bad. Bowie’s vocal work is interesting, the guitars sometimes veer dangerously close to country & western but thankfully never cross that line… But the part I really like is the percussion – I can’t quite put it into words, but something about the way it permeates the song changes the sound of the whole piece to give it a compressed spacey feel (which I know sounds like a contradiction in terms).

I ended up going down a rabbit hole of different people’s versions of the Beatles song “Across the Universe”. My favourite is still the first version I ever heard – which was not the original, but rather Laibach’s atypical cover version from their 1988 album Let It Be.

The title track of Bowie’s 10th album Station to Station runs for just over 10 minutes, the longest on any of his studio albums. Written in a haze of cocaine, malnutrition, occult obsession and paranoia, it is in some ways Bowie’s long dark night of the soul and is the bridge between his funk/soul period and the “Berlin trilogy”, but musically in reverse. It starts like a piece from his next album, building from mimicking the sound of a train into a krautrock-inflected meditation on his latest persona and obsessions. Halfway through it kicks back into an uptempo funk/soul groove, with a one-minute bridge leading into the almost self-mocking final section of the song (and sounding much better than anything on the last album). The bass is a strong presence throughout, tying together the four sections of the song. I like to think that the lyric “the European canon is {near/here}” is a prescient glimpse of the impact of the next 3 albums.

Firmly into another of my favourite Bowie periods with album 11 Low (1977). This was the first time he worked with Brian Eno and is also where instrumental pieces begin to appear on his albums. I’ve chosen the album closer “Subterraneans”, originally part of his abortive soundtrack for The Man Who Fell to Earth and later used as the introductory piece for the Outside Tour (1995). Paul Buckmaster (who provide the string arrangement for “Space Oddity”) provides the foundational synthesizer track built upon by Brian Eno with additional synthesizers and reversed instruments (piano, bass, guitar). Bowie’s saxophone emerges partway through to drift over the other instruments before Bowie’s abstract vocals appear as the song draws to a close. It’s contemplative and oddly comforting (at least to me).

I read this book about Bowie’s Low album a few years ago. It’s part of the 33 1/3 imprint, an extensive series of individual takes on classic albums. If you’re a fan of the album and like reading about music, I strongly recommend you pick it up.

Next in the “Berlin trilogy” is album 12 “Heroes” (1977), another Brian Eno collaboration with the welcome addition of King Crimson’s Robert Fripp on lead guitar. I’ve decided to continue with the instrumentals and pick “V-2 Schneider”, named after Kraftwerk’s Florian Schneider, who passed away just over 6 weeks ago. This piece is probably the closest Bowie came to sounding like Kraftwerk, twisted in the direction of Neu! by Fripp’s guitar improvisations, but firmly stamped as Bowie’s own by the presence of his saxophone.

Today I’m going to take a sidestep into whimsy with album 12½ David Bowie Narrates Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf (1978). It’s not strictly a Bowie album – it’s not a personal project, and he was the third choice for narrator – but it was the next album he worked on after “Heroes”. (Arguably if I’m including this I should have covered at least Lou Reed’s Transformer and the Iggy Pop albums Lust for Life and The Idiot by now, since Bowie was more heavily involved with them, but I forgot. They’re great albums, but I’m not going back in time now. If you can afford it, why not pick up the new box set Iggy Pop: The Bowie Years?) Anyway, back to Peter. I’ve chosen this section simply because I like the voice Bowie chose for the cat. If you want, you can find a video where somebody has replaced the soundtrack of the Disney cartoon Peter and the Wolf (1946) with Bowie’s version. I’ll continue on to the conclusion of the Berlin trilogy tomorrow.

Because I had the pleasure of being reacquainted with Nina Hagen in Ticket of No Return earlier today (see my review), here she is performing a David Bowie cover.

It’s time to hit the 1980s with Bowie’s 14th album Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) (1980), the end of another period in Bowie’s music. “It’s No Game (Part 1)” kicks off the album with a raw energy which is revisited in a more polished style at the album’s close, providing a glimpse forward to the rest of Bowie’s 80s work. Michi Hirota’s adoption of a male perspective, as she barks a Japanese translation of Bowie’s lyrics in a distinctively female voice, shows that challenging gender roles and representations is still very much part of Bowie’s preoccupations. Robert Fripp is back on guitar to add to the harsh feel of the opening track – and I’ve just learned that his guitar was sampled for the first track of Nine Inch Nails’ breakthrough EP Broken!

Briefly back to Berlin for Bertolt Brecht’s Baal (1982), Bowie album 14½, recorded after his appearance in the BBC TV adaptation (which I really should see one day). Of the five songs on the EP, I think “The Drowned Girl” is the strongest – partly because it lacks the rampant egotism of the others, but mostly because it’s a delicately arranged and performed lament which serves the lyrics perfectly.

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