David Bowie 1993-2016

Completing my Bowie retrospective trawl originally carried out from May to July, this final compendium begins with The Buddha of Suburbia and ends with Lazarus, with a few sidesteps along the way (including a tangent about 1973’s “Lady Grinning Soul” which I’d completely forgotten).

21 today! Next Bowie album is the undeservedly neglected gem The Buddha of Suburbia (1993), released the same year as the previous album but very different. Most of the album features only two collaborators, Erdal Kızılçay (percussion and any instruments not played by Bowie) and producer David Williams. Both had worked with him on Never Let Me Down and would return for the next album, 1. Outside. My favourite piece on this album is also Bowie’s favourite. “South Horizon” is one of three instrumental pieces reconstructed from elements of Bowie’s TV soundtrack. Bowie constructs an acid jazz chillout by stripping everything back to drums and percussion and building it up again, layering in a mournful trumpet, double bass plucking, and his own saxophone before handing the whole piece over to Mick Garson for his typically masterful piano improvisation on top. Wonderful. (And if anybody owns the original 1993 release, I’d love to get a good look at the 6 pages of liner notes Bowie wrote – the scans at discogs.com are very low resolution.)

At last I’ve reached Bowie’s 22nd album, the gothic-industrial detective-noir William S. Burroughs-meets-modern primitive mashup concept album 1. Outside (1995). This was my big reintroduction to Bowie as a vital creative force upon its release. I’ve written about “I’m Deranged” more than once on “favourite music” lists, so this time I’ve decided to choose a song which is coincidentally from the perspective of the same character, “The Voyeur of Utter Destruction (as Beauty)”. It’s built around Reeves Gabrels’ circular propulsive guitar line (strongly reminiscent of King Crimson), providing a spine for The Artist/Minotaur’s outbursts of destructive creativity. Mike Garson’s piano creeps up sneakily before scattering cascades of descending notes over the the middle of the piece. There’s also a lovely punning reference to the works of RE/Search Publications. This entire album (lyrics, music, backstory) represents Bowie’s most sustained application of the cut up method and wish he’d done more like this, although I can’t begrudge him following his muse in another direction. I did manage to find a bootleg of outtakes titled “The Leon Suites”, and I dearly hope more of the raw material of these sessions gets a cleaned up deluxe reissue someday.

Bowie’s 23rd album Earthling (1997) is his take on jungle/drum & bass (with guitars) and introduces two important new collaborators. Mark Plati is largely responsible for the dancefloor element of this album and would keep working with Bowie until 2003’s Reality. More significantly, Gail Ann Dorsey first turns up here on bass guitar and vocals – she would remain a part of his live band and work on most of his albums for the rest of his life (if you’ve ever heard “Under Pressure” with a female co-vocalist, it was her, except for the one time it was Annie Lennox). Of the four non-singles here I went with “Battle for Britain (The Letter)”, an energetic piece which is dominated by Plati’s drum & bass programming. Gabrels’ guitar keeps the material anchored to Bowie’s other 90s work. Pianist Mike Garson failed to connect with the album as a whole, but has an interesting presence here – there’s a piano break where he seems to be trying to come to terms with drum & bass via his instrument, producing stuttering disjointed notes before mashing the keys as quickly as possible in emulation of the tempo.

Today I want to take another Bowie detour with Red Hot + Rhapsody: The Gershwin Groove (1998), one of a series of AIDS awareness benefit albums. The organisers recruited Angelo Badalamenti (Twin Peaks) to choose a song, and after completing his part he received an excited phone call from David Bowie asking to do the vocal. Badalamenti agreed that Bowie would be a good fit for his version, which, like his music for Twin Peaks, mixes surface beauty with a brooding menace. Bowie keys into this mood perfectly and provides a vocal performance which is distinctively different from the original performance by Fred Astaire.

24 albums into Bowie with ‘hours…’ (1999) and I’m afraid I’ve hit a bit of a slump. After the much more lively previous albums, I suppose it’s reasonable for Bowie to want to relax a bit, but for the most part this album seems to me not so much relaxed as comatose. I really struggle to find anything to latch onto musically with most of the material here, and would much rather have had an album assembled from the B-sides. The one exception on this album is “Brilliant Adventure”, the only instrumental track and one that would not have been out of place in the Berlin trilogy 20 years previously. Despite that it doesn’t feel outdated, more like a sign to hang in there because something interesting is still going on. It’s a relaxed piece, contemplative but refreshing.

Bowie album 24a Omikron: The Nomad Soul (1999) – time to say goodbye to Reeves Gabrels with the unreleased soundtrack for Bowie’s computer game, which is actually a trap used by the demon Astaroth to pull people’s souls into a cyberpunk city in another dimension and capture their soul when their character dies. This was recorded at the same time as ‘hours…’ and it comes across to me as if all of the most interesting musical material was shunted across to the game. The soundtrack circulates in various unofficial variants and so I couldn’t actually find a way to share any of my favourite bits (which are mostly instrumental). Instead, here’s the opening credits and theme song, which is still a decent scene-setting late 90s Bowie song.

Bowie album 24½ is Toy (2001), an abandoned album which I desperately wish would be properly released sometime in my lifetime. It’s largely made up of reinterpretations of singles (1964-68) and unreleased demos (1969-71), but while I happen to love this period of his work, it’s not at all an exercise of pure nostalgia. This album showcases how effectively Bowie could reinterpret his own material in a way which had only previously been evident in his live albums, and these versions fit in seamlessly with his next album. I’d happily showcase most of this album, but ultimately decided to pick “Hole in the Ground”, originally demoed in 1969. This recording really fleshes out the original piece, with a strong bass presence from Gail Ann Dorsey providing the catchy riff which propels the song. Earl Slick is back on guitar after last working with Bowie on Station to Station (1976) and will stick around until 2013. Producer Tony Visconti makes a welcome return after Scary Monsters (1980), providing string arrangements here, and sticking around for the remainder of Bowie’s work.

By special request, I’m going to take a quick Bowie detour to look at “Lady Grinning Soul”, the closing track of Aladdin Sane (1973). This is a gorgeously delicate song, written in tribute to soul singer Claudia Lennear, who was also the inspiration for the Rolling Stones’ “Brown Sugar”. The two songs are quite a contrast in both musical style and lyrical content. The Stones song is more possessive and controlling, using the language of slavery to fetishise a sexual encounter. (I was delighted to discover that Claudia later wrote the song “Not at All” as a rejoinder to Mick Jagger’s ego – well worth a listen.) But from the very first line of “Lady Grinning Soul”, Bowie’s song is clearly a celebration of an independent sensual woman who will take joy where she finds it without losing herself to another’s control. The song is ornamented with Mike Garson’s shimmering piano, which later takes a cue from Mick Ronson’s fluttering flamenco guitar to emulate the rhythm of castanets. Earlier in the piece Ronson plays a guitar with a very 60s sound, switching later on to a more characteristically powerful electric 70s sound. As far as I’m aware Bowie never played this song live – I would love to have heard him reinterpret it, but maybe he felt that it was perfect as it was. Fascinatingly, most cover versions of this song I can find were performed by women. Holly Palmer, who provided backing vocals on “Thursday’s Child” and the Toy album, performed this song in 2017’s “Celebrating David Bowie” concert. I’ll post a few versions I really like below.

Anna Calvi’s version is slower and more tormented (not sure that’s the right word), with Thomas Bartlett’s piano capturing the feel of Mike Garson’s performance without copying it.

Box Office Poison’s version has a lighter, more sensual touch, and has a strong saxophone presence which fits in with Bowie’s own use of saxophone

Raf and O’s version is a little more unusual. Raf’s vocals are more ethereal, and she’s backed by minimal electronics which evoke Bowie’s use of stylophone on “Space Oddity”. Towards the end the electronics start to sound like a spooky 70s kid’s show, before going full-on krautrock electronica.

One last one, from Federica Zammarchi’s Jazz Oddity album. This live performance begins with a flamenco guitar solo, before moving into a straightforward jazz interpretation.

Back to my regular Bowie progression with the 25th album Heathen (2002), where Bowie moved on from EMI due to their unwillingness to release Toy and took a one-album break from his regular collaborators to shake everything up again. Even the cover versions are exciting this time around – The Pixies, Neil Young, and the Legendary Stardust Cowboy are all represented here – and there are guest appearances from Pete Townshend (The Who) and Dave Grohl (Nirvana). But my favourite track is the opener “Sunday”, a slow build of contemplation in sparse wilderness with meditative chants in support of peace and love over fear. David Torn brings a different style of guitar after a subdued start with the Omnichord, which hooked me straight into the song.

Bowie’s 26th album Reality (2003) is the last before a 10 year gap, peppered with the odd guest appearance on other people’s albums. The accompanying tour would have been a strong way to go out, but I’m glad there was more to come. This time I’ve decided to pick “Pablo Picasso”, his cover of the Modern Lovers song produced by John Cale. After some stuttering Spanish guitar from Gerry Leonard, Bowie launches into a new section he wrote himself which effectively acts as a chorus, before hitting the verses with selected highlights from the original. It’s pretty much a straightforward rock song with a great drive. Jonathan Richman’s lyrics are slightly ridiculous but in a self-aware fashion. Gerry Leonard caps the whole song off with a Spanish guitar solo which is similarly at odds with the sound of the rest of the piece, which really makes it work for me.

Up until now, I haven’t been considering any of Bowie’s B-sides, but I simply cannot let the existence of “Love Missile F1-11” (2003) pass unnoticed! One of my high school classmates introduced us all to Sigue Sigue Sputnik, a band formed from the ashes of Generation X which sold commercial space on their debut album and had a whole backstory about the dystopian future world of 1990. I don’t know how their debut single made it to #3 in the UK charts, but I’m delighted that it did. This song was also responsible for my first encounter with Pop Will Eat Itself, who covered it on their first release, and it was several years before I knew Blade Runner as anything more than samples from this album. I was astonished when band member Tony James joined the Sisters of Mercy for Vision Thing. The original version has a real Suicide feel in the bass line. The PWEI cover substitutes in a Jesus & Mary Chain bass sound with some shambolic rap. Bowie’s cover has the same balls-to-the-wall momentum as the original, anchored by Mark Plati’s bass but more heavily layered in guitars (I wouldn’t be surprised if Gerry Leonard, Earl Slick and David Torn are all somewhere in the mix). It’s trashy and fun and I love it unreservedly.

One more Bowie detour to represent the 10 year gap between albums. Bowie had a number of appearances as a guest vocalist during this time, but I’ve chosen to highlight one where you can barely detect his presence. In 2008, Scarlett Johansson released an album of Tom Waits covers titled Anywhere I Lay My Head. Bowie provided backing vocals on two songs, the best of which was also the only single. You have to listen closely to pick him up – the first appearance is roughly 1:30 in and when I say “backing vocals” the emphasis is on “backing”. But while he’s basically irrelevant to the song, Scarlett’s performance and the hovering music stick with me and I decided to shoehorn this song in before the next album. (I’d be curious to hear the rest of this album someday. Oh, and watch for a guest appearance from Salman Rushdie for… some reason or other.)

Finally on to Bowie’s 27th album The Next Day (2013), coming out of the blue 10 years after his last album, but feeling very much like he’s continuing from where he left off and retaining a lot of collaborators from the last two albums. Coincidentally in synch with yesterday’s post, “The Dirty Boys” starts off sounding like it could almost be a Tom Waits song. It has a swampy feel, with Steve Elson’s baritone saxophone like a sputtering fog horn and crashes of guitar from Gerry Leonard & Earl Slick. It pokes its head out of the swamp into the light just as Bowie sings about the sun going down, then retreats back into the swamp again, before allowing the saxophone more time to show off at the end.

Bowie album 27½ Nothing Has Changed (2014) is a career retrospective album. The 3-CD version takes that literally and goes back in time, beginning disc 1 with a new song and going all the way back to 1964’s Davie Jones & The King Bees at the end of disc 3. “Sue (or In a Season of Crime)” would reappear in a new arrangement on his final album, but I prefer the original arrangement here, which stretches out for an extra 3 minutes but never overstays its welcome. This version, with a lush accompaniment by the Maria Schneider Orchestra, embraces the jazz side of the noir narrative, sketching out the story of a doomed relationship in brief verses and leaving the music to provide the emotional colour. I can imagine it being the soundtrack of a David Lynch B&W short film. The single release included an earlier version of “‘Tis a Pity She Was a Whore” as the B-side, which unfortunately is yet to be included on any collection.

Bowie’s 28th and final album ★ (or Blackstar) (2016) is one of the best albums of his career and is a wonderful way to go out (although I’ve got at least one more post to make after this). The title song is also one of his best, but since I’m staying away from singles I’ve decided to pick instead “Girl Loves Me”. Tim Lefebvre’s bass trudges relentlessly onward underneath Bowie’s hybrid of Polari and slang from A Clockwork Orange, more spoken than sung. In contrast to the almost embarrassing songs about street crime and drugs he put out in the late 80s/early 90s, this covers those topics in a way that actually feels like a Bowie song. And I like the scatterings of keyboard towards the end.

The final release containing new material from David Bowie was Lazarus (2016), the original cast recording of the musical inspired by the The Man Who Fell to Earth, a book famously filmed by Nicholas Roeg and starring Bowie as the titular alien. I’m including this not for the cast recording (which I’ve somehow never been in the mood to listen to), but for the bonus EP including three original Bowie performances of songs composed for the musical. The one I like the most is “Killing a Little Time”. Judging from the sound of it, if he’d recorded it about 20-25 years previously it would have counted as heavy metal. It still has that feel to it in the use of guitar and the anger contained in the lyrics – in the context of the musical I expect this reflects the alien’s anger at the world he’s trapped in, but in the context of a posthumous release I can’t help but wonder if this is where he channeled any anger he might have felt at his looming death.

A David Bowie postscript (2 July)

After being tagged on an “influential book” meme and then launching voluntarily into an “influential music” meme which was doing the rounds, I wanted a new project to to keep me engaged with written communication and provide some structure. One of the reasons I wanted to take a trip back through Bowie’s work is that he kept trying new things in his music, exploring new genres that interested him and creating his own take, which would then go on to influence others. He’s often characterised as a chameleon, but rather than changing himself to suit his surroundings as protective camouflage, I feel that he immersed himself in his surroundings out of genuine interest in exploring new ideas and creating new work that wasn’t simply derivative but rather generative.

Like many people, I slipped in and out of his work during my life, being aware of most of the singles and the odd album here and there (although my interest in his 1966-68 period tended to generate blank looks from others). When the “Blackstar” single was released, I hadn’t listened to any of his new albums since 1995, and most of what I knew after that point came from the 2002 Best of Bowie DVD. Hearing & seeing “Blackstar” blew me away, reviving my interest, making the announcement of his death shortly afterwards more of a blow than it might have been. I became aware of just how much of his work I’d never encountered, and over the next couple of months I made a mission of listening to as much of his work as I could find in chronological order. I found Nicholas Pegg’s The Complete David Bowie an invaluable guide in learning a lot of the background I didn’t know, as well as pointing out the unreliable biases present in a Bowie biography I’d read in the early 90s. (I was reading a borrowed copy of the 3rd edition of Pegg’s book – there has since been a 4th edition, which I bought but have yet to read.) I’ve yet to properly go through the online song-by-song guide Pushing Ahead of the Dame – I haven’t referred to it when writing my own impressions, but it contains some great analysis and I have read the first volume of the book version, Rebel Rebel by Chris O’Leary. (And I’ve only just realised the second volume has been out for over a year…)

I’ve been buying the Bowie box set reissues over the last few years, but they’ve only reached 1988 and it’s been almost two years since the last set – I hadn’t revisited any of the later albums in the interim, so it’s been great to revisit them in the past month. And while I didn’t cover any of the live albums, that was simply an attempt to keep this project from getting too big – they’re definitely worth listening to and frequently contain surprising reinterpretations of older material, or in some cases made me better appreciate songs which came across as a bit flat in their studio incarnations.

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