The third part of my Bowie retrospective project begins and ends with Chic’s Niles Rodgers, covering the period where Bowie decided to try being more consciously commercial for a few years, reinvented himself with a hard rock band, then launched himself from the embers with a new creative arc. This is also the period where he started taking a lot more acting roles, including (of course) his role as the Goblin King, seared indelibly into the minds of a generation at a formative age.
Let’s Dance (1983) – it’s hard to believe we’re now up to his 15th album! Nile Rodgers (Chic) comes onboard as a producer and musician, who was hoping to do something building on the experimentation of the last album, but was instead asked to create a commercial hit, which Bowie later described as “a rediscovery of white-English-ex-art-school-student-meets-black-American-funk, a refocusing of Young Americans“. My favourite non-single here is actually a cover of a 1977 song by Metro, which might explain why it has more of a new wave sound than the rest of the album (and I like the sound of it better than the original). The song also has a more subversive sexuality than the other songs here, and Stevie Ray Vaughan makes a good showing on guitar. From what I remember, the next two albums become more commercial and less interesting, but I’m still hopeful for what I can pull out of them!
With Bowie’s 16th album Tonight (1984) I find myself a bit stuck again. Once I rule out the singles (3 of which I enjoy), there’s not a lot left for me to work with, and I certainly didn’t expect to be selecting this Beach Boys cover. The saxophone players, bass guitarist and percussionists have carried over from Let’s Dance, joined by a returning Carlos Alomar, with Lenny Pickett providing additional saxophone. Bowie turns a decent Beach Boys song into a heart-felt, over-the-top, string laden ’80s romantic ballad. It’s incredibly tacky and summons up the fascination I have with cover versions which really ought not to exist. To be honest, I think it’s kind of terrible, but I can at least get a level of enjoyment from it that eludes me with the rest of the album (the white boy reggae version of an Iggy Pop song just makes me shudder).
Right, time to restore some joy with Bowie album 16½ Labyrinth (1986). In contrast to the last album, not one of Bowie’s songs here is a dud. And while I do enjoy the singles, even taking them into consideration my favourite song here is unquestionably “Within You”. The instrumentation is stripped back compared to the other songs, with only synthesizer, bass and drums. The synths provide mood, the bass and drums punctuate the drama of the piece, and Bowie’s vocals take a journey from demanding affection as his due to a crumpled realisation of failure and loss. (And the accompanying scene in the movie is pretty great too.)
Bowie’s 17th album Never Let Me Down (1987) is generally more solid but less interesting than Tonight. As much as I found it harder to get through Tonight, its singles are better and there’s more musical variety on display. Never Let Me Down is over-produced and Bowie was less involved with the arrangements, leading to an album which has much the same sound from one song to the next. Except, that is, for “Glass Spider”. This song feels much more like the Bowie of the early ’70s has reawakened, poking his head up one more time to create the central track for a concept album that never was. The synths hark back to “Scary Monsters” and create a mood to support the extensive opening narration, before letting Peter Frampton fully loose on guitar, with the rest of the song being more of a sustained chant over a rock opera workout which crests and fades out, as this aspect of Bowie goes back to sleep for another 8 years.
18 albums into David Bowie’s works and we hit Tin Machine (1989), which is a better album than its reputation suggests. After specifically trying for a commercial sound and gradually losing interest, Bowie reinvigorated himself by going back to his childhood love of rock & roll. “Heaven’s in Here” is the album opener, one of the pieces written by Bowie solo, and is just good solid straightforward blues rock. Guitarist Reeves Gabrels, who would be an important collaborator with Bowie for the next 10 years, shows his strengths here and gets the opportunity to do the guitar rock solo thing towards the end. Tony & Hunt Sales provide a disciplined backdrop on bass guitar and drums, propelling the song at a steady pace. From what I recall, their contributions became more ego-driven and destructive as the Tin Machine era went on, but here all four contributors are a tightly knit team. Other songs on this album are more adventurous, but after the overproduction of the previous album, this song shows that Bowie could still produce a no-frills straight-ahead rock song and make it work.
Bowie album interlude (1990). In the middle of Tin Machine, Bowie’s Sound + Vision career retrospective was released and he went on tour to support it (and supposedly say goodbye to his old material). Joining him on this tour was guitarist Adrian Belew, who had previously toured with Bowie in 1978 and recorded The Lodger with him, before going on to join King Crimson. Bowie wrote and appeared on two songs for his album Young Lions, most notably the single “Pretty Pink Rose” (heavily featured during the tour). I’ve always loved this song, so I’ve taken the excuse to share it here, along with the video directed by Tim Pope (The Cure) and guest starring actress Julie T. Wallace. Bowie looks and sounds like he’s having a lot of fun, Belew has free reign to go all over the place with his guitar, and Julie Wallace wipes the floor with them both.
Bowie album 19 Tin Machine II (1991). While there’s still some interesting guitar work from Reeves Gabrel, this album is where the Tin Machine experiment falls flat and most of the songs have little to recommend them. I tend to attribute this to the increasing influence of the Sales brothers, and the two songs with Hunt Sales on lead vocals are among the worst. “Amlapura” is the most unrepresentative song on the album – it’s much calmer and well away from the rock/metal feel of the rest of the album. Bowie actually gets to be wistful again, the guitar is more delicate, and the lyrics celebrate the beauty of an Indonesian island, rather than picking up women or being self-consciously “edgy”. There’s even a version of this song sung in Indonesian! As I’ve been skipping the live albums, the next Bowie album will be a conscious step away from the Tin Machine era, putting two vastly different albums next to each other in a way which is rare for any popular artist.
For Bowie’s 20th album Black Tie White Noise (1993) he reunited with Nile Rodgers (Chic), 10 years after they collaborated on Let’s Dance. This is where Bowie’s enthusiasm for trying different things reasserts itself and is his attempt at a house music album. While that probably plays to Rodgers’ strengths at the time, for my taste it’s pretty patchy. A notable addition to the team of musicians is Sterling Campbell on drums, who worked with Bowie right up to 2004’s Reality tour. My favourite here is “Pallas Athena”, a mostly instrumental piece featuring a sample from a preacher in a piece dominated by strings arranged by Michael Reisman (a member of the Philip Glass Ensemble). The gloomy, menacing atmosphere of the strings is joined later by a persistent, resigned chanting. This piece received a couple of remixes by Meat Beat Manifesto and would later turn up in a drum & bass version on the Earthling tour.