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Class C

Main Category: Meta-Rock
Also applicable: Art Rock, Smart Pop, Dance Pop, Arena Rock,

Funk/R'n'B, Soul Music, Avantgarde
Starting Period: The Early Years
Also active in: The Psychedelic Years, The Artsy/Rootsy Years,

The Interim Years, The Punk/New Wave Years,

The Divided Eighties, From Grunge To The Present Day



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David the Glam King... nah, forget that. David Bowie is perhaps best known for his great gay images and glam superstarship of the early Seventies, but in fact it was only one facet of this guy. Throughout his long and extremely inconsistent career, a career that alternated peaks and absolute low points like one exchanges underwear, David has taken on everything - the Beatles aside, this dude's perhaps rock's most notorious experimentator. Popster, folkster, rockster, glamster, soulster, punkster, New Wavester, and even crappy technolover, all of these nominations are firmly in place when it's David Bowie you're discussing. Add to this a deep pool of talent - and, after all, only a really talented guy could take on every one of these directions - and you get yourself a musical genius? Well, not quite.

Unfortunately, like oh so many bands and performers, David got his problems, too. Perhaps his biggest problem was that he wanted, and still wants, to be a big star. No, don't get me wrong: I know that everybody wants to be a big star. John Lennon wanted to be a star, Pete Townshend and Ray Davies wanted to be a star, hell, even Bob Dylan wanted to be a star - at least, you couldn't deny this fact in 1965-66 (afterwards, it's debatable). But for most of these guys there came a certain period when they were able to say 'stop!' to themselves. Having reached a particular peak, they simply close their eyes to fashion and for the most part released music that came from inside themselves, not from the fashionably conditioned outside world. I mean, it's one thing when you're lucky enough to be flashed on TV every week and screw as many chicks as you'd like to, and it's another thing when you set your goal to be 'cool' every day. And Bowie did just like that - always trying to keep in touch with fashion. You could argue that at certain periods he dictated fashion himself - after all, it was him, Bowie, who ruled out the primary doctrines of Glam. But most of the time, he just kept his nose in the right direction - or tried to.

Okay, so what's the deal, one should ask? We all know that his 'fashionability' led to a steady decline in the Eighties, with presumably embarrassing dance pop albums and stuff like that, and his Nineties catalog is, er, well, how'd you say it... artistically dubious, to say it in a mild manner. But, after all, wasn't that the fate that chopped all of the 'dinosaurs' - I mean, Bowie was far from the only 40-year old artist that burned out in the Eighties? True, of course. No, the main problem does not lie here: the main problem is in Bowie's attitude towards the music. For Frank Zappa, music was, for the most part, a 'tool' serving to liberate the mind and provide humanity with freedom of creativity. For David Bowie, music was a tool as well - serving to underline the current state of a certain generation's mentality. Don't get me? Well, roughly speaking, Bowie doesn't write music for the love of music. And he never writes music with any deep emotional resonance - apart from a handful of emotional masterpieces like 'Heroes' that probably came out by accident, his catalog never rings true and sincere, and even when it does move you to tears on certain songs, well, I just can quote D. Wilson - 'whatever he does, you know he doesn't really believe in it'. No, of course David does not (usually) write songs just to earn a huge hit single, like some commercial machine: he's much too smart for that, and, well, he's got some self-respect after all. But the true entity of Mr Bowie can just be summed up in two words: 'the Great Mystificator'. His music is a play, a hide-and-seek game - like, 'can you predict what my next album will look like?' And say what you will, but I will never believe that Bowie ever seriously considered himself as a 'progressive' experimentator. While the genres in which he worked were indeed numerous, can you name at least one genre that he's created by himself? There are none. I mean, his famous Berlin period approaches creation of a new genre, but I'm almost certain that most of the 'progressive' praise for these albums should go to Brian Eno, not Bowie.

And that's where I state my main anti-Bowie point (NB: I like Bowie very much. But that doesn't mean I won't let myself to spit out a little venom). The guy is actually a limited songwriter. He has a fabulous talent of making his songs flashy, quirky, loud, exciting, memorable and fashionable; his lyrics, while not absolutely great, are still very interesting and rarely silly; but unfortunately, I can't really say that he's a heck of a melody writer. He does have his fair share of fabulous melodies, but it's still miserable as compared to such of his superior peers as the Beatles or the Stones - that's why I wouldn't even think of putting David in the same row (sorry all you fans out there). Much of the time, the tunes he uses are derivative and do not sound fresh at all (see my Aladdin Sane review, for instance). Once again, there are notable exceptions - Ziggy Stardust is the major one - but not many of them.

Nevertheless, who cares? Yes, the melodies are derivative, but they all carry Bowie's outstanding personality. Yeah, he'd never written anything as brilliantly genial as 'Jumpin' Jack Flash', but then again, who had? He's a great artist, still. Insincere, sleazy, chameleonic, derivative and sporting a poor voice (you can actually hear it on his demos), but also inventive, creative, moody, intelligent, humorous and entertaining - that's David Bowie for you. Take 'im as 'e eees, ladies and gentlemen - the ol' bastard'll probably ne'er git any bett'r!



Year Of Release: 1991
Record rating = 6
Overall rating = 9

Now who could have guessed...

Best song: well, it's hard to tell. Probably one of these "epoch-defining" singles like CAN'T HELP THINKING ABOUT ME...

Track listing: 1) Liza Jane; 2) Louie Louie Go Home; 3) I Pity The Fool; 4) Take My Tip; 5) That's Where My Heart Is; 6) I Want My Baby Back; 7) Bars Of The Country Jail; 8) You've Got A Habit Of Leaving; 9) Baby Loves That Way; 10) I'll Follow You; 11) Glad I've Got Nobody; 12) Can't Help Thinking About Me; 13) And I Say To Myself; 14) Do Anything You Say; 15) Good Morning Girl; 16) I Dig Everything; 17) I'm Not Losing Sleep.

This isn't exactly a debut album (that honour still goes to the 1967 David Bowie, not the 1969 Space Oddity): it's a carefully planned and excellently realised collection of nearly everything the man had recorded in between 1964 and 1966, including six singles, both A- and B-sides, and five more previously unreleased demos. Thus, it's the most natural way to start with the man's recording career. Amazingly enough, not too many people even know that he actually came out from the same generation of musicians as the first stars of the British Invasion; in other words, started out as a wannabe Sixties hero. It's a very telling thing that he actually only made it big in the Seventies - he shares the same fate with other overrated rock icons such as Jimmy Page, for instance. 'Retarded heroes', I call them; a bit too sarcastic, maybe, but well-deserved anyway.

Wanna know why Mr Davy Jones didn't manage to hit it big in the Sixties? He tried, and tried hard; almost every one of these singles is credited to a different band or 'artist name' - Davie Jones with the King Bees, The Manish Boys, Davy Jones, The Lower Third, and finally David Bowie (by the way, if you didn't know it already, Bowie changed his artist name from Jones in order to avoid confusion with Davy Jones the Monkees member - what a bummer). This is also telling: it shows how eager Bowie was to quickly scrap any ill-going project and restart everything on a new page, only to fall face first in the mud again as his next single flopped. But his big problem was being utterly derivative - he never really tried creating his own niche, instead he tried beating all his concurrents on their own field. And naturally, when your main concurrents happen to be such well-oiled and deeply professional (not to mention original) bands as the Stones, the Who, the Kinks and the Yardbirds, you'd have to be at least nine feet tall or something.

Still, it is quite an entertaining process to witness Bowie's slow "graduation process". The first two singles are natural good-timey fun and nothing more; not bad, but the same things were being done by practically everybody at the time, and Bowie's raunchy R&B vocal style (yes, it's quite fun to hear him hollering like that) is about the only thing to redeem 'Liza Jane' and 'Louie Louie Go Home'. Oh yeah, he plays some saxophone in the background, too - not the commonest thing about derivative British R&B bands in the early Sixties, but what the hell, the last thing I would want to accuse Bowie of is revolutionizing rock music by bringing in the saxophone as an active instrument or something.

Although, to give David his due, on the second single he tries to broaden the palette: 'I Pity The Fool' is generic blues, while its B-side, 'Take My Tip', is a strangely sounding swing tune with obvious Georgie Fame influences, and the saxophone is even more prominent on both of these songs. Obviously, The Mannish Boys were already not supposed to emulate the Yardbirds - they wanted to move closer to the 'sources'. They still fail: both of these tunes aren't any more distinguishable than last time around. Likewise, all these acoustic/electric previously unreleased demos range from passable (very amateurish balladeering like 'That's Where My Heart Is') to stupid corny parody ('Bars Of The County Jail' - Bowie's phoney take on folk that's almost offensively bad).

Things get significantly better on his next single as Davy Jones. Another reinvention here, as a raunchy Mod 'anthemizer' along the lines of the Who. 'You've Got A Habit Of Leaving', produced by Shel Talmy, indeed sounds like an inferior outtake from the Who's earliest recording sessions, with speedy bass, crashing drums and chaotic feedbacky guitar serving as the instrumental break. Nevertheless, the main melody still isn't all that attractive: David tries to compensate for lack of hooks with shrill Kinksish vocals and some pumped-up 'emotionality', but you can't mask the lack of meat 'n' potatoes when you're hungry. As for the B-side, 'Baby Loves That Way', it's more like Herman's Hermits than any of the above-mentioned bands. Stupid teen pop, poorly written and poorly produced.

It's not until 'Can't Help Thinking About Me', his major 1966 single, that there actually appears a David Bowie - both in the name and the essence. For the first time, Bowie actually cares about the lyrics - introspective and entertaining - and the atmosphere, which is that of actual desperation and insecurity. No audible melody, of course, but wait, you're not gonna receive the whole package at once. (The B-side, 'And I Say To Myself', though, is 'Baby Loves That Way' vol. 2). But in direct correspondence with the laws of dialectics, the next single is a letdown again: both 'Do Anything You Say' and 'Good Morning Girl' are quirky Beatlesque pop-rockers, with no sense of danger or any hidden menace inside of them; maybe he was going for an overtly commercial approach here. It's quite amusing, though, to hear him scatting along with the guitar solos on the latter.

And finally, the last two tracks on here announce the upcoming of Bowie the Wannabe Britpop hero (see David Bowie for further discussion of the subject). 'I Dig Everything' is a nice flute/organ dominated ditty about, well, about how Bowie digs everything (although it doesn't really give the impression of a hippie song - well, it's just a song about a man who digs everything, including feeding the lions in Trafalgar Square), and 'I'm Not Losing Sleep' is Bowie's take on the Stones' 'Play With Fire' - except that there's only the 'that rich bitch is such a bitch' part and there's no 'some day that rich bitch will be a poor bitch' part. Both of these songs are more or less worth the investment if you're a diehard fan; otherwise, I would still recommend the far superior David Bowie instead.

Ah well... To me, the fact that Bowie had to pass such a lengthy period as 'undergraduate' (some might actually regard this period as the entire 1964-70 years - seven years of recording career!), is one of the major proofs to the fact that there's something not entirely right with the guy. Don't forget that most major artists, starting from the Beatles and further on, had no more than one or two years of recording career before maturing to a serious artist. Bowie, on the contrary, only achieved maturation when writing solid catchy melodies became an unnecessary process - you had to be "serious" and "atmospheric" with a certain dose of true intelligence (latter sometimes omitted), and that was it. That said, I repeat that there's still enough funny and entertaining moments on Early On not to dismiss it altogether, and it is certainly is a marvelous job of 'archive collecting' - one could only wish that all the other bands' and artists' early catalogs were given a similar treatment.



Year Of Release: 1967
Record rating = 7
Overall rating = 10

Bowie taking his inspiration from the Kinks; shallow, but quite fun.


Track listing: 1) Uncle Arthur; 2) Sell Me A Coat; 3) Rubber Band; 4) Love You Till Tuesday; 5) There Is A Happy Land; 6) We Are Hungry Men; 7) When I Live My Dream; 8) Little Bombardier; 9) Silly Boy Blue; 10) Come And Buy My Toys; 11) Join The Gang; 12) She's Got Medals; 13) Maid Of Bond Street; 14) Please Mr Gravedigger.

Like so many early efforts by later superstars, this one's been unjustly forgotten, trodden over and completely dismissed as an embarrassing failure. Okay, I'll be the voice of disagreement in the general chorus again: this album has really grown on me over the past... two days, actually, but hey, it took a month for me to appreciate Elton John's Captain Fantastic, so... never mind, just think about this comparison yourself and see what conclusions you may draw.

In fact, this self-titled debut of David has been forgotten so seriously that few reviewers nowadays even mention it. And why? Throw me in a burning furnace if I know. While it's certainly far from his best work, it's definitely far from his worst, either, and quite enjoyable and exciting 'in a class of its own', if I may quote myself (this is just a phrase that I've been using a bit too frequently lately, so it already functions as a quotation, if not a self-conscious cliche). If you're looking for glam, don't meander in these particular forests. But if you're just interested in Bowie as a global phenomenon, don't miss it: his very first LP already has all the main trademarks fully established. And what are these? Trademark # 1: Bowie is not a very good songwriter, but a decent one. Trademark # 2: Bowie rips off other people's ideas. Trademark # 3: Bowie mixes in some of his naughty, perverse nature - a little 'soufflé à la David', to make other people's ideas look like his own. Take any single Bowie album from basically any epoch and you'll see they all have exactly these three trademarks in common. Sometimes the songwriting is a bit better, like on Ziggy; sometimes the ideas are somewhat more original, as on Diamond Dogs; sometimes he doesn't mask them ideally, as on Young Americans, but, well, exceptions only confirm the rule.

So, finally, after having put out all those flop singles throughout the early Sixties that are now collected on Early On, on his debut album for Deram, David, now Bowie for ever, veered into full-blown... nay, not psychedelia, as one might suppose; yes, one of his main idols at the time did happen to be Syd Barrett, but Syd seems to be only a peripheral inspiration for the record, mostly lyrical one (I mean, don't all these pedophilic lyrics of songs like 'Little Bombardier' or 'There Is A Happy Land' recall 'Matilda Mother' and stuff like that?). Nope, if there is something which David draws on heavily, it's the Kinks and their freshly-patented 'British music-hall' style. On here, Bowie sounds as British as can be - he'd abandon that image in just a couple of years, but for the time being he was quite content to be singing cute little ditties dealing with typical British realities. And, of course, the record does not rock at all - for the most part, the sound relies on soft acoustic guitars, tinkling pianos, sleazy horn sections and soundtrackish orchestration.

So what's to be recommended? Well, for the most part, it's simply the unpredictability of the record: as you all know, Bowie's a weird one, and you never know where exactly he's gonna turn. While there is quite a fair share of poodle fodder to be met among these fourteen tracks, there is, just as well, a reasonable amount of diversity: contrary to rumours, Bowie does not simply re-write the same song over and over again. After all, how can one dismiss a 'routine' Britpop album when it has a song named 'Sell Me A Goat' on it? Huh?

Okay, okay, so it's 'Sell Me A Coat', after all (but the liner notes in my CD do make the misprint). But you get my drift, anyway. And the song itself is one of the highlights: I hate Bowie's nearly off-key la-la-las in the intro, but the main melody is so cute and naive, with Bowie imploring somebody to sell him a coat cuz he feels cold, that it's simply impossible to dismiss it: it's that kind of charming simplicity that borders on genius (I'll leave this statement unmotivated, if ye pardon my rambling). On the other hand, 'Love You Till Tuesday' gotta rank as Bowie's greatest success in the 'pure pop' genre: the little string passages in the chorus, the subtle brass lines, Bowie's ironic, sly intonations as he churns out the lyrics - 'who's that hiding in that apple tree, clinging to a branch/Don't be afraid it's only me hoping for a little romance' - and the stupid 'da-da-da-dam's all contribute to a pop masterpiece, even if it's probably accidental. Like most of Bowie's masterpieces. (That's an understatement). (No it's not). (Yes it is). (Hmm. Well, I might stretch it till Wednesday...)

But there's really not much weirdness in these tunes - at least, not as much as, for instance, in the weird protest against overpopulation - 'We Are Hungry Men', which includes such gimmicks as a gimmicky 'radio overdub' stating overpopulation rates in various cities, a gimmicky tape manipulation with the organ after the chorus sings 'we're here to live our lives', a gimmicky German-English manifesto for population control (yup), and a happy chum-chum at the end of the song, as the hungry people are supposed to be devouring each other. While it's not wonderfully catchy, it's at least a groovy listening experience. On the other hand, you probably won't really feel the weirdness in the generic, a trifle schmaltzy waltz 'Little Bombardier' until you consult the lyrics and see that the bombardier in question was a child molester. And what about 'She's Got Medals', a song about a girl transvestite who enrolled herself into the army and then either got killed by an explosion or survived and returned to London as a girl once again? Unfortunately, this time he's gone a bit too far: the song is much too nonsensic for my tastes, and it ain't compensated by anything resembling a memorable melody.

Not that everything on here is weird, of course. Nope. 'Uncle Arthur' is a jolly little quasi-nursery rhyme with some character-bashing totally a la Ray Davies ('Uncle Arthur likes his mommy, Uncle Arthur still reads comics, Uncle Arthur follows Batman'); 'Rubber Band' is a retroish anthem dedicated to old marching bands, quite moving, by the way; 'Come And Buy My Toys' has straightforward folksy lyrics that almost make me wonder... nah. These tunes just make you sit up straight and say, 'Hey! This dude's just fakin' it - he's normal!' And then you browse a bit forward and fall upon 'Join The Gang', perhaps the only track on the album with definite 'psychedelic' elements mixed in: but what about the lyrics? 'Let me introduce you to the gang/Johnny plays the sitar, he's an existentialist...' And what about all the stupid noises at the end of the song? Seems like we're dealing with a half-assed parody on psychedelia. In that respect, 'Silly Boy Blue', the album's longest composition and for some, the most essential one, is even more 'psychedelic': by the way, this is the first place to discover Bowie's interest in Tibet ('Mountains of Lhasa are feeling the rain...'). It's kinda long and boring, though, at the best - simply not a highlight.

And, of course, the album's closing track, 'Please Mr Gravedigger', is anything but psychedelia: over the course of two minutes David is reciting a poem about, quite naturally, a gravedigger, accompanied exclusively by rain noses and said gravedigger's atchoos. A strange, unnecessary stunt, which doesn't feel quite at home with the rest of the album. In fact, like I said, the record's flair is so completely uncompatible with the Summer of Love and its values, that I can't help wondering how on Earth could Bowie mutate into a full-blown pretentious (although self-titled) 'Hippie Guru' in just a couple of years. Further proof that he was simply modelling his image according to the times. This time, though, his unexperience shows through: he was definitely late. David Bowie, his first album, passed completely unnoticed, as the Britpop trend was already fading in Britain: even the Kinks didn't manage to score a big one with their 1967 album Something Else - how could the ambitious, but essentially soulless David Bowie count to be recognized as their peer? So he just swallowed it and began frizzing his hair - unfortunately, he spent a bit too much time in the process, so his second album missed the big time, too. But we're going a bit ahead of the matter, aren't we?

In any case, I think that history should do justice to the record. And you, my gentle and understanding readers, are forming history, so don't waste time and buy it. Better still, find the recently issued Deram Anthology, which updates these fourteen tracks with concurrently released singles and other oddities and combines to make a baffling 27-track release which is the real meat, according to the critics. As for me, I'll just have to stick with my trusty copy of David Bowie and enjoy the cool sweater he's sporting on the front cover. Very Jagger-ish, in fact; far better than the ugly frizzed mug on Space Oddity.



Year Of Release: 1969
Record rating = 7
Overall rating = 10

Davey Jones applying for a Tolkien-addled hippie; a 'space oddity' indeed. But parts of it are real enjoyable.


Track listing: 1) Space Oddity; 2) Unwashed And Somewhat Slightly Dazed; 3) Don't Sit Down; 4) Letter To Hermione; 5) Cygnet Committee; 6) Janine; 7) An Occasional Dream; 8) Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud; 9) God Knows I'm Good; 10) Memoirs Of A Free Festival; [BONUS TRACKS:] 11) Conversation Piece; 12) Memoirs Of A Free Festival (part 1); 13) Memoirs Of A Free Festival (part 2).

Note: this was originally released in the UK as Man Of Words, Man Of Music, but not released in the US at all (the Yankees were much too busy getting their kicks out of Quicksilver Messenger Service, I guess); only after the song 'Space Oddity' was released in the States as a single in 1972 and became a retarded hit, the album came out under the title Space Oddity, and the name's stuck ever since.

To the review now. Just like the debut, this has really grown on me after a little while, I'll admit - well, some songs still do nothing, but nowadays I'm the first to admit there is a handful of terrific material here. It's rather funny, you know, to watch the roots of famous glam-rockers - since practically none of the big glam stars began as real glam stars. Mott The Hoople, for instance, grew out of an introspective, Dylan-influenced, keyboard-oriented band; Marc Bolan shifted to glam after serving the public as a Tolkien propagator; and Bowie, actually, managed to combine both approaches on this album. Of course, he wasn't a real hippie by no means. As we have seen, his debut album presented him as a popster, doing something average between the Monkees and the Kinks; by 1969, he realized that being a hippie idol was far more cool and definitely more fashionable. So he frizzed his hair, took up an acoustic guitar, composed some rag-tag melodies, thought of some serious-looking, meaningless, mystical lyrics, as pretentious as possible, and took a wild shot.

He missed his mark, of course - whoever remembers Bowie as a hippie guru? - but that's not to say that the album is a complete failure. Throughout, Bowie's lack of genuine songwriting talent steps out: he doesn't even try to steal or borrow, and his unvariated acoustic strumming is rarely invigorating. Worse, he can't even hope to successfully imitate Dylan, because his voice is much too pathetic and grandstanding than Dylan's (a problem Bowie shared with Neil Young), and a perfect example of how short he falls of the goal is the unbearable 'Cygnet Committee', a nine-minute grandstanding ode to the supernatural and to God-only-knows-what that simply wastes nine minutes of fine vinyl material. And on some songs, like 'Unwashed And Somewhat Slightly Dazed', the tendency to imitate Dylan becomes simply devastating: Bowie gets in a quasi-rock, shuffling, 'primitive' beat, tosses in 'cool' harmonica lines and tries to write and sing exactly like Bob - but it doesn't work. Lyrics like 'I'm a phallus in pigtails/And there's blood on my nose/And my tissue is rotting/Where the rat chew my bones' only take Dylan's form, but not Dylan's essence, and shouting them out with vehemence as if they really mean something doesn't help.

On other numbers David takes a 'lighter' approach, but it doesn't always work, either. It's hit-and-miss for Bowie as he alternates from one rambling acoustic jam to another - some of them, like the 'epic' 'Letter To Hermione', or the wildly orchestrated fairy tale 'Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud', go nowhere, while others, like the gentle, mystical, Moody Blues-ish 'An Occasional Dream', or the heart-wrenching 'God Knows I'm Good', are real mini-gems! The latter especially: it's a story of a middle-aged shoplifter who's getting caught in the process, which is good (I mean, it's far from obvious hippie thematics), and the refrain, with the echoey and desperate cry of 'God knows I'm good... God knows I'm good...', is one of the catchiest and most moving moments on the album. The bouncy, poppy love song 'Janine' is also vaguely intriguing, though not too hook-heavy for my tastes.

Mostly, though, this album gets my praise for two songs - the ones that open and close the record and really make it a minor classic. Without 'Space Oddity' and 'Memoirs Of A Free Festival', the record is just a collection of good-and-bad folk-meets-mystique acoustic numbers; these two numbers really give it a true epic character. I think everybody knows 'Space Oddity', right? Probably the second best 'space' classic after Elton John's 'Rocket Man' (nothing's gonna touch that one, IMHO), but the messages are quite contrary: while 'Rocket Man' depicts an astronaut complaining about his loneliness in space, 'Space Oddity' has major Tom refusing to come down - 'planet Earth is blue and there's nothing I can do'. It is truly a chef-d'oeuvre, and it's probably no small coincidence that the song is tampered with by two of the dudes who'd go on to become Elton John's close companions: Paul Buckmaster is responsible for the orchestration, and Gus Dudgeon produces the song (all the other numbers are produced by Tony Visconti, which is probably the reason of why they all sound so different from 'Oddity'). Plus, David somehow manages to find a perfect tone, and some perfect guitar chords, and it's all moving to the point of shedding tears for poor major Tom. David himself was so proud of the song that he even returned to it eleven years later with 'Ashes To Ashes'...

Oh, and I also think quite highly of 'Memoirs Of A Free Festival'. Although the main melody is kinda obscure, and the Mars-meets-Woodstock lyrics are just another piece of gimmickry, I find myself quite easily seduced by the pompous, bloated coda - Bowie's personal take on 'Hey Jude'. 'Sun machine is coming down and we're gonna have a party...' I feel chanting this almost against my will, but, say what you will, it's pulled off quite decently. Two of the bonus tracks, by the way, represent the same song (split in two parts), in a later single version, re-recorded with the 'Spiders From Mars' band, and it's even better, because Mick Ronson adds some flashy lead guitar work throughout.

No, Bowie could never really become a 'hippie leader' by definition: hippies needed sincerity and true faith, not an artificially marketed approach to their style. But I'd say that even now, thirty years later, the record makes a really interesting listen: just sort out the dreck, right? And see how funny it is - watch Bowie struggle in vain as he tries to blend into the woodwork! Man, he looks cool with his frizzed hair! I know some people would think the same of Bowie's 'hip' past as they'd think of, say, some famous actor's early appearances in porno movies, but hey, lighten up! It was cool to be a hippie! Hippies ain't that bad - they're just a little bit stoned, that's all. Maybe that's the problem, in fact - I doubt if it ever took Bowie any pot to record this album.



Year Of Release: 1971
Record rating = 6
Overall rating = 9

This is Bowie at the crossroads - not knowing which way to turn.


Track listing: 1) Width Of A Circle; 2) All The Madmen; 3) Black Country Rock; 4) After All; 5) Running Gun Blues; 6) Savior Machine; 7) She Shook Me Cold; 8) The Man Who Sold The World; 9) The Supermen; [BONUS TRACKS:] 10) Lightning Frightening; 11) Holy Holy; 12) Moonage Daydream; 13) Hang Onto Yourself.

In a word - this album is boring. Some see it as an early masterpiece, as the first explicit statement of the whole Bowie's 'perverse' life philosophy, or even as a unique starting point that, as an embryo, already contains everything in the very beginning, only to be expanded and perfected later. I just think that these ideas come from people that tend to see Bowie as more serious than he usually is - and thus, fall into the trap of taking the faked for the real.

Although, from a purely technical point of view, this is certainly the first 'genuine' David Bowie album - I mean, a DAVID BOWIE album, not a strange parody on a flower power conceptual suite. In fact, Bowie had jumped off the hippie bandwagon right after Space Oddity - and none too soon: this hadn't really anything to do with the fact that the album didn't sell, but it had everything to do that by the early Seventies it was no longer cool to dig all that long-haired flower power 'crap'. And Bowie certainly wasn't going to fade away like some Iron Butterfly, nossiree! But he didn't want to become no Marc Bolan, either: his personality was far too twisted and complicated for simply imitating his newly-found glam formula. So what's a poor boy gotta do?

Well, first of all a poor boy gotsta wear a lady's dress on his album's front cover, to get it successfully censored and consequently well-publicized. (The album cover, in fact, while looking perfectly normal today, was banned at the time and the original vinyl edition is now a collector's item). Second, a poor boy gotsta have a rock'n'roll band: and so Bowie teamed up with young 'n' ambitious guitar wiz Mick Ronson, his brilliant colleague for the next three years. Therefore, this album is much more guitar-heavy than its predecessor: while certainly not up to the 'metal' standards of Ziggy, this is the starting point if you're after collecting Ronson's riffage and untrivial guitar approaches. Third, a poor boy gotsta see what's happening around, right? And, since the pre-eminent genres at the time were Prog and Hard (aka Heavy), this record is just it: a curious blend of Hard & Prog. Add to this Bowie's freshly-beginning glam tendencies, Bowie's atavistic hippie remnants, and Bowie's growing nostalgia for dissolved Sixties' bands like the Velvet Underground and Syd Barrett's Pink Floyd, and you got a hell of a mess. Somebody, in fact, called this the most messy of David's records, and I agree with both hands up.

And since it's messy, it really can't be all that good. Bowie was no Lennon/McCartney, after all, and he couldn't have pulled off a good, solid mess by no means. Thus, you just have to fish out the pearls from among the... well, hell: not 'dreck', as I wanted to say, because there's really no dreck on the album. But quite a few of these tunes lack any possible hooks so badly that it almost makes you wanna jump up and shout and scream to make a good counterpoint. For every good song you get a duffer, and for every duffer you get a good song: the whole record is so hit-and-miss that you just can't help wondering who the hell was that jerky guy who told you yesterday evening about David's incredible 'pop sensibility'. Oh, that appears later on, oh, I'm sorry... never mind.

Highlights on this record include the following. Number one: the title track. Mick Ronson's poisonous, Eastern-influenced riff that underpins the song is so whiny and noodling that it almost made me sick first time around, but hey, so did ninety percent of Black Sabbath riffs, and you just have to get used to these things. The lyrics are totally meaningless, of course (like almost every other word uttered on the album), but who cares, when you got that depressing riff and atmosphere? It's okay; not a classic, by my standards, but certainly worth quite a few listens. Number two: 'After All', a song that stylistically sounds more like an outtake from Space Oddity, but it also sounds ages more mature and enthralling, a creepy acoustic tune with Bowie's most gorgeous delivery on the whole record. The closest he's ever come to emulating a sensitive John Lennon ballad, in fact - what better compliment can there be? Number three: the album opener, the lengthy saga 'Width Of A Circle', opens with yet another super-duper riff, goes through several complex sections, has a good 'oh oh oh oh' passage along the lines of 'A Day In The Life' and is so pumped up that it's almost hilarious.

And that's it for the highlights, baby! The other material ranges from historically curious to plain throwaway. Even when Bowie has a good idea, he just sticks with it and sees to it that it isn't really developed. He could have done so much with the Syd Barrett tribute 'All The Madmen', for instance, but he doesn't do anything with it: the song is quite draggy, nothing but diluted atmosphere. The Bolan tribute 'Black Country Rock', on the other hand, starts out funny and silly, only to proceed to a freakin' wild passage with David's best impersonation of a... goat. Butt that troll off the bridge, David! 'She Shook Me Cold' also starts out powerful, until somewhere in the middle David and Mick decide to turn it into a carbon copy of Cream's 'Spoonful' jam off Wheels Of Fire, right down to the idea of a bass guitar dueling with Mick's six-string. But hey, it's useless to pretend that Mick Ronson is Eric Clapton, just as it is useless to pretend that Tony Visconti (he's on bass) is Jack Bruce. They aren't, and I never even particularly cared for the 'Spoonful' jam. 'Running Gun Blues' has funny, psychic lyrics (it's anti-Vietnam or something; I doubt Bowie ever really gave a damn about the subject), but not much else. And the 'heavier' tracks - 'Savior Machine' a la Black Sabbath and 'The Supermen' a la Led Zeppelin seem to jump out of their plastic and shout to all who pass by: 'Hey! We're just flaccid imitations of contemporary metal greats! If not for a couple of jerks, we wouldn't have existed - so please excuse us and go your way as if nothing was going on! We promise to end quickly!' In other words, David and Co. hadn't yet mastered the art of producing an impressive hard rock tune.

A mess, a mess, a glorious and hideous mess. The CD re-issue adds some bonus tracks, among them a couple of flop singles that David produced under the name 'Arnold Corns'; no wonder they flopped. But - surprise! - they're actually nothing but two earlier versions of what would later appear on Ziggy: 'Moonage Daydream' isn't even half-developed yet, and 'Hang Onto Yourself' also sounds little more than embryonic. David yet had to grow, as you see. I do like 'Lightning Frightening', however, a previously unreleased track from the sessions; it's actually just a nicely produced steel guitar/harmonica/saxophone blues jam, and I like that kind of stuff. It ain't supposed to mean anything or go anywhere, but that's what makes it so refreshing after all the non-working failures of the album.



Year Of Release: 1971
Record rating = 8
Overall rating = 11

Going back to singer-songwriting for a while, but with rejuvenated and redoubled forces and a future Yes member, too.

Best song: LIFE ON MARS?

Track listing: 1) Changes; 2) Oh! You Pretty Things; 3) Eight Line Poem; 4) Life On Mars?; 5) Kooks; 6) Quicksand; 7) Fill Your Heart; 8) Andy Warhol; 9) Song For Bob Dylan; 10) Queen Bitch; 11) The Bewlay Brothers; [BONUS TRACKS:] 12) Bombers; 13) The Superman; 14) Quicksand (demo); 15) The Bewlay Brothers (alternate mix).

Yup, you never can tell with David. Stylistically, this here record obviously belongs in between Space Oddity and Man Who Sold The World; judging by the strength of the material, though, it is indeed closer to Ziggy Stardust: anyway, one of the biggest chronological anomalies in history, only equalled by Jethro Tull's Benefit that sounds as if it were recorded three or four years after it really was.

Explanations? Well, all of a sudden Bowie completely dumps the gruff, metallic electric sound that dominated the previous record (and would again dominate the following one), picks up an acoustic, calls in mister Richard Wakeman to contribute some delicate piano fills, and delivers a set of folksy, lightweight songs, some of them completely in the mood of Space Oddity. In fact, the electric guitar makes its obvious presence on just one out of eleven numbers - the famous Velvet Underground tribute, 'Queen Bitch'; and even so, it's probably just because David wanted to make a tribute and thought that he needed some electric backing to make it more genuine (there's still an acoustic track accompanying the whole song, in any case).

There are some major differencies, though. I'd say that the only song which could seriously be regarded as a SO outtake is the album closer, 'The Bewley Brothers', with some unmatched pretentiousness, rather nonsensical lyrics and an ultra-pathetic vocal delivery (which does not, however, mean that I hate it - please read on). Most of the others have at least two things about them to be distinguished from the so-called 'hippie crap' David was pumping out two years ago. First, the songs actually make sense. The lyrics of 'Changes' and 'Oh You Pretty Things' give a short taste of things to come, predicting Bowie's upcoming Glam Avatar; the lyrics of 'Life On Mars?' give us some wonderfully precise social critique; the lyrics of 'Quicksand' are bombastic, but somewhat confessional; and the lyrics of 'Andy Warhol' and 'Song For Bob Dylan' are, well, at least they're aimed at you-know-who... And David delivers the songs with enough real passion and care for people to be engulfed in, not just mumbling it throughout or shouting them out as if he hardly knew what he was doing himself.

Second, and most important, David is growing musically. No, this does not mean that he'd actually developed a strong sense of melody by that point. Fans may despise me, but I'll go ahead and say that there ain't even a single real strong melody on the whole record. Hey, what strong melodies can be on a record that's dominated by David erratically strumming his trusty acoustic and Wakeman accompanying him on piano? Don't make me laugh! BUT - it has finally happened - Bowie has completely mastered the art of making his songs interesting. This arises in many different ways, but, just as I said something negative in general, I'll correct my mistake and say something generally positive, too: every single song on this record has something to offer us in the musical sense. There are moments when I just get bored, sure enough, quite a bit of those; but in every song, there's at least one point which grabs me and makes me listen intently and pay real attention and, quite often, even say: 'Hey! This guy may be a jerk, but at least he's a genius of a jerk!'

Let me explain this in more details now. We start off with 'Changes', a song that commences as a fairly ordinary, pretty unattractive piano ballad, until we get the groovy 'ch-ch-ch-ch-changes' refrain that's completely at odds with the verses, and that groovy, quasi-Beatlesque vocal harmonising on the choruses - 'ch-ch-changes - turn and face the stranger...' If you can ever get that chorus out of your head, you probably don't have a head at all. Same goes for 'Oh! You Pretty Things': I still keep dozing during the verses, but the upbeat, punchy chorus always wakes me up and makes me go yeah! And, of course, there's also the line about 'gotta make way for the homo superior', isn't it? And it goes off straight into the stupid 'Eight Line Poem', a sound collage where David does his best Dylan impersonation. I've always thought it was a parody on Bob, and I still think so, and this makes me silly and happy, for no obvious reason. 'Life On Mars?' Ah, now that's the definite highlight. The one with the Bowie trademark: his famous crescendo. The melody is not very strong, but he makes it grow and grow and grow and become bigger and more powerful, until it climaxes with the refrain... 'is there life on MAAAAAAAARS?' This presages some of the most enthralling moments on Ziggy, but it's also in a class of its own, and the piano and the orchestration only contribute to the grandeur. Fake grandeur, perhaps, but absolutely impeccably constructed and thoroughly convincing.

'Kooks', to me, is a slight pleasant tossoff (a silly ditty addressed to David's little son), but 'Quicksand', the tune that closes the first side, is a minor masterpiece - and I do mean it, even if the song is again completely in the Space Oddity vein. And not just because it contains some of the most famous and beloved Bowie lyrics, as he cleverly describes the decline of the world and the 'downfall of the heroes', drawing on figures like Crowley and Himmler (yup, indeed!); it has a fascinating refrain with some of his best vocal harmonies to date. Totally devastating, in fact. Of course, you have to sit through the boring verses to get to it, but if you like the lyrics (and I do, and I do), you won't find that a big problem.

'Fill Your Heart' is also a tossoff (the one that starts Bowie's tradition of including one camp cover per album), but it's so plain ridiculous and Bowie's singing is so unbearably ugly that it's almost fun. And then it's tribute time, with 'Andy Warhol' setting the scene with a bunch of weird sci-fi noises and a gloomy melody that's probably suitable for Andy, 'Song For Bob Dylan' getting it on with a rarely seen flash of electric playing from the everpresent Mick Ronson, and 'Queen Bitch', like I said, being the only more or less genuine rocker on the record. It does kick ass, although it does little more than that. Actually, I find the 'tribute' sequence the least compelling passage on the album, but it's still far from bad, and played and sung with enough taste and talent.

And the record fizzles out with 'The Bewley Brothers' - I have already described it earlier, but I just wish to add that, just like on 'Life On Mars?', its melody grows to a fascinating climax and totally sucks you in, until the mid section where Bowie changes the melody and becomes less interesting. Not to mention the pretty little synth phrase that opens the song and was later ripped off by Genesis for 'Your Own Special Way'. Hah! Or was it a coincidence?

Anyway, while I don't really see the record as a chef-d'oeuvre that many see it, there's hardly any arguing about the fact that it probably reflects the biggest step that David had taken in his entire life, and in that sense, it's more revolutionary than Ziggy or anything else. On The Man Who Sold The World Bowie found his style; on Hunky Dory, he found his substance. Which one is more important? You tell me! This is the first album where Bowie tries himself in the role of 'public entertainer': the songs should not just be pretentious, long, professional or boring, whatever - they should be engaging. They might even not have a good melody. But they must engage. That's the principle he's followed ever since. And, of course, that was the main reason of David abandoning singer-songwriting and plunging into the depths of glam rock less than a year later.

Bonus tracks include an okay rocker ('Bombers'), more in the Ziggy mould, an alternative version of 'Supermen' from the last album, and two demos of 'Quicksand' and 'Bewley Brothers' that sound just as good as the originals. Not very substantial, but not totally dismissable either; however, this time it's not the bonus tracks you should be after. It's the record itself, right?



Year Of Release: 1972
Record rating = 10
Overall rating = 13

The best offer that glam rock could ever make. Overrated, perhaps, but still a rabble-rousin' classic.

Best song: STARMAN

Track listing: 1) Five Years; 2) Soul Love; 3) Moonage Daydream; 4) Starman; 5) It Ain't Easy; 6) Lady Stardust; 7) Star; 8) Hang Onto Yourself; 9) Ziggy Stardust; 10) Suffragette City; 11) Rock'n'Roll Suicide; [BONUS TRACKS:] 12) John I'm Only Dancing; 13) Velvet Goldmine; 14) Sweet Head; 15) Ziggy Stardust; 16) Lady Stardust.

Now, right, look here. I know that this is considered to be Bowie's Sgt. Pepper, and for that reason it is now becoming quite cool to bash this album as it is becoming quite cool to bash Sgt. Pepper. Problem is, I'll never bash Sgt. Pepper, and I'll never bash Ziggy Stardust, because, like it or not, it is still the best Bowie album ever. Always was, always will be. You can take my word for it.

I'm not a fan of glam rock. I'm not a fan of David Bowie (okay, not a 'diehard' fan). Even more, I think that if we speak in terms of true creativity, David was far from his peak here - you should seek it in the era of the Berlin trilogy. Even more, the sequel to this partially sucked - it was good, but nowhere near as exciting. But Ziggy is different. It's a case of that fascinating listen when you can't even really hope to explain what is it particularly that you so like about the album. There are eleven songs on this record, and - yeah, yeah - there's not a single stinker in sight. They just lift you up in the air like your rubber ball and start kicking you around, only to leave you exhausted and gasping for breath at the closing notes. David assembles his band, gets them together in a tight grip with guitarist Mick Ronson at the front, gives the command to rock out and they do, in the process creating a true glam rock masterpiece that's probably the one and only glam rock record you should ever own (well, maybe Mott the Hoople's All The Young Dudes will also do).

What is so special? Nothing, really. Maybe the thing I like the most is the level of energy, the general atmosphere about the album: strong, youthful, playful, pulsating, adrenaline-filled, a far cry from the spooky, druggy, lazy depression of Aladdin Sane. The album's supposed to be a concept one, with Bowie as the alien rock star Ziggy and his band as the Spiders from Mars, but frankly, I don't give a damn about the concept, and I don't suppose Bowie gave much more himself. Leave the concept and, especially, its stage interpretation to the impressive Anglo-Saxon public. What I do notice here is the songs. Like I said, this is an exhausting journey, but one which you'll never regret one single bit.

Most of the songs have relatively simple melodies - but that only makes up for their memorability, and the relative sparseness of the arrangements, with the main accent placed on Ronson's guitar and piano playing, does not allow your mind and imagination to stray too far from the main point of the song. The songs more or less fall in two categories - mellow, soulful balladeering (piano-dominated) and rip-roaring proto-metallic and/or punkish rockers (guitar-dominated), with maybe a couple exceptions, the most notable of these being Bowie's inspired rendition of one Roy Davies' country-gospel ditty 'It Ain't Easy', quite a worthy song in its own rights. I still shudder when the quiet acoustic verse is replaced by the thumping, boomy chorus.

The ballads seem to deal with all kinds of things imaginable (screw Ziggy). The opening 'Five Years' is an ecstatic song with lyrics that I personally find hard to interpret: it seems that the main subject has something to do with Ziggy's acclimatisation on this planet, but it also seems to have a serious nostalgic feel to it. But what the heck when the song is so beautiful, with tension mounting throughout to the iron-hot climax? 'Soul Love' is good as well, a tongue-in-cheek ode to love and lovers set to a pretty, shuffly rhythm, but the next two songs are even better. The 'power ballad' 'Moonage Daydream', the one that opens with the first greeting metallic riff on this record, is as intense as ever - some of David's most incredible vocal work on here, given his usual so-so singing - but what really makes this song is Mick Ronson's jaw-dropping guitar solo at the end. I mean, it has to be courtesy of production, right, not just Mick? Have you listened to it carefully? Starts off nice and cool, but nothing special, then suddenly takes off to 'unprecedented heights'? Wow! I want that solo for my own rock'n'roll album! Yeah, I know I'll never make one, but I want it still! And then, the record's definite highlight, currently my favourite - even if it's a wee bit too poppy, even hippiesque for Bowie mark '72. 'Starman' features a gorgeous, unstoppable chorus that nobody could even think about pulling off in the Sixties. Except for the Monkees, of course. Ha! Ha! Ha! Do you realize that I'm serious? Ha! Ha! The Monkees could have done a song like that - the Beatles couldn't! And that's my favourite song off the album! Which decidedly proves that the Monkees were a far more interesting band than that Liverpool fluff... Anyway, 'let the children boogie'. Yeah, sometimes the song reminds me of Paul McCartney's version of 'Mary Had A Little Lamb', released somewhere around that time (so it could have been a rip-off), but that doesn't stop it from being hilarious, gorgeous and utterly charming.

Yet another gorgeous ballad is the entirely piano-based 'Lady Stardust' - yes, the one where Bowie sounds like Elton John. Personally, I think in the hands of the real Elton John this piano anthem could have sounded better, but I don't have documental proof. This is, however, where the balladeering stuff mostly ends and the rockers start. 'Star' is the weakest of the bunch, but still, the guitarwork is so mighty, the piano chords roll along so seducingly, and the lyrics are so cock-glammy (figure out what that means for yourself) that it's fun. But how can anybody lay off 'Hang Onto Yourself', the fastest number on the record, and the one that really gets you going in all directions? Bowie sounds like a rebellious young kid, and the bass throbs along like mad - the song can give some real competition to contemporary Stones. And then, of course, there's the title track, the one with the famous lines about Ziggy who 'took it all too far/But boy could he play guitar'. It sounds a bit cumbersome and slow at first, not at all surprising, since it's the album's conceptual culmination, and we all know that the more 'conceptual' or 'plot related' the song is, the more it usually loses in the melody sense. Nevertheless, it has a good, strong riff with some interesting guitar overdubs, and the lyrics are really interesting - yeah, you know, all that 'your average pop star story' stuff. But if you think that's slow and cumbersome for you, just wait until you get to 'Suffragette City', the Sturm und Drang of the album (pardon me, I can't describe it in any other way). Don't mind the lyrics on here (there's no sense anyway) - just let yourself get carried away by the furious guitarwork and mad, wild singing. 'Wham Bam Thank You Ma'am' and off we go...

After the storm, the calm - and we close with the pleading, 'soulful' (with Bowie, that word should always be used in quotes) 'Rock'n'Roll Suicide', not one of the highlights, but a decent enough album closer. And, surprise surprise, the company rewards us with three more rockers - a good thing, 'cause the number of rockers was sure inferior to the number of ballads! Amazingly, they're all great: 'John I'm Only Dancing' is Bowie's half-hearted, sloppy take on simple dance music, and it works; 'Velvet Goldmine' is more aggressive, with a Lennon-ish scent to it, until it suddenly changes into a rhythmic piano ballad halfway through; and the previously unissued 'Sweet Head' is a 'conceptual' outtake, one of Bowie's more obvious Stones-influenced tracks, that rocks as hard as anything, and smells more raunchy than anything. What a guitar! Plus, you have to your disposal the demo versions of 'Ziggy Stardust' and 'Lady Stardust' which demonstrate just how much Bowie's voice can suck when taken all by itself without post-production polishments. On the other hand, it's interesting to see these songs grow, and it's also pleasant to see that they manage to be almost as impressive even in demo versions.

A classic. A true, undeniable classic. Derivative, yeah, and there's little groundbreaking here (like I said, Bowie's not too groundbreaking anyway), but what a perfect choice for your 'ultimate' glam rock album! Flashy, pulsating with youthful energy, menacing, intelligent and sooo catchy. And have you ever noticed how much Bowie looks like Mick Jagger, especially on the back cover? I tell you, you can easily mistake him if you're standing more than three steps away! Of course, he was probably doing that intentionally. Anyway, I like that photo much more than the ugly painted mug on Aladdin Sane... by the way, I was never a fan of make-up. In fact, I hate make-up! I could never become a rock'n'roll star because I wouldn't let 'em put make-up on my face! That's how it goes!



Year Of Release: 1973
Record rating = 8
Overall rating = 11

Quite a good collection of decadent tunes - but one fails to see the purpose of this album, even if there is one.


Track listing: 1) Watch That Man; 2) Aladdin Sane; 3) Drive In Saturday; 4) Panic In Detroit; 5) Cracked Actor; 6) Time; 7) The Prettiest Star; 8) Let's Spend The Night Together; 9) The Jean Genie; 10) Lady Grinning Soul.

Bowie was riding his monstrous glam wave at the time of this album, already a superstar after Ziggy skyrocketed his career, and the main point on Aladdin Sane seems to be - not to miss the mark. Another point is not to repeat himself, of course: why, it's David Bowie we're speaking of! So he tosses off this, rather bizarre, collection, a collection that does leave a strange mark on one's soul. It's glam rock, for sure, but there's much more to this brand of glam rock than your average glitter-pop idol affairs of Marc Bolan and the like. The problem is, I'm not quite certain as to what more is there on this album.

At first sight, this is Bowie's attempt to make a more or less straightforward rock'n'roll album. In order to do so, he lets loose his guitarist Mick Ronson, who's only too happy to deliver a bunch of crunchy riffs and soaring solos; writes several ballsy songs like 'Cracked Actor'; covers 'Let's Spend The Night Together'; drops different Mick Jagger allusions throughout; and dilutes this stuff with your generic piano pop like the title track or a silly doo-wop throwback like 'Drive-In Saturday'. Pretty understandable, eh? Well... not quite.

See, in a certain way this album might symbolize the general genre confusion and 'decadence' ruling in pop culture in the Seventies. If there is an overall theme in this album, it's the subject of luxury, excess, lust, greed, confusion, panic and general chaos in the world: yeah, subjects similar to the ones in his famous conceptual albums, but this time definitely not set to any straightforward concept. Whether you think this makes Aladdin Sane Bowie's most 'intellectually challenging' album or just Bowie's most erratic, disordered, senseless album, is purely up to you; time will show whether this is really a classic of the decadent genre or not.

My problem here is that just about half of the songs are challenging musically. While thematically, lyrically and atmosphere-wise they all really get to be tied in together (although I still fail to understand what is that cover of 'Let's Spend The Night Together' doing there), they're quite diverse as regarding the melodies, and this is a certain case where diversity need not lead to originality or memorability. There is a small handful of Bowie classics on this album, but, in my humble opinion, not a swarm of them. The title track is what catches my attention most of all: most people know it because of the silly pun 'Aladdin Sane' = 'a lad insane', but it's near-gorgeous in the musical sense as well. There's that wonderful falsetto chorus, and then there's the incredible mid-section: Mick Garson's dissonant piano solo set to a steady bass/drum beat. Together with the short solo passage on 'Time', this is probably the moodiest moment on the whole album, and a great idea for a soundtrack to some Italian post-modernist filmmaker. And, of course, there's the wonderful 'Jean Genie', the most thrashing and the most attractive of the whole rockin' bunch here. With its steady beat and those Bill-Haley-and-the-Comets-style backing vocals, it really invites you to sing along - and even makes you forget that melodies like these could be met on every corner of the street starting from the early Fifties. But I don't mind, really, and who can resist this silly temptation?

The problem is, most of the other tunes are just... okay. They're all pleasant, their lyrics fit the overall style, their melodies do exist (although about a half of them are ripped off, but that's another story), but they're not very memorable, and they don't penetrate your soul like some of the best Bowie stuff can. The ballads are your generic 'decadent' stuff, like the mellow, soulful, and 'rotten-at-the-core' (in that metaphoric sense, not in the denigrating one) ditty 'Lady Grinning Soul' that seems to deal with a courtesan, or the ridiculous retroish, jazzy 'Time' that deals with the same subjects as the Pink Floyd number but does it in an entirely different matter: where Pink cropped up an exuberant, universalist rocker, where the problem of time was examined through the viewpoint of a frustrated young man in desperate search of the meaning of life, David comes up with the image of a fat, lazy, horny old dude who's tackling the problem from a thoroughly melancholic and 'fuck-it all' point of view (at least that's how it seems to me). The problem is, the atmosphere isn't thoroughly matched by the music - apart from the really cool bit where Mick Ronson hits you with a short wailing guitar solo, it's just your standard jazz pattern. And what about 'Drive-In Saturday?' It's a generic doo-wop tune! Yeah, it also fits the mood, but what about the individual melody? Forget it!

Same goes for the rockers. 'Watch That Man', 'Panic In Detroit', and 'Cracked Actor' all have their moments, but these are mostly short moments, and I'm not too sure what to make of these lifeless chunks of proto-metal. And in 'Cracked Actor', Bowie even plays the part of a disillusioned pop star frustrated by the cheapness, shallowness and commerciality of his image - a pathetic situation, since everybody knows that for quite a bit of time David was busy carving such an image for himself of his own free will. Again - even this 'hypocrisy' may be interesting, but the music? Forget it. There's not a single original riff on this record, anyway. I must confess, though, that for some unclear reason, I really enjoy the cover of 'Let's Spend The Night Together'. Like I said, I really don't know the song's function on this record, but it just sounds so damn good in its sci-fi arrangements with weird bleeping noises coming out now and then. And it is indeed a re-arrangement, not a note-by-note cover: Bowie makes the song rock out more than the Stones did (not that it's necessarily a compliment), and his singing is awful fun. One of his best covers. Probably.

Anyway, from my review you might get the impression that I don't like this album. That's wrong. I like it as good as anybody (though I don't think it's one of his best), but this is really an album which only works at album level. Take any of these songs individually and you'll say, 'what the hell is this stinkin' crap? Give me some real Rolling Stones now!' When taken together, though, they really blend in a single unity, and make this one of Bowie's most convincing and interesting concepts. But place these songs in compilations? Man, who needs a David Bowie compilation? He's a conceptual artist!!!!



Year Of Release: 1973
Record rating = 6
Overall rating = 9

Bowie singing early Sixties' covers. Some fine songs there, and some fine guitarwork, but ain't this some kind of parody?


Track listing: 1) Rosalyn; 2) Here Comes The Night; 3) I Wish You Would; 4) See Emily Play; 5) Everything's Alright; 6) I Can't Explain; 7) Friday On My Mind; 8) Sorrow; 9) Don't Bring Me Down; 10) Shapes Of Things; 11) Anyway Anyhow Anywhere; 12) Where Have All The Good Times Gone?; [BONUS TRACKS:] 13) Growin' Up; 14) Port Of Amsterdam.

Bowie's famous 'misstep' album, so oh so oh so maligned by critics and despised by fans. I don't really know why, though. Oh all right, I know why, but I disagree nevertheless. Anyway, let's get the record straight: right in the midst of the whole Aladdin Sane hoopla, Bowie suddenly turned around and released a complete album of 'old time classics' - songs popular in the early/mid-Sixties Mod clubs and bars where Bowie naturally hung out the whole day long. In a certain sense, it was a touching, even self-humiliating move, and it certainly set the pattern for the future 'tribute' releases of the kind. I don't know whether it was a pioneering move on the part of Mr Jones, or not, but it certainly helped a lot to reinstate the faith in the good ol' trusty British Invasion bands and also introduce their little-known chef-d'auevres to the American and world audiences. And Bowie makes a clever selection, too! Some of the songs you're bound to know any way - the Who, for instance, get covered twice ('I Can't Explain' and 'Anyway Anyhow Anywhere'), the Kinks once ('Where Have All The Good Times Gone'), and the Yardbirds also twice ('I Wish You Would' and 'Shapes Of Things'). For some strange reason, there's a cover of Pink Floyd's 'See Emily Play' - personally, I consider it the best on here, but admit it does not fit in well with the others, a tripped psycho masterpiece among bluesy and R'n'B rave-ups.

With shame I must admit, however, that I haven't heard any of the other originals - so far for my Sixties' knowledge. Well, what can I do if there's no way to lay my hands on any records by the Pretty Things or Them? No way. And some of the bands I have never even heard about, like the Australian Mods the Easybeats ('Friday On My Mind'), or the Mojos and the Merseys that were probably both just a one-hit wonder. Kudos to David for preserving their work for eternity! I know that Pin Ups might not have a lengthy 'popular' life, but it'll probably be carried on along with Bowie's legend...

So what's the big deal, anyway? The big deal is that people often complain about David butchering these songs with some horrible, strained, often off-key singing. He clearly could have done better - yet he wouldn't. But I say, that's just one part of the story. When I listen to these covers, I get the impression that the record represents a musical duel between Bowie and guitarist Mick Ronson. For my money, Bowie has indeed never yet sung worse on a record; and yet, Mick Ronson had never yet played better on any record. He takes up these old, glorious riffs, adds some distortion, never misses one note and gets perhaps the ideal guitar tone for doing 'updated' versions of these things. Listen to how he cranks up the chords on 'I Wish You Would', the glorious roar on 'I Can't Explain', and, most of all, the low, ominous rumbling on 'Where Have All The Good Times Gone' and tell me if these performances are bad! In fact, I'm pretty sure that the Kinks themselves re-arranged their stage version of this song after hearing Pin Ups - the live version of it on their 1980 concert album sounds much closer to the Pin Ups one than to the original. Mick does a fabulous job, and makes every effort he can to save the compositions.

And, like I said, David does everything to butcher 'em. 'Friday On My Mind' features horrible, squeaky vocals, as does Them's 'Here Comes The Night', and whenever visions of Ray Davies, Roger Daltrey or Keith Relf fill my mind during Bowie's singing of their tunes, I get a nasty shudder. Even worse, at times he introduces various stupid gimmicks like the 'electronic fade-in' of backing vocals on 'Shapes Of Things' which makes the song still more unlistenable. Nevertheless, it is not the kind of thing that you can't get used to: after several listens, your ears slowly grow accustomed to this vocal cacophony. Problem is, there is not much reasons you should ever take these few listens - if you're not a fan of Mick Ronson, of course. To sum it up in a few words, on first listen this sounds atrocious, and the obvious throwaway character of the recordings does not require a second one. But if you take a second one, it sounds okay.

I must even admit that I was pleased by David's version of 'See Emily Play'. He made it somewhat more accessible to me - while I always have a hard time trying to follow Syd Barrett's twisted music, Bowie somehow makes it all simple and pretty. And there's a charming string quartet in amidst the whole feedback and noise! Come to think of it, it's understandable that I like it the most: Syd Barrett is the only composer on this record who was even more nuts than Bowie...

As usual, the bonus tracks match the original ones: there's a cover of Bruce Springsteen's 'Growin' Up', said to be a previously unreleased outtake from the Pin Ups session (a mystery to me! How Bowie could have spotted the Boss in a mid-Sixties Mod club is way beyond me...), and some old cover called 'Port Of Amsterdam' that just features a wailing Bowie and a wailing acoustic guitar. The first one of these is boring, the second is nice, but completely throwaway like most of this stuff. Mediocre, very mediocre. But certainly not horrendous, as everybody says. If you're sick of the originals (yeah, like you could have worn out your favourite Mojos record ten times...), and not afraid of parodies, get it for a good laugh and a good riff.



Year Of Release: 1974
Record rating = 8
Overall rating = 11

David goes kinda serious and real artsy. Sci-fi tinged rock that is still a major point of controversy.


Track listing: 1) Future Legend; 2) Diamond Dogs; 3) Sweet Thing; 4) Candidate; 5) Sweet Thing (Reprise); 6) Rebel Rebel; 7) Rock 'N Roll With Me; 8) We Are The Dead; 9) 1984; 10) Big Brother; 11) Chant Of The Skeletal Family; [BONUS TRACKS:] 12) Dodo; 13) Candidate.

Now this is the album that really divides Bowie fans in two irreconcilable groups. Some regard this as a total masterpiece, David's most serious and intelligently entertaining creation ever, while others complain about the songs being underdeveloped, unmemorable and a yawnfest in general. In that sense, this is Bowie's Happy Trails, White Light/White Heat, Minstrel In The Gallery, Satanic Majesties' Request... you get my drift.

As in most such cases, I prefer to sit on the fence and be careful so as not to get impaled by the lances of the warring parties below. My own reaction to the album is that I kinda like it - but, of course, with my own specific reservations. First of all, whatever you might want to say, the record is really interesting. It was to be initially based on some kind of a reworked musical version of George Orwell's '1984', but the thing wasn't going ahead as well as planned, so Bowie scrapped the project, left just a couple of songs ('1984', 'Big Brother') and threw in some obscure fantasy sequences of his own, namely, the weird sci-fi project that unites the album cover with the title track and some others. As a bonus, come several other pretty normal songs, some of which, like 'Rebel Rebel', were even big hits. This was also the first album without the 'Spiders From Mars', although the Ziggy personage was still retained. Mostly, Bowie played the instruments himself, with just a couple dudes around him. The difference shows: there is no Mick Ronson for miles around to deliver his patented crunch, and the album is less guitar-based than any of its predecessors. Which does not mean, however (as some imply), that there are no guitars at all: 'Rebel Rebel', for instance, is quite a solid riffy tune, and Bowie's lead work throughout is excellent, especially on the magnificent guitar solo for 'Sweet Thing'.

The biggest problem, perhaps, lies with 'labeling' the album. While it still has traces of glam sprayed in certain spots ('Rebel Rebel' is typical glam, for instance, as is the title track), it's also much more moody and artsy. Bowie is moving further into the direction of 'moody and atmospheric' that he'd taken on Aladdin Sane, but this time it's pictures of the future and pictures of the weird rather than pictures of decadence and pictures of chaos in the society. Which is to say Diamond Dogs could on a certain level be treated as a 'progressive' album, if only it weren't too pop- and hit-oriented, after all. So from a purely cultural view, Dogs is certainly David's high point, his most original and deep creation since... since... since 'Louie Louie', I guess (!!)

Now comes the question: okay, it might be all that, but is it really enjoyable? I dunno. For me, it's about just as enjoyable as Aladdin Sane. My personal intuition does not feel the presence of a great number of solid melodies here, but neither did it feel their presence on Aladdin, and after all, I'd already gotten used to that. On the other hand, quite a few numbers here are either exciting or just curious. The most memorable is perhaps the title track - even if it's the most primitive in the musical sense, just a simple rhythm guitar motive repeated over and over. But it's powerful, it's catchy and it's certainly amusing: Bowie's goodbye to glam rock is as seducing as his embracing of it on Ziggy. 'Rebel Rebel', the one song that does not really fit in with the general atmosphere of the album, is still great fun with its riff and Fifties-styled lyrics. '1984', with its swooping string arrangements, a proto-disco structure, and Bowie's mantraic chanting of the magic four figures, stands out proud and loud - 'beware the savage jaws of 1984'! And the anthemic 'Big Brother' goes on to show that if David ever were to complete the Orwell soundtrack, it might have achieved far better success.

Most of the other songs, though, are indeed little more than atmosphere. But the atmosphere is still kinda captivating, whether it be the depressant one on the endless suite 'Sweet Thing/Candidate/Sweet Thing', or the soulful 'Rock'n'Roll With Me' that, believe it or not, has nothing to do with rock'n'roll, or the gloomy, pessimistic 'We Are The Dead'. None of these songs are memorable at all, though, so if you're unwilling to get into Bowie's atmosphere, just forget it. As with Aladdin Sane, the overall judgement would be that the songs work better on the album level: taken out of context, they sure would do nothing, but when Bowie patches this stuff together, it really gives an impression of his famous 'perverted' view of the world. This time, though, it's a view of another world - a world in 1984, populated by Diamond Dogs. Does the concept look appealing to you? No, wait, don't answer that. It's just another little mystifying game, you see. The entire album is just a little mystification - like that tape loop that ends the album with 'Bro - Bro - Bro - Bro' repeated over and over again. David himself said that it was a defect of the tape that was chewn up, but they liked it so much they decided to leave it on. So cleaning your CD with nail polish removers won't really help.

In fact, don't even start doing that - that stuff is wrong for CDs! You might accidentally 'erase' some cool stuff, like the bonus tracks, both of which are good. 'Dodo' is a hook-heavy tune with a catchy, weird refrain that sounds not un-Beatlish, and the lengthy version of 'Candidate' (which actually has nothing to do with the album version) is quite superior. Good quality stuff. And please note the clever use of brass on 'Dodo', too.



Year Of Release: 1974
Record rating = 4
Overall rating = 7

Mostly atrocious soul reworkings of former classics, with a couple surprises not worth the expectations.

Best song: eh... pretty much everything is sour. Maybe TIME

Track listing: 1) 1984; 2) Rebel Rebel; 3) Moonage Daydream; 4) Sweet Thing; 5) Changes; 6) Suffragette City; 7) Aladdin Sane; 8) All The Young Dudes; 9) Cracked Actor; 10) Rock'n'Roll With Me; 11) Watch That Man; 12) Knock On Wood; 13) Diamond Dogs; 14) Big Brothers; 15) Width Of A Circle; 16) Jean Genie; 17) Rock'n'Roll Suicide; 18) Band Intro; 19) Here Today Gone Tomorrow; 20) Time.

God what a friggin' dumb experience. You know, I'm not the kind of person to usually put down a live album unless its song selection really sucks. At best, live albums recapture the original songs in a new and grittier environment; at worst, they usually just sound exactly like their studio counterparts. And to me, the main thing is that the studio original be good - which at least guarantees the live album's listenability, even if it does not guarantee the worthwhile of the purchase.

But David Live is an absolute disaster despite the material, and I fully agree with almost every existent negative review of the album. The big problem is that David really missed the moment. Why the hell he didn't go ahead and release a live album from the Spiders from Mars era? With Mick Ronson on guitar and David himself posing as glam king number one, God only knows what kind of a stunning experience it could be. Instead, David waited for two more years and decided to capture the live market only by the time of the Diamond Dogs tour. This was the time of his gradual reinvention as master of plastic soul - the transformation would be complete on Young Americans a year later, and, like I already mentioned, the first seeds of this new image were already present on Dogs themselves. But here Bowie sets a 'precedent', taking his vintage material from 1971 onwards and shaping most of it after that pattern. Will it work?

Unfortunately, no. And this is quite understandable: the tour was originally planned as a grand theatrical event, keeping in touch with Bowie's usual glam schtick. However, at the last moment Bowie scrapped the project and replaced it (together with some band members) in favour of his reinterpretation of the material as "plastic soul workouts". One can only wonder how the originally planned tour could have worked - with Bowie's rich catalog and years of rich experience, it could have resulted in an ultimate live record. The Lord planned otherwise, though. Result? All of the songs look just like Bowie on the front cover of the album - sleazy, full of cheap make-up, bleak, and rotten at the core. First of all, there's no real rock'n'roll to be found on here; nowhere. Oh sure, guitarist Earl Slick puts out a few distorted riffs now and then, but this is definitely not enough. 'Suffragette City', for instance, is one of the hugest disappointments: slowed down, softened up, and the 'wham bam thank you ma'am' part sounds fully conventional - you'd only sing it that way if you wanted to show the entire audience how much disgust you actually feel while doing "rock" material. And did I say 'distorted riffs', by the way? 'Distorted noise', rather, as the band does a great job by eliminating virtually every guitar riff from the Ronson classics and substituting them with the same pathetic brass/keyboards outbursts. What's happened to 'Width Of A Circle'? What's happened to 'Watch That Man'? Why do I have David Sanborn's sax as the most prominent instrument on 'Cracked Actor'? Where's the formerly present energy and sly glammy feel of 'Diamond Dogs'? The questions just keep coming....

The more these reinventions are radical, the more they suck. 'Moonage Daydream' is godawful - rearranged as a crowd pleasing number coming from the witty mouth of a prime lounge lizard with a complete lack of vocal cords. 'Aladdin Sane' loses one hundred percent of its former moodiness and becomes just a space-taking mess. And 'Changes' out-Sinatras Frank himself, with the notable exception of David's voice being far less 'authentic' than Frank's. Oh, and don't even start mentioning 'All The Young Dudes'. Clumsy, erratic, sloppy cabaret crap; how in the world could David mess up such a potentially good tune (its potential was fully realised by Mott the Hoople, of course) is beyond me. And I didn't yet begin slamming the hideous version of 'Rock'n'Roll Suicide'....

So, if there are any good words to say about this, it's primarily the Diamond Dogs material that salvages the album; after all, the band didn't have much time to reinvent these songs, and they didn't have much wish, either, considering that most of them were already conceived in the same style. The difference is, writing something 'glamsoulful' is one thing, and rearranging a former 'glam' song as a 'glamsoulful' one is another. So numbers like '1984', 'Rebel Rebel', 'Sweet Thing', 'Big Brother', mostly qualify. And, possibly the best performance on here is 'Time' (which, by the way, wasn't present on the original double LP and only tacked onto the end of the album as a bonus track on the CD release): again, Bowie on 'Time' fully fit the image of Bowie on Live, and the effect is acceptable enough.

To reiterate, I have nothing against rearrangements in general. But it's one thing, for instance, to take classic songs with solid melodies, reinvent them in a million styles and make sure to preserve the original backbone of the melody in the process (as is the case with Dylan's Live At Budokan, for instance, which is completely unjustly slammed by the critics as well), and it's another thing to take semi-classic songs with relatively mediocre melodies, reinvent every one of them in a single style and strip them of any traces of musical substance. This is exactly what Bowie does on here: apparently, he understood 'soul' as pure atmosphere and out of tune "emotional" wailing. (According to me, he was not THAT far from the truth, of course, but that's no justification). Awful stuff.



Year Of Release: 1975
Record rating = 6
Overall rating = 9

David's infamous 'Philly soul' album. Absolutely inessential, but... still a good laugh after all those years.

Best song: FAME

Track listing: 1) Young Americans; 2) Win; 3) Fascination; 4) Right; 5) Somebody Up There Likes Me; 6) Across The Universe; 7) Can You Hear Me; 8) Fame; [BONUS TRACKS:] 9) Who Can I Be Now?; 10) It's Gonna Be Me; 11) John I'm Only Dancing Again.

Err... while I first decided to be kind to the record, as nearly every reviewer in existence, starting from the corporate ones and ending with the independent ones, bashes the chitlins out of it, there's really too little ground to apply one's kindness. In a certain way, this is not necessarily a radical departure from everything Bowie had been doing earlier: he always had a passion for 'authentic' soul, and traces of the genre can be found on every single album of his starting from Ziggy, maybe even from Hunky Dory; and Diamond Dogs verged on the brink of being 'soul' - I mean, 'Rock'n'Roll With Me'? 'Sweet Thing'? Huh? And, of course, David Live already prepared us for the 'big metamorphose'. The biggest departure, of course, was that on Young Americans David completely dumped the 'glam' stuff: no more androgynous Ziggy looking at us from the front cover. But if one thinks hard, one will be able to notice that 'glam' and 'soul' don't really stray too far from each other - just look at James Brown and tell me he wasn't a 'glam star'. It's all the usual stuff: pompous, overblown, master-of-the-universe-speaking type of music, only this time the rock'n'roll beats and metallic guitars are replaced by funky rhythms and 'heavenly' pianos and saxes and wah-wahs. Completely.

Now let it be known that I don't really think much of 'soul' as a genre. It's a pretty limited and cliched one, and it never places the emphasis on melodies, instead concentrating on image and vocal power and, well, 'sincerity' (gee; should we say 'emulation of sincerity'?) and 'passion'. I don't give a damn about Motown, and I don't plan on buying any Aretha Franklin records in the near future. And what about Bowie? Sure enough, he demonstrates a total lack of care for melodies, but he doesn't satisfy the 'positive' criteria either: his vocals can't live up to the black singers' potential, his 'passion' is entirely trumped up, and 'sincerity'? Please refer to the introductory passage to see what I'm thinking of Bowie's 'sincerity'. Surprisingly, though, it's his ineffectiveness and faked Philly accent that save the album from utter ruin (for me, at least). Were it 'serious' soul, I'd just skip it as an unnoticeable and mediocre record; as it is, it's still highly mediocre, but certainly noticeable.

Now look here, I totally agree that the whole record contains not more than two 'classics' - the songs that bookmark the album. The title track is the most upbeat, vibrating and energetic on the album, and it's the only song that has some serious 'breathing' power: everything else is totally lifeless and artificial. Seems that the lyrical subject of 'two lovers' has always fascinated David (he'd return to it, in a somewhat altered manner, in two years on 'Heroes'), and he gives the song his all, straining the vocals as far as possible. Plus, the arrangement is stunning - Mike Garson's piano and Dave Sanborn's sax play a heartlifting, inspiring duel on the intro, and the 'generic', but groovy backing vocals chanting 'young American young American he (she) wants a young American' will stick in your mind for aeons whether you'd like it or not. The sax parts are extremely nice and soothing - and sound not unlike that magnificent brassy stuff that John Lennon was releasing at about the same time. Maybe that's why the backing vocals chant 'I heard the news today oh boy' at one point... but wait, John himself is present on the album, collaborating with Bowie on the record's best track - the #1 hit single 'Fame', a song which is a serious candidate for 'best Bowie arrangement ever'. Its midtempo, mannered funky rhythm is able to drive you crazy, much like the similar pulsation of Peter Gabriel's 'Steam', although the latter came seventeen years later, and the vocals roll over you as waves chasing each other as Bowie sings about the downsides of, well, fame. Call me crazy - but I just love these delicious guitar licks, the ocasional brass thunderstorms, and the slow, unnerving 'grind' of the song. Not to mention that hilarious chanting of the word 'fame' at the end when it goes from 'highest' to 'lowest'. Terrific, memorable and a deserved success.

But this is where the paeans end. Out of the other numbers, only the cover of Lennon's 'Across The Universe' comes across as memorable - and certainly not due to David's successful butchering of it but to the fact that no matter how far you go in spoiling a Beatles song, it's still a Beatles song. The obvious question is - why did John allow him do that, as he's present on the recording himself, playing guitar and singing backing vocals? The number was a quiet, introspective and moody song; here, it's rough, bombastic and utterly ridiculous. Perhaps 'ridiculous' rather than 'bad', but... oh well. As far as I know, Lennon hated the way 'Across The Universe' was recorded on Let It Be; maybe it was his 'second try'. ????

And? What about the rest? The rest is mediocre, grotesque attempts at doing something truly 'soulful', but all these songs with short titles like 'Win' and 'Right' and long running times like four or five or six minutes are almost totally devoid of melody and never ascend to generating some real emotions. Well, perhaps 'Fascination' is okay, as it's at least eminently danceable and, in all, sounds like a poorboy version of 'Fame'. And 'Can You Hear Me' is a rather nice ballad - much too lethargic and hookless for my tastes, but I know people that like it and I'm able to understand them. After all, 'lethargic' and 'hookless' are rather standard complaints in Bowie's case, aren't they? The TV preacher ode 'Somebody Up There Likes Me' is dreadful, though, as it drags on for six and a half minutes without achieving anything, the only redeeming factor being Sanborn's masterful sax playing again. It doesn't even make suitable background music.

According to the standard match-for-match principle, the bonus tracks here pretty much suck as well. 'Who Can I Be Now?' is pretty, a 'confessional-style' ballad (Bowie at the crossroads, anyone?), but the other two are just too dreadful to ramble about. Suffice it to say that a) both go over six minutes and b) the second one is a dance rewrite of 'John I'm Only Dancing', totally despicable as it is. My advice to you: program this album so that it should always close with 'Fame'. That way, your last memory will be a good one, and you won't be willing to extinguish that tempting cigarette that David is holding in his hand on the front cover against his painted lips. Better still, just get a compilation that has the title track and 'Fame' on it and I guarantee it that you won't be missing any crucial points.



Year Of Release: 1976
Record rating = 9
Overall rating = 12

At the crossroads. Damn fine crossroads, though - halfway between Philly soul and Eno electronica...

Best song: TVC15

Track listing: 1) Station To Station; 2) Golden Years; 3) Word On A Wing; 4) TVC 15; 5) Stay; 6) Wild Is The Wind; [BONUS TRACKS:] 7) Word On A Wing (live); 8) Stay (live).

Ever heard about 'transitional' albums? Well, here you have a perfect illustration. This record shows Bowie standing with one foot in the past and the other in the future. More exactly, about half of this record sounds like it was destined to be a sequel to Young Americans, with generic soul vocals and everything, and the other half sounds as if it belonged to the Berlin trilogy. Actually, if I'm not mistaken, David had already moved to Berlin at the time, and was probably busy studying the works (or, should we say, 'Werks'?) of Kraftwerk, which explains all the synthesized stuff on here. So, actually, my point was to say: 'Hey! What an appropriate album title!' Because this is, indeed, David caught in the process of traveling from one station to another...

People usually know this as 'the one with the Thin White Duke on it', as it was another change of face for David: the period where he completely dropped all his Ziggishness, began flirting with Nazism and assimilating various German influences (yeah, like Kraftwerk!). In case you're wondering, The Thin White Duke is that dude who's pictured on the back album cover... oh, wait, that's David. Well, I really can't say any more about it than can be obvious from the lyrics to the title track that tell about his return. More interesting is the very construction of the title track itself - a lengthy 'progressive' epic that goes on for ten minutes but rarely becomes boring, as it's multi-part and practically always catchy and engaging. First, you have trains running in all directions, then you get that nagging, clumsy rhythm that's almost 'ugly' in its addictiveness, and finally, we shift onto a proto-disco dancey track, you know, the kind of 'perverted dance music' that Bowie mastered so perfectly in the late Seventies. So a bit of intellectual listening first, and a bit of dirty dancing next. Vote For It!

There are but six tracks on the whole record, but none are bad - and I fully agree with those who rate the album among David's best. These songs are catchy and addictive as hell. David uses complicated, funky rhythms that will have your feet tapping in no time without any possible feelings of remorse, and the backing band, led by the guitar hero Carlos Alomar, rips it up mightily almost everywhere. 'Golden Years', 'TVC15' and 'Stay' are all personal favourites of mine, in fact. The first one tempts me to play air guitar all the time - that gruff little riff that holds the melody together is so cute as it tears through my left speaker! And the funny handclaps! And the backing vocals - 'gooooolden years, goooolden years'... I'm not much of a funk fan, but this is funk with a tiny bit of David's perversity thrown in, and it's so dang funny...

And 'TVC15'? It's hardly possible to describe the song, with Bowie assuming a weird, dissonant tone, and chanting lyrics about how his girlfriend got eaten by his TV set (in the literal sense, no less). Hilarious, yes, but also completely subduing - every piano and guitar note are so sharp, so hard hitting, so completely in place, so thoroughly immaculate that it's impossible to resist the song. And in any case I don't see no reason why I should resist it. Is this weak half-assed funk? No, no and no. This is pointing the way to the future. This is the direct predecessor to... to... to everything. This is one of those rare cases when Bowie actually precedes things: this stuff reeks so much of paranoid New Wave rhythms that if you wanted to find a counterargument to the proposition of David always jumping on other people's bandwagons, well, it's right before you. Not too many of those counterarguments; this is one of the most obvious.

And, of course, there's 'Stay' - yet another 'dirtied down' dance number; here, though, it ain't David, but rather Alomar, who's the main hero. That riff may be one of the best dance-style riffs in existence, and the whole performance blazes and smokes. Do not miss the bonus live version of it, too, with an extended guitar solo that practically annihilates the audience and me as well. Together with 'Hot Stuff', this rates as my best bet for 'best disco performance by an old fart'.

Now the 'souly' stuff which I was mentioning early is represented here by two pathetic ballads, 'Word On A Wing' and 'Wild Is The Wind' (kinda similar-sounding, aren't they?). Both are side-closers, apparently on intention - to end your listening experience with something calm and relaxed. They are nowhere near as groundbreaking or, indeed, as attractive as the funkier, 'dancier' numbers, but they're good anyway. Not enough, though, to make me award a 10 to the record. I still can rarely endure 'Word On A Wing' to the very end (maybe it just seems too watered down to me), and 'Wild Is The Wind' (the only cover on the album) is a bit too sappy and overblown even for Bowie. I swear, in fact, that the beginning of each verse reminds me of Jesus' 'I Only Want To Say' air in JC Superstar! (I actually love that air, but that's another thing and another subject). In any case, it's obvious which station was the departure and which was the destination on the album. Welcome to Berlin, mr Bowie!

As usual, good bonus tracks for good album. You might think that the live versions of 'Word On A Wing' and 'Stay' are just superfluous - don't. They easily blow the originals away, with lots more passion, and much more effective and concentrated guitarwork from Alomar (as if he was idle in the studio!) Especially 'Stay', of course. That solo brings me to ecstasy. These bring the album's rating to a near-ten. A near-ten, though - hear that, a near-ten. Excellent as it is, the ballads still bring it down, whether they be personal or not personal. They lack hooks and are somewhat below David's usual songwriting capacities. But if you prefer to hear from a real Bowie junkie, please check out Jeff Blehar's comments below and maybe you'll come to trust him more than me. Why the hell should you trust me, anyway? I'm not a Bowie fan! Heck, I even hate his make-up on the photos on here.



Year Of Release: 1977
Record rating = 9
Overall rating = 12

Bowie goes experimental - this album saved him from dinosaurism problems, and deservedly so.


Track listing: 1) Speed Of Life; 2) Breaking Glass; 3) What In The World; 4) Sound And Vision; 5) Always Crashing In The Same Car; 6) Be My Wife; 7) A New Career In A New Town; 8) Warszawa; 9) Art Decade; 10) Weeping Wall; 11) Subterraneans; [BONUS TRACKS:] 12) Some Are; 13) All Saints; 14) Sound And Vision (remixed version).

A very weak nine it is, compared to the 'nearly-ten' of Heroes, but still a nine. Low represents perhaps the biggest turning point in Bowie's career he ever had - although after a few listens one can easily understand that it's in fact quite a logical result of transition from Station To Station. Teaming up with Brian Eno, Bowie plunges head first into the world of electronica - exploring those cold robotic sounds that Kraftwerk had pioneered several years before and that Eno himself was slowly making more and more accessible to the public. One might say that, for once, Bowie was trying to lead instead of follow here - true, none of the techniques he employs on Low are particularly innovative, and those that are belong to Eno rather than to David. This especially concerns the second side of the album, where the guys go out and paint a huge, impressive ambient landscape with hardly any sing-along melodies or even vocals, to begin with. But the first side of the record indeed defined an era to come: a bunch of synth-pop rockers/ballads, all using unstandard, bizarre chord changes, weird, crazy electronic bleeps and bloops, and magnificently combining Bowie's usual 'perverse' approach to music with German electronic 'technologies' and Eno's pop sensibility. New Wave has its beginnings here, and Bowie was one of the first dudes who really saw that the future of music lies somewhere in here.

His merit, then, is in 'popularizing' these cool, strange new sounds - Eno had been doing that for the past few years, too, but Eno just wasn't the man to popularize anything: his limited cult following and his seemingly 'inconsistent' (which is to say - 'overtly experimental') approach to his albums always kept electronic rock on the fringes. So David decided it was up to him to correct the situation, and one must be grateful for that. Yes, he went as far as to sacrifice his reputation - Low made him lose much of his American following, and decreased his sales tremendously until Let's Dance. But it's clear that he didn't really give a damn: having moved to Berlin, he was by now ready to orient himself on the European market rather than on the American one. And the European market gladly swallowed everything he offered it - swallowed and asked for more. More Bowie. More Eno. More Talking Heads... more songs about buildings and food, well, you get my drift.

The seven short songs present on the first side of this album range in quality - some are excellent, some quite filler-quality - but they're all united by just one mad scream: experimentality! The melodies, unfortunately, aren't terribly strong: as it turns out, in order to make a song irresistable, Bowie had to tighten up the rhythm and anchor them on a steady disco beat (see Heroes), which isn't the case on here. Also, this might seem strange, but I find the album heavily influenced by David's soul period: again, it wasn't until Heroes that he became able to strip off the legacy of Young Americans and convincingly transform himself into that dangerous, creepy, leather-clad mechanical monster that the whole perspective of German electronic rock so vividly evokes. I'm particularly referring to the vocals - basically, David's singing on this album kinda sucks, to say the least. Maybe he wasn't too sure of how to employ his vocal cords given the new circumstances; in any case, it's hardly a coincidence that two of these seven songs are instrumentals, and the lyrics for the other tunes are repetitive and limited.

Nevertheless, most of these songs are solid enough to disregard the problem of the vocals or the not-too-memorable melodies. 'Speed Of Life' opens the album on an ominous note; it is a strange pop rocker where Bowie launches a whole frontal assault with bunches of spacey, astral noises (Eno, strange enough, is not credited for the track). 'Breaking Glass', with searing lead lines played by Carlos Alomar, introduces us to the world of untrivial time signatures, and the mood of the song - dark, gloomy, depressing and threatening - is something Bowie fans hadn't yet had the chance to experience. And I can only imagine the fans' hair stand on end when they switch on to 'What In The World' and are greeted by the hilarious bubble-bubble-bubbling of Eno's synth pattern. The song itself, in another epoch, would have passed as ordinary filler on any selected David glam album, but the electronic treatment salvages it: instead of routine glam crap, the song is given a helping hand to pass for a herald of a new epoch. Isn't that generous?

The next two songs are minor masterpieces - 'Sound And Vision' is electronically-enhanced funk with a catchy, infectious riff, atmospheric synthwork and beautiful vocal harmonies (quite a rare thing on this record). For some reason, though, I particularly like the song for its funny percussion in the background - the one that sounds like broken eggs falling on a hot stove (pssscch! psssch! pssscch!). And for those who feel the lack of emotion on the album (whether it be sincere or faked), the company offers 'Always Crashing In The Same Car', a cleverly-crafted statement of loneliness and fatalism. Essentially, I agree with David: whatever he was doing all his life, he always ended up crashing in the same car. 'Be My Wife', then, is just funny (who was Bowie inviting to be his wife? Wasn't he married already?), while 'A New Career In A New Town' finishes the experience with a rousing instrumental - just the same way as it had begun.

Then, of course, there's side two. On side two, Bowie and Eno are really shooting for the prize, going for the big apple and taking the big gamble. Four lengthy ambient tracks; a normal, not outstanding thing for an Eno album (although, one must confess that Eno hadn't yet released even a single fully ambient album by the time), but an absolute scandal for Bowie - no wonder the American fans betrayed him. For us, though, this is perhaps the ultimate proof that Bowie was a true, honest artist, after all, not just a cheap fame-lover with an unjustly inherited artistic talent.

I must say that the actual experience isn't all that great: the sound collage on Heroes strikes me as far more imaginative and emotion-drenched. These tracks just do not manage to influence my mind as directly as 'Sense Of Doubt' or 'Moss Garden' get to do it, even if, ultimately, the ambient side of Low is somewhat more melodic and 'musical' than the ambient side of Heroes. I also have trouble while trying to associate the track titles with the compositions' actual content. 'Warszawa', for instance, is a stately, slow, composition, almost a requiem or a dirge, but why is it named after the capital of Poland? Moreover, what are the weird Eastern chantings by David supposed to mean? The most obvious hypothesis is that the song is a tribute to Jews in Warsaw's ghettoes, perished during World War II; but I suppose there might be other interpretations as well. What's 'Art Decade'? Why is 'Weeping Wall' on here - are we supposed to be moving to Jerusalem? Who are the 'Subterraneans'? So many questions, yet so few answers - and I wouldn't even expect Bowie or Eno themselves to answer these questions sincerely. Then again, maybe it's just not that important: the listener is invited to find his own interpretations. I find 'Subterraneans', for instance, to be quite fearsome, bringing up visions of dark shadows moving in damp underground corridors; unfortunately, the number is spoiled by more stupid vocal overdubs where David is pronouncing some ridiculous abracadabra.

To tell you the truth, I didn't give this an eight because I've already given David so many eights I felt compelled to give this one a nine. But I suppose that Low, while nowhere near as catchy, memorable or immediately awe-inspiring as Heroes, beats that second one in the 'bizarre' and 'experimental' dimensions: I still keep picking out all the small noises and delicate little thingies (like that pssch-pssch percussion I've mentioned above), and I don't think the process will stop in the nearest few weeks. This is a record so rich in sound textures, weird psychotic gimmicks and brilliant genre-synthesizing ideas, that it's not bound to wear thin on you unless you keep spinning it for days on end. And, of course, its historical importance is hard to overestimate; what it did was herald the last truly worthy musical revolution of the twentieth century, no less.

The CD reissue of the album is well worth picking up - apart from an annoying and unnecessary 1991 remake of 'Sound And Vision', it adds two more previously unreleased instrumentals completely in the vein of the second side. Particularly impressive is 'All Saints', a real thunderstorm of synths and synth-treated guitars that's far more aggressive and chaotic than everything else on here; it was probably deemed way too uncontrolled and off-putting to appear on the album, but nowadays it gives a good insight into the creative process that was going on at the time.



Year Of Release: 1977
Record rating = 9
Overall rating = 12

Certainly one of the best, most mindblowing examples of musical collaboration in rock history.

Best song: "HEROES"

Track listing: 1) Beauty And The Beast; 2) Joe The Lion; 3) "Heroes"; 4) Sons Of The Silent Age; 5) Blackout; 6) V-2 Schneider; 7) Sense Of Doubt; 8) Moss Garden; 9) Neukoln; 10) The Secret Life Of Arabia; [BONUS TRACKS:] 11) Abdulmajid; 12) Joe The Lion (remixed version).

This is the second in the so-called 'Berlin trilogy' (aka 'Eno trilogy') of Bowie's albums, and it's about a half step away from a fuckin' masterpiece. While most people would probably accept the album's greatness as a fact, yet say that David had much too often done better, I'll enthusiastically disagree. Just a couple obscure moments separate this from an even higher mark on my scale, and I'm going to tell you all about it right here and now.

Like the preceding Low, the album is divided in two parts: the first side is primarily Bowie and his freshened brand of guitar rock peppered with Eno-tronics, while the second side is primarily Eno working his brains out on yet another sixteen-minute instrumental suite (yeah, it's all credited to Bowie-Eno, but I have no doubt about who was really the mastermind behind the whole idea). Both sides have little to do with each other, at least from the 'ideological' side, yet... well, let us figure out in the process. There are five songs on the first side, and at least three of them are brilliant. The album opens with a magnificent pop-rocker ('Beauty And The Beast') where David parlays nonsense over an overwhelming disco, almost proto-techno beat; but don't let the fact annoy you, because the arrangement, with guitars courtesy of Robert Fripp and those weird Eno noises, will blow you away. In other words, 'you can't say no to the Beauty and the Beast'. Then there's more hilarious nonsense in the bizarre 'Joe The Lion', with its lyrics about a robot (well, at least he's made of iron) set to yet another specimen of that famous Bowie beat. This time, it's the enthralling interplay between the naggin' distorted rhythm, overblown lead lines from Fripp and Bowie's parodic, almost soulful, and Eno-processed, muffled vocals that'll be ripping the very life of you, and who cares if the lyrics don't make sense? Do you really pay attention to Bowie's lyrics?

Wait, though, don't answer that. The correct answer would be: sometimes. Because the lyrics in the title track should be payed attention to. 'Heroes' might be one of David's most well-known (probably overplayed, too) compositions, but it's deserved. Definitely one of the most gorgeous 'fast ballads' he's ever written, it also distinguishes itself as a tear-inducing, sincere ballad, a thing one wouldn't expect from David too often. Dedicated to a pair of lovers separated by the Berlin wall and finally shot by the guards in a vain attempt to reunite, its romanticism still remains unsurpassed, and that gorgeous synthesizer riff that drives the song forward just got to be grandiose! Rarely has Eno produced something more inspiring on an album that's not one of his own (right now, all I can think of is the pathetic synth line in Roxy Music's 'If There Is Something', but that one was just purely sentimental). So I even pardon the song its six-minute length and the repetitiveness of the 'I, I will be king/And you will be queen' line throughout.

The next two songs, though, are a bit of a letdown for me. 'Sons Of The Silent Age' might also make sense, but it's also much too preachy and pathetic, moving along at a slow pace like some monologue in a serious tragedy rather than a song, even though David does a good singing job and at least manages to stay on key. And 'Blackout' is even worse: apart from the magnificent introduction, with these intertwining weepeing synths and guitars, it sounds like a cross between an inferior re-write of 'Beauty And The Beast' with a crappy gangsta rapper tune, so it's utterly dismissable.

Now the second side, ladies and gentlemen, is where I'm gonna rave and rant. You know that I'm definitely not a rabid fan of sound collages and spaced-out jams. I dislike a good proportion of these in the King Crimson catalogue; I never cared much for Frippertronics, and I know what I like and what I dislike about Enotronics; and I don't give a damn about stuff like 'Revolution # 9'. And, while the sonic panoramas on Low were fairly impressive in their own way, they did manage to be pretty boring and rambling at times. But this, this... well, this is special, because this four-part suite really paints images in my mind, images that are quite unique and absolutely exact. The suite seems to be dedicated to the post-War Berlin, its fate and life, and it works amazingly. Now I really don't know what the original perspective looked like here, but this is how it all seems to my eyes 'n' ears. 'V-2 Schneider' opens the suite on a high note, with an almost jolly, steady beat complete with discoish guitars and airplane noises. What the hell is 'V-2 Schneider', anyway? Is it the name of an airplane? The mark of a bomb? Aw, who gives a damn; the part represents the past of Berlin, the days of its war glory. Then it fades away and in comes the most creepy, breathtaking part of the suite, 'Sense Of Doubt'. This represents the post-war state of things - the gloomy, empty streets, the desolate quarters and the general meaningless of life in the city. Think of it as such and you too will get a shiver from these terror-inducing piano lines, ominous organ passages, and sounds of the winter winds - blowing away heaps of rubbish in the lifeless streets. No better soundtrack could be desired for a sci-fi movie about the destroyed ruins of a city.

But lo! In comes 'Moss Garden', and hope once again sets in - in the form of another bunch of quiet organ and acoustic guitar sound that seem to drive away the bleak, cold atmosphere of the previous part. And the idea of opposing the singing of birds to the howling of the wind looks like a brilliant one to me. Not all is lost, the people slowly start regaining their hopes and spirits. Life is meaningful again... until the coming of night, with 'Neuköln' and its sinister saxophones. They aren't vicious by themselves, but they are somewhat, er, uncertain - you don't really understand whether the night brings evil with it or if it is just uncozy because it's dark. And the suite ends with a couple of disjointed saxophone phrases, like, you know, it has no end - you have to finish the story yourself...

So, in a nutshell, that's my opinion, and I agree that it all may look entirely different to you, or it just may not look to you anyhow. In which case you'll probably dismiss the entire second side as pretentious and boring, but you'll also get my total disrespect. Please believe me - like I said, I'm definitely not the person that craves upon avant-garde music. This, however, is one of its best and most convincing examples.

Seemingly, though, David took pity on the imaginationless listeners who didn't care 'bout no Berlin, so he graciously ends the album with the weird, druggy chant of 'Secret World Of Arabia' that's quite catchy, despite its utter silliness. What does he mean, I wonder? Still, it works perfectly as a novelty number, and it's at least seriously different from most of the other tunes on the record.

Lastly, I should mention that the new CD re-release, as most new Bowie CD re-releases, adds a couple of bonus tracks, but they're dismissable. 'Abdulmajid' is an Eastern-flavoured instrumental that's probably okay by itself, but loses everything when put next to the Berlin suite; and the remixed version of 'Joe The Lion' that, among other things, 'dis-mystifies' Bowie's voice and gives the drumming a more generic, electronic boom, is, as you might have guessed, significantly inferior to the original. But never mind the bonus tracks, when the album was so perfect in the first place! And I must disagree with everybody who calls this 'synth-pop' - yes, it shows important influences by Kraftwerk and company (anyway, it's Eno we're talking about, right?), but it's also quite guitar-heavy, and, while the synths do play a crucial role in the Berlin suite, they're not at all the main ingredients on the first side. Judging by these criteria, you could call 80's King Crimson 'synth-pop' as well, and you know that's not it. By the way, some of the numbers on Heroes do recall 80's King Crimson - not at all surprising, since Fripp is here, and since there are a lot of similarities between Bowie and Adrian Belew - for one, their voices appear to be quite identic. But I digress. Get on with ya! Go out 'n' grab this!



Year Of Release: 1978
Record rating = 7
Overall rating = 10

At least this live album is utterly listenable. But utterly confusing as well.

Best song: no idea.

Track listing: 1) Hang On To Yourself; 2) Ziggy Stardust; 3) Five Years; 4) Soul Love; 5) Star; 6) Station To Station; 7) Fame; 8) TVC 15; 9) Warszawa; 10) Speed Of Life; 11) Art Decade; 12) Sense Of Doubt; 13) Breaking Glass; 14) Heroes; 15) What In The World; 16) Blackout; 17) Beauty And The Beast; [BONUS TRACK:] 18) Alabama Song.

It's not very easy to find this rare live album in print, which is sort of lamentable considering the much wider availability of the disastrous David Live, but outside of the inevitable comparison, it's still only recommended for Bowie fanatics (David Live I could only recommend to Bowie masochists - yes, there is a difference). Essentially, it's a bit superfluous and a bit... odd. The oddest thing, perhaps, is just how quickly it manages to float by. It's a double album, like its predecessor, but a pretty short live album, and most of the songs go by so quickly I can't get rid of the feeling that this was all rather... umm... perfunctory. I am left unconvinced that David actually had his heart in any of the performances - and if I were in his steed, I would probably have felt the same. In 1977-78, experimenting with new odd sounds in Berlin studios with Kraftwerk on one side of him and Eno/Fripp on the other must have been much more exciting than going out on stage with a live band and trying to find a vague substitute for Eno's creativity as well as having to satisfy fanbases with old, "inactual" material.

Not that the band doesn't try - the band is good, a solid, trustworthy rock'n'roll ensemble (no faux-soul attempts this time!) with veteran Carlos Alomar mostly sticking to rhythm guitar and newcomer Adrian Belew getting most of the lead parts (unfortunately, he doesn't get that many chances to shine; learn baby learn!). But this is clearly David's show all the way. Once upon a time, when Bowie was still Ziggy, Mick Ronson used to tear up the audience's feelings by playing up glammy storms while Bowie would go powder his nose (ever seen him doing that in the Ziggy Stardust movie? Now that was what I call elevating camp to high art!). In 1977, the emphasis wasn't on show-offey guitar solos, nor was it on collective band drive - David was past his soul & funk phases, and nothing on here really "rocks" in a non-cold, non-Europeanized, non-detached way.

The first disc of the two is all "oldies" - even weirder, five of the eight numbers come from Ziggy Stardust and no other track dates to a pre-Young Americans period. He does these five tracks and 'Fame' as if to say to us: "Okay, I'm a big international star, which means I can't leave this stage without singing my biggest pop hit and a selection of songs from my best-acclaimed album. Fine with me. But if you think I'm gonna dig into my past any deeper than the biggest stuff, you're mighty mistaken'. And he runs through these Ziggy numbers like there was no tomorrow, cutting and chopping and speeding them up, performing them - on the surface - quite flawlessly but with no real passion. Some real passion starts being chucked off only when we get to the two Station By Station numbers, with 'TVC 15' being transformed into a drunk frathouse debauche, yelling and all included, but even these two numbers sound underrehearsed and a bit bored.

It's not until the second disc that Bowie's attitude really sharpens up, because that's where the Low/Heroes material comes in, and it's immediately made clear that nothing else really mattered to him at the time. Why else, would you think, does he include a staggerin' four instrumentals off these two albums onto the first side? 'Warszawa', 'Speed Of Life', 'Art Decade', 'Sense Of Doubt' - I have no idea what Bowie himself was doing while the band thoroughly tried to recreate the Eno-Bowie collaborations onstage, but whatever he was doing, undoubtedly he must have been very proud of himself as the audience sat there with open mouths and was being enlightened through that New Epoch of Sound. Well, there certainly was no booing, unless it was wiped off the record or something. And technically, it is somewhat impressive to see them capture all the sounds rightly, even on the tricky, ultra-subtle 'Sense Of Doubt'.

Finally, two more vocal numbers from Low and three more from Heroes put an end to this weird experience, really being the highest point of the album. This is where the invigorated and reenergized Bowie emerges with a violent snapping on 'Breaking Glass', continues in a gloriously romantic mood with 'Heroes' (that must be Belew acting out Eno's swooping synth line on his guitar, right? He's since done both the guitar trickery and the vocalizing all by himself on quite a few King Crimson concerts), has some lightweight reggae fun on 'What In The World', sinks into paranoia on 'Blackout', and ends in a cold robotic mood with 'Beauty And The Beast'. None of the numbers improve on the originals, but most are slightly different and actually sound as if he cared.

That said, there's no reason to doubt the album's entirely superfluous character. Reading up on the matter proves it: Bowie wanted out of his RCA contract, but since he was still due to deliver three LPs for the company, he decided that a double live album might count as two of them. (It didn't work, by the way - he didn't become free until after Scary Monsters). There was, and could have been, no other reason for giving us these passionless versions of Ziggy chestnuts and faithful, but useless renditions of the instrumental suites. (All of which makes me wonder if record companies ever thought of banning live albums from contracts - aren't some of these more of a hassle to deal with than a real source of income?). On the other hand, as a document of the epoch, Stage is well worth having - unless you actually have access to good-quality boots from the same period which, I am sure, represent Bowie much better. Heck, every friggin' song on here ends with a fadeout of the audience cheers, and that's arguably the worst crime you can ever make with a live album.

PS. My CD edition comes with the live take on 'Alabama Song' as a bonus track, and yes, it's every bit as clumsy and ragged as the studio version which now serves as a bonus on Scary Monsters (see below). Quale vinum, tale Latinum, if you get my drift.



Year Of Release: 1979
Record rating = 7
Overall rating = 10

Experimental, for sure, but the solidity of the melodies leaves something to be desired..

Best song: D. J.

Track listing: 1) Fantastic Voyage; 2) African Night Flight; 3) Move On; 4) Yassassin (Turkish For: Long Live); 5) Red Sails; 6) D.J.; 7) Look Back In Anger; 8) Boys Keep Swinging; 9) Repetition; 10) Red Money; [BONUS TRACKS:] 11) I Pray, Ole; 12) 12. Look Back In Anger.

A huge disappointment for me: not an absolute low, and it still manages to grow on you after a while, but still, this is pretty feeble as compared to Heroes or even the subsequent Scary Monsters. This is the last album of the 'Berlin/Eno trilogy', but this time it doesn't have much to do with Berlin. Come to think of it, it doesn't have much to do with Eno, either. On here, Bowie abandons the 'conceptual' approach of the previous two albums by completely ditching his 'ambient' experiments and stuffing the album with ten short, upbeat pop songs. In another age, this could be a blessing; in this age, this is a flaw.

Perhaps the biggest problem that I find here is that this, not Let's Dance, is the start of Bowie's sell-out. Yeah, I know that the tricky rhythms, drum machines, hi-tech sound and all that electronic sound were considered to be experimental at the time. Looking back, though, this particular album seems horrendously dated to me if taken from its 'groundbreaking' side. As a pretentious reviewer who's trying to analyze this chunk o' plastic from a 1999 point of view, these songs are just your average dance-pop that is only distinguished from similar albums by a slightly more significant level of sophistication. If you're hoping to re-experience the scary, nightmarish dreams, or the intelligent-romantic mood of Heroes, forget it. This one's as lightweight as could ever be. My guess (and I'm pretty sure it's the truth) is that Bowie was much too worried about the lack of commercial success for his 'experimentation'; and how could a guy like Bowie whose main goal in life was always to be 'cool' put up with public oblivion? With the previous two albums, Bowie has displayed a hope of finally following some healthy artistic ambitions after all, delivering not what the public wanted, but rather what "the times demanded". It was an intentional and conscious blow to his public image and in some ways, a 'self-sacrifice' on the altar of innovation and musical progress. Lodger puts an abrupt and complete stop to it. No, it sounds nowhere near as 'commercial' as whatever followed a few years later, but it's consciously shaped so as to appeal to the masses - unlike all those 'crazed-out' experimental albums of yore.

Okay. So this might not be the worst problem. After all, Ziggy Stardust was never experimental, and it's still David's best. But what rubs me even worse is that there are pretty few truly good songs here, to begin with. Personally, I count four tunes that could be truly counted Bowie classics. 'Red Sails' seduces me with its retroishness-turned-modern; I still can't remember the tune that's the source for the ripped-off verses, but I'm pretty sure they are, and they sound jolly good. Then there's 'Look Back In Anger', another dance-beat number that features David singing operatic-style over some lengthy, moody, spaced-out backing harmonies; note, though, that if not for these harmonies, I'd probably pass it by without further notice. 'Repetition' hooks me in most of all because of the lyrics - the image of a sad little man bullied by his wife (or bullying his wife, or both) and tired of his meaningless life when 'he could have married Annie with the blue silk blouse' fits in perfectly with the monotonous, primitive, 'gray' melody that is truly repetitive indeed. And finally, song # 1 on here that gets all the cherry cakes is 'D. J.', a bit of a blast of a lot of a social critique against your favourite dude in the corner. 'I am a D.J., I am what I play'... I doubt if any D. J. in the country had ever dared to put this on - even if it is a pretty catchy dance number. The catchiest on the whole record, in fact... though that's not saying much. Plus, let's not forget that it's marinated in the sonic essence of the Talking Heads - you could easily put it up on Fear Of Music without changing anything (not even the vocals, as Bowie and Byrne sound almost eerily alike) and it would have fit in perfectly, music-wise, lyrics-wise and atmosphere-wise. But I guess if I start ditching points for Bowie ripping off other dudes, I may start and never end...

And that's it. Sorry to bother you, but the first side of this record is nearly all rote. I believe it represents some kind of mini-concept that has as its main theme an imaginary journey to Africa and Turkey and all that stuff (what a contradiction with the album title), but, frankly, I'm not impressed. It's clearly a bit more daring than the second side: thus, it has the most innovative song on here, which is 'Yassassin', incorporating a moody Near Eastern rhythm interpreted as an Eno synth pattern. But it sounds almost disastrously stupid, with dorky background voices singing 'Ya-assa-assi-in' over a dorky Bowie voice singing 'I'm not a moody guy...' If this was Bowie's attempt at assimilating 'world beats', it's a ridiculous one. That said, the song is still interesting and it never heavily bleeds on the ears (and I'm actually surprised at how it's actually based around a reggae rhythm while the synths are playing this clearly Eastern motive), unlike 'African Night Flight', which is... ehh... real clumsy - somehow, Bowie manages to predict techno, rap and ethnic and puts them all in one heap, a rare embarrassment. And, while people often like 'Fantastic Voyage' and 'Move On' for reasons that are hard for me to figure, both are bland, atmosphereless and blatantly fake 'travelogues' with no melodies I'm aware of. In fact, the first one of these reminds me of a bad Moody Blues song, and the second takes that famous 'Get Back'-ish kind of beat and proceeds to make nothing of it. Blah.

I won't even speak of the closing 'Red Money' (the melody of which is recycled from 'Sister Midnight', off The Idiot, Bowie's earlier collaborative effort with Iggy Pop); I'll just mention here that, once again, the bonus tracks here illustrate the famous 'Bowie re-release principle': 'the worse the original, the worse the bonuses'. 'I Pray Ole' is at least tolerable - it has a special sinister feel about it that seems to re-create the Heroes style, although it's still much too repetitive and modernistic; and the late Eighties remake of 'Look Back In Anger' is just a perfect example to illustrate the differences between Seventies' Bowie and Eighties' Bowie. In other words, it's crappy. And, of course, it's seven minutes long where the original was but three - the murky intro section alone takes, like, two and a half minutes! Yuck. After listening to this, I usually like to throw a glance at the album cover and imagine it's me who'd done old David in... hey, have you noticed his right hand is swathed?

All complaints voiced, I still have to give it a seven because the classics are, well, classics, and at least Bowie is trying here. I mean, he's still working. Creating. Sniffing out influences. See? Plus, apart from 'Night Flight' and the remake of 'Look Back In Anger', there's nothing here that openly sucks - flies by you, right, but hardly ever makes you vomit.



Year Of Release: 1980
Record rating = 8
Overall rating = 11

David seems to be going through the motions, the passions, the actions (and the lotions - just look at that hairstyle!)

Best song: IT'S NO GAME (PART 1)

Track listing: 1) It's No Game (Part 1); 2) Up The Hill Backwards; 3) Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps); 4) Ashes To Ashes; 5) Fashion; 6) Teenage Wildlife; 7) Scream Like A Baby; 8) Kingdom Come; 9) Because You're Young; 10) It's No Game (Part 2); [BONUS TRACKS:] 11) Space Oddity; 12) Panic In Detroit; 13) Crystal Japan; 14) Alabama Song.

Gee, one more point for ol' Dave here. Bingo! There's no more Eno on this here chunk o' plastic, for better or for worse - but Bowie still got Carlos Alomar with his impressive guitar chops, and Robert Fripp comes by to wish the old boy a last farewell, so you can't really complain about the lack of guitar sound. And a good thing it certainly is, because it's obvious that Scary Monsters was Bowie's transitional phase - in a certain sense, this is his cultural bequest to the faithful audiences, the one after which he sold himself to dance music, right? Sure. But here, there's quite a bit to love, as David brilliantly proves the possibility of cheesy pop music being 'upgraded' to 'noble', 'intellectual' status.

On Scary Monsters, Bowie emerges from his Berlin-style hobbies and suddenly makes an attempt at presenting himself as a 'serious' artist. No, I know he's been a 'serious' artist before - he'd quit all those glam exercises years ago, and the Berlin trilogy should be considered a serious artistic statement (although I do have serious doubts about the artistic value of Lodger). But here, the matters he deals with are far more grounded and mundane. Ironically, he turns around to condemning the very nature of pop culture itself ('Fashion'), at the same time expressing pity for himself as pop culture's most unhappy victim ('Teenage Wildlife'). And, of course, where there's critique of pop culture, there's always some serious anti-establishment statements - like in the superb title track or the ridiculous pseudo-gospel pop 'Kingdom Come'. Apparently, David was trying to ride on the more 'political' part of New Wave (U2 were just emerging, so I guess he took his cue from somebody else), because how could one explain his sudden lyrical twist otherwise? But I digress, I actually wanted to discuss some of the music, not Bowie's ideological position which changed as many times as many albums he has released. I could care less about David's lyrics, in fact. On this album, only 'Teenage Wildlife' is really pulled off because of the lyrics: musically, it's just an inferior re-write of 'Heroes' with exactly the same beat, but lyrically it's fascinating to hear all these, almost tearful, pleadings, that Bowie doesn't want to be considered 'just another piece of teenage wildlife'. C'mon, Bowie, don't you get worried about that - how old were you in 1980 anyway?

But much of the other songs are distinguished by good, captivating melodies - for instance, the breath-taking 'It's No Game (Part 1)' that opens the album. Take a mighty metallic guitar riff, a steady, fast beat, a Bowie vocal of the 'really weird' type, sometimes arousing to that 'primal scream' Lennon was so fond of, and, above all, add an amusing female voice reciting something in Japanese over and over, and you get yourself a tune that won't go out of your head for quite a period. And, while Bowie mostly uses the same musical gadgets throughout (electronic drums + leaden guitar riffs + disco basslines + hi-tech synths = Scary Monsters), he still manages to make the record quite diverse. One song, for instance, is 'Ashes To Ashes', a spacey, almost mystical hypno-chant that reeks of his early Seventies' decadent style (and resuscitates the 'major Tom' character from 'Space Oddity'), and the next is something that could be considered a parody on break-dance, the bass-heavy, robotic number 'Fashion' that condemns the worst excesses of mass culture and pop idiocies. In the hands of any newly-created band the song would just seem kitsch, a stupid novelty number; in the hands of a master, though, it becomes a real treat - aren't these 'fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-shion' chants and the cool guitar notes in the bridge really pretty?

Other highlights here include the title track, a fast, menacing rocker with a melody that, let's admit it, is rather pedestrian and probably recycled for the thousandth time in history; but Bowie's 'dangerous' lyrics help save the song, and by the time in steps Robert Fripp with his frantic, maniac lead that's quite worthy of a King Crimson patriarch, I'm ready to forgive everything because I'm already playing air guitar. 'Up The Hill Backwards' is a strange, anthemic song that sounds totally dumb (like every optimistic or pseudo-optimistic anthem should sound), but catchy... hell, all of the first side plus 'Teenage Wildlife' rules. Not bad for a 1980 album, eh? Unfortunately, the heat isn't sustained, because the last four songs kinda suck. Well, not 'suck' (hey, I know all you Bowie fans are heavily offended already! In which case I won't change the word), so they suck, but not in a terribly bad way. I mean, it isn't that the whole album has a great bunch of original, strong melodies: most of these songs are distinguished by special gimmicks, like Fripp's solos or these bizarre Japanese monologs or just the mood. Maybe only 'Fashion' has an original melody. And the problem is that songs like 'Scream Like A Baby' or 'Kingdom Comes' don't feature any of these gimmicks (if you don't count the paranoid, presumably speeded-up vocals on the former, but this gimmick is unoriginal and lame).

The final two songs are a step up, but not too much. You know a funny thing? I was listening to 'Because You're Young' and saying to myself, 'hey, this song is quite shitty! Where's the melody? But no, not that shitty, hmm, I guess I like that wild rhythm playing on the verses - kinda makes the song more memorable, and I never heard that rhythm track before!' Imagine my surprise when I found out that rhythm guitar here is played by... Pete Townshend! Wow! Guess I've grown so addicted to good ol' Pete that I subconsciously recognize him anywhere... Anyway, the record ends in a reprise of 'It's No Game' that loses a lot of its cool because David adopts a more normal tone, slows down the song and drops the Japanese vocals. It's still listenable, though, and a decent, if not spectacular, ending to what many consider as his last great album. Great or not great, it's certainly one of his most serious and thought-out artistic statements, and as far removed from every possible bit of glam crap as possible.

Oh! By the way, if you don't have that new remastered CD version, don't bother if you're out in the market for quality bonus tracks. There are four here, and none are worth the game. There's a remake of 'Space Oddity' (apparently produced to be paired with its 'sequel', 'Ashes To Ashes', on the single) that adds little to the original (actually, it subtracts - there's no orchestration); a modernistic, and bad, remake of 'Panic In Detroit' (not that I was a fan in the first place); a pointless Eastern-style instrumental called 'Crystal Japan' that presumably tries to emulate Japanese music but ends up sounding like a bad soundtrack extract; and Bowie's version of 'Alabama Song' - you might enjoy it, but me, who's addicted to the far superior version by the Doors, well, I just have to vomit every time I hear the first seconds of this horrible garbage. If the song were to make it to the album, the very fact of its inclusion would cost it one, maybe two points. Dreadful!!!



Year Of Release: 1983
Record rating = 6
Overall rating = 9

Bowie sells out at last. But what the heck, there are some masterpieces here, as well. Do not evade this album.

Best song: CHINA GIRL

Track listing: 1) Modern Love; 2) China Girl; 3) Let's Dance; 4) Without You; 5) Ricochet; 6) Criminal World; 7) Cat People (Putting Out The Fire); 8) Shake It; [BONUS TRACK:] 9) Under Pressure.

David took a two-year break after Scary Monsters, only to return in 1983 with this shocking record. 'Shocking' is the word: it's his most controversial record ever, able to attract as many fans as it is able to repel. Nevertheless, its release was quite predictable: traces of his gradual tendency towards dance trends can already be found on both Lodger and Monsters, and, after all, how could he resist his own motto - 'stay cool'! The album, indeed, made David one of the coolest stars of 1983, becoming his best-selling record ever and reinstating his career as that of a successful Eighties popster, a thing that no old dinosaur (except, maybe, Phil Collins) could share with him. This is kinda ambivalent, of course: the idea of an Eighties pop star doesn't look especially interesting in modern times. In fact, it looks horrendous - what a dream can be more nightmarish than that of an Eighties pop star? (Dreams of Britney Spears come close, though). Fortunately, Let's Dance is quite an interesting record - in parts, at least. From there, Bowie would go to the lowest points of his career, but this, the beginning of his 'dance era', has its share of surprises and inventiveness to offer to the casual listener.

First of all, I'll raise my voice in the general chorus of reviewers who say that the first side of this album is brilliant or at least close to. It's indeed remarkable, how Bowie chose to put all the first-rate material on the first side and dump all the filler onto the second one, thus saving you the need to program the CD. But it is indeed so: the three opening tracks, 'Modern Love', 'China Girl', and the title one, are all rightful and respectful Bowie classics, and, for my money, beat almost everything on the Lodger album. Okay, at least 'China Girl' does: it's such an intoxicating, warm, delicious and tasteful ballad that it had me converted all in just one minute. Particular standouts for me on that one are Bowie's 'elderly-sounding' vocals, neither suave nor raunchy, like he usually does 'em, but instead kinda contemplative and melancholic, and, of course, the incredible guitarwork by Stevie Ray Vaughan. How on Earth could Bowie make Stevie the blues hero to lend his hand on a generic dance-pop album is beyond me, but he did, and this elevates much of the songs to an even higher level, because Stevie is one of the last guitar geniuses to have walked upon this planet. And on 'China Girl' he delivers his best solo on this record - a red-hot emotional plea, as well as tossing in delicious licks every now and then. 'Modern Love' is not bad as well, a stylish fast number on which Bowie for some reason says that 'modern love gets me to the church on time'. Wouldn't that be un-modern love, on the contrary? Whatever, I may not understand the intricate lyrics on that one, but the happy, jovial melody really gets me going, and there's plenty of guitar, too. Finally, the title track sounds completely unlike I'd imagined it to sound. If you expect one more happy pop number, do not. During its seven minutes Bowie presents us with a nearly gothic, ominous, creepy rhythm, over which a chorus chants 'Let's dance!' as if it were a chorus of skeletons inviting you to join the Dance of Death. Yeah, the lyrics are kinda dumb and totally un-atmospheric, but the way they combine with the general eerie mood of the song makes for an unforgettable experience.

And that's it. The other five songs are simply uninteresting. No, they're not necessarily bad, you know; after all, Bowie is no Rod Stewart to produce startingly offensive material, and, in any case, he still had a way down to go. But the problem is that they don't have anything to offer: no blistering solos that would come close to the one on 'China Girl' (okay, there's a good one on 'Criminal World', but just nowhere near as ecstatic), there are no eerie moods or bizarre singing styles, and there are extremely few memorable tunes in general. The same 'Criminal World' has an incredibly simplistic, insipid melody, and it's probably your best bet on the whole second side. Elsewhere, you get a couple of total misfires in the robotic 'Ricochet' and the closing 'Shake It', an unabashed, stupid, defiantly dumb dance number the kind of which you'll never even get on a Phil Collins record. And the boring rocker 'Cat People' and feeble ballad 'Without You' just further confirm the fact that David definitely was not on a roll at the time.

Again, the only bonus track ('Under Pressure') you'll find on here agrees with the album in that it's just as rote, a banal love anthem for dumbheads very much suitable for something like Live Aid or the Prince's Gala, but totally unsuitable for a good Bowie record. Well - that's no big surprise, considering the fact it's a duet with Queen. One more track not to play when you decide to give this album a spin.

The biggest problem about this album, though, is not that it's a sell-out (I could care less, frankly, Bowie's always been a fashionable dude), but that he simply fails to deliver the goods. Maybe two years of rest was a bad idea? Ah, what the heck - Bowie's never been that great a songwriter. Maybe I should restate that: the biggest problem is that Bowie pumps out a dance-pop album where he fails to deliver the goods. When he did Aladdin Sane, he failed to deliver 'em as well, but that time around he was going for that moody, decadent sound, so I forgave him for that because the album sounds so intriguing. There's pretty little intriguing about your average dance-pop, though.



Year Of Release: 1984
Record rating = 5
Overall rating = 8

An album destroyed by banality, but an album saved by diversity. Interesting, really.


Track listing: 1) Loving The Alien; 2) Don't Look Down; 3) God Only Knows; 4) Tonight; 5) Neighborhood Threat; 6) Blue Jean; 7) Tumble And Twirl; 8) I Keep Forgetting; 9) Dancing With The Big Boys; [BONUS TRACKS:] 10) This Is Not America; 11) As The World Falls Down; 12) Absolute Beginners.

Creative slump? Bowie fans hate this album, and for good reason, apparently. Now me, I'm just recovering from the shock inflicted upon my nervous system by Rod Stewart's Camouflage, in comparison to which this album sounds like a lost Wagner opera, so pardon me if I rate it a wee bit higher than you'd like to. Still, a five isn't that good for Bowie - and, in fact, only about a third of this album looks more or less inviting. Like its more lucky predecessor, this record is primarily dance-oriented, but this time around Bowie made sure that it wouldn't be as formulaic. Thus, you'll find a little bit of everything here: a Brian Wilson and a Leiber - Stoller cover, a bit of reggae, a bit of rock'n'roll, and a bit of pointless noisemaking. You might, in fact, make a mistaken conclusion that, since this album is so hated by the fans, it must be something like typical Eighties schlock or worse. Nadah. Like I said, Bowie was too intelligent a guy to put up a straight Eighties pop album (hey, now how about that Rod Stewart thingie...) For one thing, Tonight does not smell of high technologies or corny synths - not one single bit. I mean, there are synths, but they are neatly incorporated into the whole guitar/orchestration/brass combo. And this time around, Bowie relies on programmed drums even less than before - apparently, he left drum machines for Phil Collins.

No, the main problem, unfortunately, lies in Bowie's failure to come up with a consistent set of melodies... again. It's too bad when a great songwriting genius like Paul McCartney suddenly finds himself washed up; but it's even worse when a pretentious and limited songwriting half-genius (and I stand by my point that David was a limited songwriter from the very beginning) finds himself washed up. Worse still, this time around he cannot even conceal it with any of his usual gimmicks. Where is Eno to deliver a shattering synth pattern? Where is Fripp to deliver a blistering guitar solo? Where are the moods, the atmosphere of David's earlier 'decadent' albums? Gone. He goes for a 'pop' approach, and he's just not a popmeister - in a certain sense, he had gone full circle, returning to his dubious status as a promising, but cheesy pop performer, like he started out in the Sixties.

That said, there is a small bumch of half-classics here to satisfy the most desperate. The most beloved song from the album usually is 'Blue Jean', an upbeat, mechanical rocker driven forward by an audacious brass section. But it's painfully shallow, just a pale shadow of his early, glory days rockin' stuff, and can be but a small, unconvincing consolation. Therefore, my main bet lies with the album opener, the seven-minute 'mini-symphony' 'Loving The Alien', one of his better mood-setting pieces, complete with otherworldly backing vocals and a brilliant guitar solo (played either by Carlos Alomar or Derk Bramble, I'm not sure). Again, we have a return of the beloved cosmic subject, but this time it's kinda like a last goodbye, you know...

And you know, I might be a dork (then again, I might be not! Has this possibility ever occurred to all you flamers out there???), but for some reason I really, really enjoy both of the covers. 'I Keep Forgetting' is such a great old tune that it can't be ruined unless one tries really hard (hell, this is the third time I review it - I've already discussed versions by Procol Harum and Ringo, and both rule), and as for 'God Only Knows'... well, yes, I know that Beach Boys fans would like very much to butcher David for butchering this song, but I really can't get it. Can't you people see it's sung tongue-in-cheek? At least, that's how it always seems to me: Bowie singing in his operatic, ridiculously overblown tone, it just seems to me as if he's making an intentional pun! I laughed myself all over the place when I heard that stuff for the first time. Of course, if Brian Wilson is more like a saint patron to you, you'd better stay away from this album.

Nevertheless, two fine, if somewhat tacky, covers, one great and one okay song do not make up for an entire album, and in order to enjoy them, you also got to sit through all that recycled Iggy Pop crap like the title track, a bland reggae ditty with a half-unheard Tina Turner in the background; the unbearable kitsch of the endless 'Tumble And Twirl'; the senseless, melodyless dance beats of 'Dancing With The Big Boys', and suchlike. Not that they suck that much - but they add nothing to the Bowie legacy, nor to the general musical legacy of the twentieth century at all. So sad, but after all, what would you expect from the Killer Decade...

Oh! And the CD re-issue also features three lengthy bonus tracks, all taken from various movie soundtracks that Bowie contributed to in 1985-86. There's nothing essential about them - sentimental, bland 'epic' ballads, but then again, they're all quite moody, and while 'This Is Not America' does little for me, the other two really work on that perverted-romantic level. In that way, they're better than at least half of the original Tonight, and, for the first time in history, make an exception to the 'Bowie re-releases' rule about bonus tracks being the exact quality as the original. This should at least be a blessing if you've bought this album by some cruel mistake.



Year Of Release: 1987
Record rating = 5
Overall rating = 8

Bowie makes a typical Eghties pop record; only the usual weirdness and just a slight touch of creativity lifts it up.


Track listing: 1) Day-in Day-out; 2) Time Will Crawl; 3) Beat Of Your Drum; 4) Never Let Me Down; 5) Zeroes; 6) Glass Spider; 7) Shining Star (Makin' My Love); 8) New York's In Love; 9) '87 And Cry; 10) Bang Bang.

It's funny how the opinions on this album and its predecessor differ - some reviewers call it an insignificant improvement over Tonight, while others call it a significant letdown after Tonight. I have considered both positions and taken enough listens (I hope), and I think that both deserve exactly the same rating. That's not to say that the two records are similar: in fact, they have pretty little in common. While Tonight was certainly a commercial record, it still betrayed quite a bit of David's usual artsiness and had elements which linked it closely to various periods in David's career - 'Loving The Alien' could hearken back to 'Space Oddity', and 'God Only Knows' could hearken back to Pin Ups and you know the rest. Never Let Me Down is an entirely different matter. This time, Bowie plunges head first into the tricky world of Eighties' production and throws out an album that's much more conventional and mainstreamish than ever. The bad news is that he shares the same defect that most conventional Eighties' pop records shared: the sound is horrendously monotonous, and, apart from the title track, nearly everything sounds the same until you start listening really really hard (I have an insecure hypothesis, though, that if you listen really really hard, you may even notice small differences in all the songs of Britney Spears; the question is, where is the threshold when you need to stop listening really really hard? But that's just me digressing). Even worse news is that when such a tight-on-melodies chap like David produces an Eighties' record, the songs can hardly be redeemed by anything: the production is uniform, and the substance is near-non-existent. Yeah, I'll be the first to admit that the same problem is much more annoying on Black Tie White Noise, but, well, that's why it gets an even lower rating, after all. I'm always being just.

The good news (well, it ain't even news, actually) is that if you try to forget the obvious horror excesses for a moment and concentrate on this record as a Bowie record - not an Eighties' pop record, you might find some elements typical for the good old Bowie we all know and love. First of all, the lyrics are okay - apart from the shameful posing on the obnoxious 'New York's In Love', this doesn't sound like teenybopping. Next, the sound is actually not too bad: even at an epoch when the main point was to stuff as many robotic noises and hi-tech, anti-musical synths in your songs as possible, David still demonstrates his love for the guitar. Carlos Alomar and, this time around, Peter Frampton handle most of the guitar parts, and it works: the riffs are often catchy ('Zeroes', 'Bang Bang'), and the solos totally gut-spinning ('87 And Cry'). So at least you won't be able to say that the record is typical mid-Eighties fodder. Some live drums would be highly appreciated, of course, but darn it, there's even some harmonica on here! The title track it is I'm referring to, of course, and it's the closest thing to a Bowie classic on this record. It's very Lennon-ish, if you disregard the obligatory dance beats, and if you listen carefully, you'll see that the moving chorus, where David chants 'never let you down - I'll never let you down', is totally ripped off of John's 'I'm Stepping Out'. Now that's satisfying.

Elsewhere, though, you have to tread water very carefully, as you never know when it turns to quicksand. 'Zeroes', for instance, has an interesting riff and an interesting atmosphere - it's structured like a retro glam anthem, returning you back to the days of Ziggy (in fact, I have a working hypothesis that the title, that refers to yet another 'virtual band', has nothing to do with numbers, but is an amalgamation of 'Ziggy' + 'Heroes'). But very soon you start to realize that the song is actually quite shallow and only works as a half-assed 'tribute' to the days of old. Even these crowd noises at the beginning start to sound corny and fake after a few listens. 'Glass Spider' also starts out kinda promisingly - as an ambient, creepy 'soundtrack' to which David recites a stupid, but very pretentious (and funny) poem about the glass spider; but no sooner does he finish reciting, as the song is transformed into a repetitive, brain-muddling dance tune with murky hip-hop beats and the endlessly repeated refrain 'mummy come back cause the water's all gone' which just annoys me to death after a while. Oh well, I guess it's just one of these nasty little ways of life. Like a glass spider or something.

In any case, these are the, err, 'highlights' - songs that stand out on the album somehow. The other tunes all range from forgettable to atrocious; luckily, there's only about a couple truly 'atrocious' songs, like the above-mentioned 'New York's In Love' and the sacchariney, melodyless 'Shining Star (Makin' My Love)'. Oh, and 'Beat Of My Drum': I can't stand that one, either. The slow parts drag on like on that last hideous Genesis album, and the fast parts are based on a melody so trivial and childish that I'm really shocked. Wait, no - my mistake; here it is coming again on the headphones, I think I didn't want to say 'childish'; it's just so generic and obviously rehashed from a couple dozen already existing disco tunes that I can forgive myself for using the word 'childish'.

The other stuff's okay, I suppose. 'Bang Bang' is a passable Iggy Pop cover; I'm sure the original's better, but I've never heard it. '87 And Cry' and 'Day-In Day-Out' are fast and totally hopeless, mostly due to the catchy choruses, and 'Time Will Crawl' has cool lyrics ('time will crawl till the 21st century lose') and a steady, self-assured beat which somehow evades the definition of 'generic'. None of these four songs are really good, but at least they may be defined as listenable. All in all, I find rumours of this album as David's lowest point pretty much exaggerated. Uniform, yes, but hey, there's at least music on here - with guitar riffs, vocal harmonies, and all, unlike on Black Tie, where everything is reduced to a pack of elevator noises. It's very mediocre, but nowhere near as awful as the stuff that Phil Collins or even Paul McCartney were pumping out at the time. At least, Bowie has that charming weirdness and his soulful voice to compensate for all the flaws. Actually, hearing this album even made me want to reconsider my attitude towards Eighties' music in the first place. See, David was always following trends, and if that's what he also did on both NLMD and BTWN, this means that trends in the late Eighties were far more acceptable than trends in the early Nineties, when I have previously always suspected the opposite. Well, I suppose that time will show, and I'll be returning to this review later on...



(released by: TIN MACHINE)

Year Of Release: 1989
Record rating = 7
Overall rating = 10

Self-humiliation? Dylanistic attitude? Or just a case of Bowie wanting to play some rhythm guitar in a hard rock band?

Best song: CRACK CITY

Track listing: 1) Heaven's In Here; 2) Tin Machine; 3) Prisoner Of Love; 4) Crack City; 5) I Can't Read; 6) Under The God; 7) Amazing; 8) Working Class Hero; 9) Bus Stop; 10) Pretty Thing; 11) Video Crime; 12) Run; 13) Sacrifice Yourself; 14) Baby Can Dance.

Before I move on to the actual review, here's one thing I gotta say. Practically every reviewer I've met on the Web hailed this album with more or less the following message: 'He's gone totally nuts - in a normal world, this thing would undeniably fail. Amazingly, it works!!!' And that's about the same thing that I think about this album after sitting through it the appropriate three times (and I wouldn't mind a fourth)...

As it turns out in retrospect, the move that everybody at the time was considering to be a blatant mistake turned out to be Bowie's salvation. After the critical, commercial and artistical failure of Never Let Me Down, David finally realised that he was betraying his reputation: for three times already, he remade the same record, each time with less and less success. Something radical was needed - and Tin Machine was the ultimate solution. Basically, Bowie just assumed the image of 'just another guy in the band': he'd joined forces with the rhythm section of Hunt and Tony Sales (previously worked with Iggy Pop) and the notable lead guitarist Reeves Gabrels (who would go on to become Bowie's inseparable companion to the very end) and formed a 'basic rock' four-piece combo called Tin Machine. Bowie plays rhythm guitar, sings all of the lead vocals and composes or co-composes all of the songs but one; and yet, he always tended to emphasize that he was just a boy in the band and not a real leader or anything. A publicity stunt? Definitely. But to a certain extent, Tin Machine certainly reinvigorated Bowie, just like, say, the Rolling Stones get invigorated from time to time by playing small club gigs instead of giant stadiums. He was himself once again - he'd radically shifted the pattern and saved himself from stagnation, even if through a 'return to roots' rather than yet another musical revolution.

Frankly speaking, I'm still puzzled as to why I really feel good about this record - this is a very high seven, in fact, bordering with a weak eight. It's actually pretty monotonous, all based on mastodontic percussion, lumbering, leaden riffs and Gabrels' cliched metallic solos. The riffs aren't particularly fresh - 'Under The God', for instance, borrows its particular one from the Yardbirds' 'I Wish You Would' (yeah, perversely enough, the one song of theirs Bowie did on Pin Ups), while my favourite number, 'Crack City', is built around the same pattern as 'Wild Thing'. And filler abounds - for every solid tune, there's one that's not memorable at all. Most important, wouldn't the album really sound vague and phony? After all, Bowie never was a real 'rocker': Tin Machine doesn't even recreate the 'glam spirit' of the early days, it goes for an uncompromised, stripped-down hard rock sound and nothing more.

But no, it doesn't. Bowie seems to be revelling in his new image - as if he'd been singing these heavy metal anthems all his life. And trust me, when a song on Tin Machine is good, it's good: it'll burn down in your mind, make you play air guitar and sing along to Bowie's infuriated lyrics. And that reminds me - the lyrics. Never, and I do mean it - never before have I witnessed such angry, political, venomous lyrics coming out of Bowie's jaws. He seems completely, horrendously pissed off at just about everybody, mostly the authorities and the upper classes, of course, but not necessarily so. Just a few examples: 'Corrupt with shaky visions/ And crack and coke and alcohol/They're just a bunch of assholes/With buttholes for their brains' (yeah, I know it's hard to imagine a butthole inside an asshole, but apparently David's imagination is quite considerable); 'Don't look at me you fuckhead/This nation's turning blue/Its stink it fouls the highways/Its filth it sticks like glue'. Impressive, isn't it? We're not talking Sex Pistols here, mind you. These lines all come from 'Crack City', a tune that simply buries you under its power and crrrunch - after all, when you combine such lyrics, a riff stolen from 'Wild Thing' and an anthemic, venom-filled refrain 'GONNA - HIT - CRACK - CITY!', how can you produce anything less than ecstatic? This might be arena rock, for sure, but it's so masterful I simply have to shut my trap.

Not to say that the band plays midtempo all the time, of course. The title track, with its vicious complaint 'tin machine, tin machine, take me anywhere' (the message is again - I'm sick and tired of all this), rolls along at breakneck speed, and so does the Yardbirds/Ramones rip-off 'Under The God' (which at times almost develops into something Black Sabbath-like) and the short, anthemic 'Sacrifice Yourself'. These fast numbers, however, provide all the variety you're gonna find on here; so, if you want to be consistently entertained by the album, you just gotta dig in to at least some of the slower numbers. The ballads 'Prisoner Of Love' and 'Amazing' are fairly solid, for instance, with some of David's usual 'perverse love lyrics' and magnificent soulful vocals a la Young Americans (er, vocals, that is, not melodies, please understand that).

As for the slow rockers, it all depends on how much energy the band pumps into a certain performance. 'I Can't Read', 'Video Crime' and 'Run', for instance, are rather sluggish and formulaic, only fit for a Bowie/heavy metal diehard. On the other hand, 'Crack City' - well, I already talked about that one; 'Heaven's In Here' features incredible build-ups and slow-downs in 'power settings', with Gabrels playing short snappy lightning-speed solos and Bowie taking on a quasi-mystical attitude; and I, for one, totally dig the band's version of Lennon's 'Working Class Hero'. Quite an appropriate selection for the album, too - apparently, Bowie was just as pissed off in 1989 as John was in 1970, and Lennon's poisonous condemnation of the society works just fine alongside Bowie's own pamphlets. So I'm even ready to forgive him the metallization of the song - in this particular case, Bowie makes the material his own.

And yeah, one more thing: the album is often mistakenly classified as Bowie's return to 'roots rock', primarily by people who haven't really heard it. This is by no means 'roots rock' or 'blues rock'; so if you're a hater of these 'styles' and think that Tin Machine is some sort of metallized Cream, don't worry. Very few of these tunes actually have anything to do with the blues; this is, for the most part, very European-sounding music, more close in style to punk and British garage-rock with metallic arrangements. If Bowie's revisiting the roots, he's apparently revisiting his roots - the sweet era of 1964-65 when he was a garage rocker himself. Ain't no 12-bar stuff around here. For the most part. Excited, exciting, fresh and invigorating garage-rock of the late Eighties (heh heh).

I suppose that ultimately it's Bowie's lyrics this time around that make the game - they do sound a bit too rough and poorly thought-out at times, but it's actually the first time in a long, long while that he's making such an acute, sharp, hard-hitting and intelligent bunch of social commentaries. Put together with the immaculate, if a little generic, musicianship, this makes for excellent background music if you're the heavy type of guy. If you're not, it'll still be worth a listen - if only to see that when Bowie wants, Bowie plays effective, efficient basic rock'n'roll and there ain't no bullshit about it.



(released by: TIN MACHINE)

Year Of Release: 1991
Record rating = 7
Overall rating = 10

Tin Machine branches out. Ever saw a tin machine branch out? Just look at the front cover.


Track listing: 1) Baby Universal; 2) One Shot; 3) You Belong In Rock & Roll; 4) If There Is Something; 5) Amlapura; 6) Betty Wrong; 7) You Can't Talk; 8) Stateside; 9) Shopping For Girls; 10) A Big Hurt; 11) Sorry; 12) Goodbye Mr Ed.

The second offering from Bowie's "cat-in-a-bag-band" was forgotten even more quickly and the only thing about it that somehow shook the public eye (what a nice expression I just invented) was the 'offensive' front cover with the Greek statues. Sheez, sometimes people can get ridiculous - if you can look at this stuff in museums, what the hell is wrong with album reproductions? DANG.

Anyway, the album's just as good as its predecessor - decently written songs that manage not to sound like generic metal or R'n'B because Bowie is always way too extravagant to allow himself to write something, well, straight. The only straight songs on the album are the ones sung (and probably written? I don't have the credits at hand right now) by Hunt Sales, and they're also, suspiciously, the only ones that really suck. Oh, okay, maybe it's just because I hate Sales' vocals. Whiny and stupid, and really nasty at that, something like Freddie Krueger with a hangover, if you can imagine. So there's nothing more ear-destructive as his take on a gentle love ballad ('Sorry'), and 'Stateside' is also kinda dumb, a generic blues tune with the lines 'I'm going home, I'm going stateside with my conviction' as the central attraction. Am I the only one to find that line totally idiotic or does my knowledge of the intricacies of English still leave a lot to be desired?

Apart from those two songs, though, and maybe one or two more songs without serious hooks (I spent three weeks looking for a hook in 'Betty Wrong' and now I have no choice but to repent), the rest qualifies and can easily be liked if you're not looking for universal statements and amazing inventive progression. There is even some stylistic diversity on here: Bowie gets the band to perform not only punchy rockers, but also punchy power-pop as well as a couple numbers employing modernistic rhythm tricks ('You Can't Talk' that predicts some of the better Nineties' stuff of David's) and even a beautiful atmospheric send-up: 'Amlapura' may not be as instantly memorable as Nescafe, but it grows on you and is actually one of David's better attempts at visualising a 'musical dreamworld', I think.

People may scream however much they want about the lack of energy or inspiration or conviction or authenticity in these numbers - what I see and hear are fresh guitar riffs and catchy vocal melodies, which essentially is all that matters. Yes, I even like the band's butchering of that immortal Roxy Music classic, 'If There Is Someone'. For some reason, I think they're aware that they're butchering the song, playing it at a fast tempo without ever changing key; I mean, that drumming Sales guy doesn't even once deviate from the robotic four-four bashing, all that happens is that Gabrels changes the riffs at points where different sections are supposed to follow each other. But that's done in a cool way - yes, the song is totally transformed, but Bowie preserves the 'formal' vocal melody aspects, and that makes it one of the silliest and happiest guilty pleasures in the catalog.

As for the 'real stuff', well, the rockers are good. 'One Shot' is seemingly about the unhappy end of a happy family start ('one thing lead to a dead end, one shot put her away'), and it's written in the best Bowie tradition, to take something stupid and meaningless and dress it up as the bitterest of the acid. 'Baby Universal' could, with a few triggers and modifications, easily fit on Ziggy Stardust or something like that, with its rock'n'roll hero references and all that - the Bowie drive is fully present, too. On the contrary, 'You Belong In Rock'n'Roll' is fairly innocent - more like a cute outburst of poppy sentimentalism than a genre anthem, with a whole bunch of vocal hooks and a rhythm section to die for. I tell you what, my jaw really hangs low every time I pay serious attention to the way Tin Machine did their song arrangements. Yeah, Gabrels' guitar tone is pretty generic, reminiscent of hair metal heroes, but these are real guitars played by a real pro who does not feel the need to have a mind-numbin' finger-flashin' solo on EVERY turn of the corner, and there's real bass and real drums and lots of guitar overdubs and nice jangly acoustic rhythms and a living feel from most of the tracks. And only a minimum of synthesizers... aren't we supposed to support that kind of thing? 'I love the cheap things that you say... I love the cheap street in your walk... You belong in rock'n'roll, and so do I'...

'Shopping For Girls' probably has the best riff on the whole album, although the controversial subject matter (underage prostitution?) could have been avoided, I think. Is it just me again, or do all those 'socially critical' songs concerning prostitution refer more to the deep sexual complexes of their authors than a real sincere desire to pinpoint the evils of contemporary society? Think about that when you're in the mood for 'social critique'. And 'A Big Hurt' is the only song on here that really builds up its power on 'overdrive', with fast grumbly riffs and tempos and a trademark Bowie hysteria - not particularly memorable, but goofy and amusing, and it'll make you shout 'kiss it for me, kiss it for me' for days on end... finally, the strange "farewell tune" 'Goodbye Mr Ed' is just weird. A nod to Dylan in the lyrics or am I really missing something?

I mean, all in all, repeated listenings really help with this stuff just as they help out with just about any Bowie album and really consolidate my theory that David never wrote any truly bad albums (apart from Black Tie White Noise, of course), just as he almost never wrote any truly super-classic albums (apart from Ziggy and Heroes, of course). The Davy Jones machine just keeps working on, on tin this time, and spews forth another collection that's not at all bad in itself - I have a hard time trying to understand why Bowie fans rate it so low. Or maybe they don't. They sure shouldn't.



(released by: TIN MACHINE)

Year Of Release: 1991
Record rating = 6
Overall rating = 9

This is very loud and pompous, but at least it ain't exactly mane-shaking pop-metal.

Best song: UNDER THE GOD

Track listing: 1) If There Is Something; 2) Amazing; 3) I Can't Read; 4) Stateside; 5) Under The God; 6) Goodbye Mr Ed; 7) Heaven's In Here; 8) You Belong In Rock'n'Roll.

Now if you happened to be young and naive, or old and idealistic, you probably could have hoped that Bowie's "self-deprecating" studio transformation into one screw of a tin machine would not extend to his live image. In other words, it's one thing when the guy loses his head on a studio record, claiming to have been dissolved within a regular rock band identity, but it's another thing if said guy comes out on stage and does not do 'Fame' or 'Heroes' or 'Ziggy Stardust'. So does he?

Not on this live record he doesn't. I don't know if the Tin Machine shows ever included any blast from the past or they were the pure equivalent of Dylan's late Seventies born again concerts, but fact is, Oy Vey Baby, if it's anything even closely resembling a 1991 tour documentary, consists exclusively of songs taken off the two studio Tin Machine records. Can I recommend it? By all means - to huge fans of the undisputed talents of Mr Reeves Gabrels. Many of the songs are extended, and when they are, it's with the sole purpose of letting the band's guitarist shine on, as long and as loud as possible. No drum solos, no lengthy band jams, but lots and lots of professional guitar wanking.

'Heaven's In Here' lasts all of twelve minutes, although they actually bother to include a sloppy, but almost sarcastically passionate rendition of 'I'm A King Bee' - the first time I've heard Bowie sing "generic blues" since the earliest days of Davy Jones (correct me if I'm wrong). 'Stateside' takes up eight minutes; 'You Belong In Rock'n'Roll' takes seven. Still, come to think of it, we have every right to expect that: one thing Bowie has always been a sucker for was a great solo guitar sound, and, although so far he had not let his passion leak onto record, let's just remember all the breaks he would take while Mick Ronson remained to invigorate the population for minutes and minutes on end, or the lengthy period of guitar ecstasy from Alomar on the live version of 'Stay'. Maybe it's something like Bowie's secret complex - not being able to play guitar with virtuosity himself, he always has to make sure he gets the best and on top of that, give everybody a big fat hint - 'see? I'm having the best, so you could actually say I am the best!'). It's just that he's being a bit too obnoxious with it here.

I don't really mind, though: Gabrels is a wanker, but an expressive one, sort of like a mini-Satriani/-Vai in a very, very pissed mood and with a much bluesier edge (it's no wonder 'Stateside' has one of his - at least technically - finest solos on here). He's got lots of the usual finger-flashing, hammer-on metalhead cliches going on, but that's far from all he can do, especially in the setting of a lengthy solo - whatever the situation around him, he crafts, and you can certainly expect him pull a Hendrix or a Jimmy Page just as easily as you can expect him to pull an Eightie metal guitar hero (not to name any names, especially since I don't seem to remember a single one. Hey, I'm getting good at focusing on the good!). And on the positive side, the extended instrumental sections do prevent them from getting more (and better) songs on record, but they also do not let Oy Vey Baby be transformed in a direct faceless clone of the studio output. In a perverse kind of way, this just might be the best Bowie-related live album ever - as it's nowhere near as offensive as David Live and nowhere near as redundant as Stage! But, of course, that would be an odd way of looking at it.

The absolute best performance - no question about it - is that of 'Under The God', as it effectively, for about five minutes, eliminates the worst defect of the record: it is very, very loose. 'Under The God', as might be expected, rocks hard and fast, with Gabrels doing a great job of letting the lead guitar parts look like "offshoots" from the main Yardbirds-derived riff and Bowie even letting out quite a convincing roar or two. But the rest of the record, at least, after they smash right into the open with the speedy reworking of 'If There Is Something', can seriously sag: with Gabrels so buried in self-adoration and Bowie intentionally assuming as little control as possible, every now and then any signs of chemistry between the band members are lost and they just sort of start going in whichever direction it pleases them. A Who level performance this definitely is not. Even short balladeering numbers like 'Amazing' roll off the track every second or two - and I want to seriously slap Hunt Sales for inserting all these ridiculous fills instead of keeping the rhythm. (Since we're on the Who anyway, let me just remark that Keith Moon would have all the fills and keep the rhythm as well). And I'm sure I'm wrong, but it's the impression of your mind that matters, and my mind keeps telling me 'Heaven's In Here' actually is that long because David just fell asleep at one point and they were all waiting for the cue.

Oh yeah, there's also the usual matter of all the tracks recorded in different locations (New York, Chicago, Boston, Tokyo, Sapporo, you name it) and thus "honestly" fading away every time - of course, also not unusual for a Bowie live album. What surprises me is how the audiences all seem so cheerful and happy - if we are to believe the critics, everybody and their groundhog hated Tin Machine in 1991, so, unless ol' man Bowie cheated and overdubbed some applause from Let's Dance era performances, I'm a-guessin' the situation was nowhere near that critical. Bowie doesn't do much banter, though, and for some reason the show ends with a very nasty-sounding alarm bell imitation - maybe Dave was just trying to create a general atmosphere of panic so that old fans wouldn't have the opportunity to drag him offstage during all the bows and sacrifice him on the altar of the Thin White Duke?



Year Of Release: 1993
Record rating = 4
Overall rating = 7

Bowie recreates himself as a typical Nineties star: bouncy, dancey, schmancey and... totally tasteless.

Best song: I FEEL FREE

Track listing: 1) The Wedding; 2) You've Been Around; 3) I Feel Free; 4) Black Tie White Noise; 5) Jump They Say; 6) Nite Flight; 7) Pallas Athena; 8) Miracle Goodnight; 9) Don't Let Me Down & Down; 10) Looking For Lester; 11) I Know It's Gonna Happen Someday; 12) The Wedding Song; [BONUS TRACKS:] 13) Jump They Say (Alternate Mix); 14) Lucy Can't Dance (bonus).

After Bowie got tired of his Tin Machine stunt - after all, nobody guaranteed that playing good old fashioned rock'n'roll, even when disguising it as good old fashioned heavy metal, was so cool by the mid-Nineties - he decided that it was time to make some action, and to 'upgrade' his sound for the upcoming end-of-the-century. However, he miscalculated something, and the final product, in my opinion, stands as one of the lowest points in David's entire career. The mistake would be corrected two years later with Outside - but this particular album should have stayed in the vaults and never seen the light of day.

The title might mislead you into thinking David has turned back to his Velvet Underground roots, but nothing could be more deceptive. Out of the twelve songs that constitute the record, eleven are built according to one and only one pattern: an annoying hip-hop beat, with lots of sampling, tape looping, effects processing and, well, all the usual stuff that goes with the worst of Nineties' dance music. This, indeed, is an album that invites you to dance - the songs are sometimes slower, sometimes faster, but what the hell, if I want to dance, I won't be needing to put on a David Bowie record. I could get away with some rap or some Whitney Houston. I could probably even get away with some Collins-led Genesis. But this? Conceptually, this is Let's Dance Vol. 2, but it's tons worse because Let's Dance actually had melodies, like 'China Girl', and hooks, like the title track. This one's an hour-long horrendous mess of MTV-ready sludge. Tracks like the instrumental rave-up 'Pallas Athena' or the throwaway Dumphuk anthems 'Miracle Goodnight' and 'Nite Flight' rank among the worst stuff David has ever performed, and that's saying something - after all, he's not such an obvious songwriting genius as Lennon or Townshend, and if a Bowie song is bad, there's no getting away from it: it's vomit-inducing.

Now, I could be putting on some serious airs and start defending this record by saying things like 'well, it sounds like dance music, but...' and then naming all the untrivial production details and intricate gimmicks that make it special. Indeed, there are quite a few. The musicianship is strong, there are virtually dozens of players all around the album, standard figures like Bowie's beloved Reeves Gabrels interspersed with occasional guests from the past like Mick Ronson, and there's even Peter Gabriel who's responsible for 'session photography'. John Regan contributes some great basswork on several tracks, and famous sax player Lester Bowie makes an appearance on the appropriately titled instrumental 'Looking For Lester'. Maybe there are other interesting moments, too. But I don't give a damn. This record could have been played by the Lord God and his angelic orchestra, this wouldn't have saved it either. What's the use of clever production and expert sax players when you're so lame you can't assemble a patch of songs that would be at least halfway decent? Please don't waste your money on this if you're not planning to start a collection of 'greatest self-humiliations by famous artists'.

Thankfully, there are just about a couple moments to hang on to; otherwise, I would have totally no remorse for giving the record a rating of one or two (as was my original plan). Bowie does a lot of covers on this album, and, while his soulful rendition of Morrisey's gospelish 'I Know It's Gonna Happen Someday' is as generic as could be, in the context of the other songs it is really a highlight: for one, it's the only song that steps away from the dancebeats and gives you a breath of clean, fresh air. The weirdest move, though, is the cover of Cream's 'I Feel Free': it's also transformed into a hip-hop lover paradise, but somehow, when I compare it to the original, I just feel like giggling - it's funny, really. It also reminds me of 'Stay', for no obvious reason. Just another gimmick, of course, but a funny one - like his earlier cover of 'Let's Spend The Night Together'. Plus, a couple of 'darker' songs like 'You've Been Around' and 'Jump They Say', while certainly in the 'bad' rather than the 'good' area, aren't that disgusting if you can get into their mood. And I don't object against the title track - the wah-wah/saxophone interplay in the beginning is quite entertaining, almost jazz-rock or something. Plus, that chorus, 'putting on the black tie - cranking out the white noi-oi-oi-oise', is almost irritatingly catchy, and the vocal harmonies are pretty, so I s'pose on some level the song could be deemed acceptable.

And that's it. Bonus tracks include a 'tighter', even more dance-style version of 'Jump They Say', and 'Lucy Can't Dance', the fastest song on here (more dance! more dance! my poor feet are tired!) Nah. I hate dance music. Sorry. Maybe it's because I never dance. In fact, I always sit. In fact, I'm sitting right now, and 'Lucy Can't Dance' is starting to play, and I feel like putting on some Frank Zappa. Once again: never buy this album. If you want to dance, please buy some Spice Girls. Now you see that it doesn't always help when you want to stay intelligent and be cool at the same time?



Year Of Release: 1993
Record rating = 8
Overall rating = 11

More like it. Tasteful mood music with a couple trademark ballads thrown in, and just a few stinkers for diversity.


Track listing: 1) Buddha Of Suburbia; 2) Sex And The Church; 3) South Horizon; 4) The Mysteries; 5) Bleed Like A Crazy, Dad; 6) Strangers When We Meet; 7) Dead Against It; 8) Untitled No. 1; 9) Ian Finish, UK Heir; 10) Buddha Of Suburbia.

It's hardly believable that at exactly the same time Bowie was working on the trashy mess of BTWN and this record which is miles away from the trip-hop monotousness of that one and, in fact, is far more closer to the Berlin trilogy period than anything he'd done since that time. Basically, it's just a soundtrack to a TV series, and Bowie's had at least a couple million soundtracks behind his back, so it usually passes unnoticed and shares the fate of all soundtracks except the one to Sautrday Night Fever and, perhaps, Peter Gabriel's Passion - which is, be admired for a couple weeks and pass into eternal obscurity after that. On the other hand, this is also exactly what saves the album from being a tasteless trendy mess. On his regular albums, Bowie has always been Bowie - the witty chameleon that always knew how to hide his talent behind a mask of stupidity, if such a manoeuvre was really needed. On soundtracks like this one, Bowie is an artist: he really makes music. It's just a soundtrack, see? It doesn't really need to be cool or super-groovy-trendy hip-hoppy MTV-faddy all that crap; it won't sell anyway, no need to bother. So, instead, this time David has bothered to make something truly artistic, and, believe it or not, this might easily be his best record of the decade. Actually, it is his best record of the decade - it's just that few people really realize that.

In general, the album doesn't make the impression of a soundtrack (like most truly good soundtracks do): the only distinguishable feature is that about half of the tracks are completely instrumental, but then again, so were Low and Heroes. More than that - it's pretty diverse, and far more interesting and involving than the befuddling beats of Black Tie. If anything, the album shows that Bowie did actually master the tricky time signatures and wacky studio effects of the Nineties that make up for some good music, not just the dance-dance-dance crap. There's exactly one song that offends me deep down to the very bottom of my soul, the annoying half-instrumental 'Sex And The Church'; its stupid techno beat isn't really so much offensive as the constantly repeated phrases 'sex... and the church... sex... and the church... sex... sex...' Apart from that, there are basically no problems. 'South Horizon' is a strangely involving jazz tune that has actually little to do with the Nineties apart from the obligatory hip-hop beats, but even these break through only from time to time, alternating with standard jazzy shuffles; and you don't really notice the drumming behind the nice little sax and these cool dissonant piano lines everywhere. Oh, by the way, Mike Garson makes a re-appearance as a guest for that track, and, as usual, his jazz piano standard is at the highest. 'The Mysteries' kinda bores me - sometimes, but hey, most Eno-flavoured tracks do, and this is pure Brian Eno: seven minutes of high quality ambient paradise, and they return at the end of the album for 'Ian Fish, UK Heir', more mood muzak that's unexplainably ruined by the superposition of crackling noises - what a strange move. Ever imagined ambient music recorded on a Victrola?

But don't you go off imagining that the whole record's a sludgy dreamfest; nay, if it were so, I'd not be speaking all these nice phrases near the beginning. Two more 'weirder-than-the-weird' experimental tracks are considerably faster and energetic, and I rank them among Bowie's best work with the newer genres. 'Bleed Like A Crazy, Dad' nears amazing, a rip-roaring slow disco tune with a mastodontic distorted guitar riff and some great vocal workouts - personally, I love the way Bowie alternates the ominous 'shine shine shine' lines with the speedy 'bleeds like a craze dad' refrain. 'Dead Against It' is another disco number, and a good one at that - just check out the incredible intro where the synths establish a warp-speed, crazy groove and rise to a nearly frightening climax before Bowie steps in with the vocals. Disco can be a great force when its diabolic nature is properly harnessed.

Finally, my main bet is on the three ballads that somehow 'bookmark' the album, as they are the only lyrically expressive songs in the full sense of the word (I mean, there are lyrics in other tunes, too, but they sound much more like mantras to me). 'Untitled No. 1' ain't great, but it's still extremely pleasant, with a nice sax/guitar interplay and more obscure Japanese references; and the title track, presented here in two versions, the second one featuring guest star Lenny Kravitz on guitar (yuck), is a strange British-style ballad with the line 'Englishman going insane' inside. It's dreamy, it's swooping, and it all but reminds me of Bowie's style on Aladdin Sane, although the arrangement is one hundred percent Nineties music, of course. It's also memorable, and a great deal better than anything he'd done since that 'China Girl' ditty. But, of course, the biggest success is 'Strangers When We Meet', a ballad that sounds like an intentional transposition of 'Heroes' into the current decade - charming, heartwarming and very moving, with an immediately uplifting chorus and a melody that's untrivial and memorable all at once. Apparently, Bowie himself realized that the song was far grander than it's supposed to be for a soundtrack, so he re-recorded it two years later on Outside in an inferior version, far less guitar-based than the original.

I tell you, I was really surprised when I heard this - I was afraid I'd have to take more booorring, if not worse, Nineties' Bowie, and hey, I suddenly found myself in possession of an entirely worthwhile record. Well, maybe it's time to start collecting David Bowie soundtracks; judging by this one and the bonus tracks to Tonight (some of which can also be found on the Labyrinth soundtrack), he really put a lot of work into movies, and it was real work, not driven by the desire to be as trendy as possible. Buddha seems to have forever gone out of print in the States, but if you ever see it, grab it for any price - it's more essential than any other Nineties' Bowie record, and I'm not afraid to repeat this over and over again.



Year Of Release: 1995
Record rating = 7
Overall rating = 10

David goes ahead and puts out a major concept album. Wait - in the NINETIES? What is he, an ASSHOLE?..

Best song: OUTSIDE

Track listing: 1) Leon Takes Us Outside; 2) Outside; 3) The Hearts Filthy Lesson; 4) A Small Plot Of Land; 5) Segue: Baby Grace (A Horrid Cassette); 6) Hallo Spaceboy; 7) The Motel; 8) I Have Not Been To Oxford Town; 9) No Control; 10) Segue: Algeria Touchshrier; 11) The Voyeur Of Utter Destruction (As Beauty); 12) Segue: Ramona A. Stone/I Am With Name; 13) Wishful Beginnings; 14) We Prick You; 15) Segue: Nathan Adler; 16) I'm Deranged; 17) Thru' These Arcitecht's Eyes; 18) Segue: Nathan Adler; 19) Strangers When We Meet.

Well, sometimes it does help... Wow, this is real weird... although, on second thought, an album like this is totally predictable. After Black Tie flopped in the States (for once in their life, the Americans demonstrated good taste? Whatever, they were probably much too busy buying some crap that was even more worthless), David decided that it sure wasn't enough to make Nineties-style music: the point was to make Nineties-style music that would be thought-provoking and conceptual at the same time. To do this, he teamed up with Eno once more, and together, puffing and panting, they put out seventy five minutes of 'muzak' that ranges somewhere in between industrial, techno and the thing I generally call 'Nineties Pop', though I don't have even the most vague definition of this phenomenon. It is still closer to 'industrial', though: techno would win on Earthling, and 'Nineties Pop' would prevail on Hours. So yeah, Outside is Bowie's industrial album. Actually, it should be called 1. Outside, but I omit the number for system requirements. ??? Oh, I mean the guy still hasn't come out with a sequel - the official site says it's expected sometime next year (called 2. Contamination). But you know you never get what you're waiting for, especially if they let you know the timing.

Of course, you shouldn't expect an easy listen. Industrial or not, every Bowie album gotsta sport the Bowie personality, which is either sound intelligent or, at the least, pretend to sound intelligent. This one's so loooooooooooong I still haven't figured out whether he is or he pretends, but anyway, this is an obscure concept album, almost a rock opera, based around some crappo story about an 'art-crime murder' (there's a short story coming together with the liner notes, but I never read it and, frankly speaking, it's probably worse than that of Tommy, so why bother?) It's loaded with weird melody twirls and twists, irritating 'segues' that include snippets of annoying monologs, all recited in hoarse, spaced-out tones, psycho and worse-than-psycho lyrics and tons of other stuff that only makes it still more difficult to enjoy. And nothing is really rewarding - really, I wouldn't advise you to try and tune in. You probably have to take Outside as it is, on a spontaneous level; otherwise, you'll just waste your patience and good will trying to decode the album's hardly existing 'message' or 'inner sense'. At least, the monologs aren't incorporated into actual songs, a trick that completely ruined, say, Pete Townshend's Psychoderelict.

On the other hand, it helps that most of this music is again the product of Bowie/Eno collaboration (Reeves Gabrels is listed on much of the tunes, too, plus Bowie's current band line-up, but that's unnecessary information, I think). So it's real moody, enthralling and sometimes even fascinating. It's true that these songs rarely have discernible melodies; but they are rarely annoying, with a few exceptions like the murky technofest 'Hallo Spaceboy'. The few songs that do have melodies range from pretty, like a re-recording of 'Strangers When We Meet' from the last record (although I warn you that the current version is worse than the one on Buddha Of Suburbia), to wonderful - like the title track, the one bit on record that's truly emotionally resonant. The synth and guitar work on that one are addictive, especially in the plaintive, weepy intro and the main rhythm track, which borrows its gloomy, majestic, end-of-the-world atmosphere directly from the Beatles' 'I Want You' (has that idea occurred to anybody else?) However, 'songs' in the plain sense of the word are really a rarity on this record: 'rhythmic chants' would be a better definition.

Fortunately, they are quite diverse, otherwise sitting through more than an hour of this 'crap' would be a real pain in the neck, in the back, in the shack and, sure enough, in the ARSE. There's some 'dance muzak', like in the catchy 'Hearts Filthy Lesson', some soulful, atmospheric stuff like 'The Motel', some avantgarde dissonance like 'A Small Plot Of Land', some pseudo-goth like 'Wishful Beginnings', and some Adrian Belew-style psychedelia like 'I'm Deranged'. I'm too flat out tired from listening to all this stuff to describe it in more details, but after all, I probably shouldn't: the general Bowie rule 'this stuff works better as an album than as individual songs' applies to Outside as to nothing else. (After all, this record hasn't been compared to Diamond Dogs for nothing). But some of such tracks even come close to being memorable - the best probably being 'I Have Not Been To Oxford Town', with its peaceful, almost jovial, bouncy rhythm, and the repetitive, constatative remark 'all's well, twentieth century dies'.

In any case, you probably will not be able to appreciate the album unless you really want to believe that it's good. There's certainly nothing easier in the world than to say 'this garbage stinks, and putting on seventy-five minutes of it was an even worse idea'. But a few repeated listenings are able to bring out the best essence in these songs - or, perhaps, just their weirdness and originality may suffice. After all, Bowie took a primitive genre that was already on its last breath and breathed new, even if a very short, life into it. These songs are subject to loads of interpretations, of course, but at least that's it - you may take this album and fit it in your personal dream. Me, I just haven't got any, so I'm not going nuts over it (like some fans did); but I sure would like to listen to it again. Sometime. In any case, this is such a huge improvement upon Black Tie that this fact alone makes me want to up the rating a bit.



Year Of Release: 1997
Record rating = 5
Overall rating = 8

This is where Bowie hits the Nineties with all his might. A few songs that MIGHT have been decent among seas of generic trash.


Track listing: 1) Little Wonder; 2) Looking For Satellites; 3) Battle For Britain (The Letter); 4) Seven Years In Tibet; 5) Dead Man Walking; 6) Telling Lies; 7) The Last Thing You Should Do; 8) I'm Afraid Of Americans; 9) Law (Earthlings On Fire).

Industrial didn't work, so Bowie embarked on a further cruise to exploring the music of the 'younger generation'. This time the darned ship brought David to the shores of hip-hop, techno and jungle, and he was so pleased with what he saw that he somehow managed to set all of the songs to about two or three rhythms in existence (actually, each of these genres has exactly one rhythm, now doesn't it?) This is, in fact, the most annoying factor on this record, and the worst blow comes when you realize that a fair percent of the songs on here could have worked okay - most of them have actually nothing to do with these wretched styles of 'music'. To me, it sounds like David wrote them all before as plain pop ditties, and only added the 'beats' as an afterthought. These drum machines make me nauseous! Now if only I had some means of re-mixing the sound, and burying the drums deep under everything else, or simply getting them out of the picture, things might be quite different. Hmm, but I'd also have to get rid of some synths... and that metallic guitar of Gabrels gets in the way, too. David, what have you done? You've carried that modernistic arrangement business a bit TOO far! Because, you just have to imagine the record with different arrangements - hey, it still wouldn't be no masterpiece, but you'd be amazed at the sound.

At least it's short: David probably realized that it was too ungrateful a business to fill a CD with music to the brim when nobody buys it anyway, so this time there are just nine tracks (instead of nineteen on Outside), and they run for about fifty minutes, enough for me. This, of course, implies that the songs are for the most part overlong - and quite often, I get the impression that a certain song's lengthiness is due to David's lack of truly creative ideas. Numbers like 'Battle For Britain' or the album closing 'Law (Earthlings On Fire)' are nothing but primitive dreck, Bowie's lame attempts at writing something really 'modern' and 'cool' to appeal to the youngsters. Poor David, he didn't know where he was heading! Is it really possible to write a song that would be generic hardcore techno AND intelligent [as in, "carrying a distinct intellectual message"] at the same time? The correct answer is Nope. 'Dead Man Walking' classifies as the worst song he's ever written, and I hope he'll never fall down to such a low point again. (Of course, it's also the most lengthy on the album).

Nevertheless, I'm still amazed at how much good (or, at least, potentially good) material there is on this record. I've grown, for instance, to really like the two opening numbers, like the gentle, weird ballad 'Little Wonder' and the surrealistic 'Looking For Satellites'. Yeah, they're probably both 'jungle', but that's only superficial - their essence is balladry and surrealism. The way Bowie mixes the two choruses in 'Satellites' is really groovy, with David reciting meaningless, out-of-context, kinda dadaistic words in one channel and the poppy chorus going 'Satelliiiiiite' in the other. Then, of course, there is the famous 'Seven Years In Tibet', the song that was supposed to reflect David's pro-Tibetan position and was consequently banned in China. Me, I don't see anything particularly pro-Tibetan in these lyrics, but maybe it's just me? I'm not a specialist in Tibetan mysticism! Heck, I'm not even a specialist in Chinese mysticism... But the song, it's a good one, and it's also the only moment where he steps away from his beloved 'beats', so if you're thinking of a homemade compilation for David that would be representative, this is one swell number for a choice from Earthling: well-produced, well-performed, well-sung, and there's some highly seductive synth lines, too.

My absolute favourite, though, is the spooky, sarcastic 'I'm Afraid Of Americans'. I do not quite understand why Bowie suddenly grew so dissatisfied with the good old US of A, but if you axe me, I would view a potential decision to ban the song in America as a more rational thing to do than to ban 'Seven Years In Tibet' in China. Doesn't anybody realize that the lyrics 'Johnny's in America/Johnny wants a brain/Johnny wants to suck on a Coke/Johnny wants a woman/Johnny wants to think of a joke' are directed primarily against the 'generation Dumphuk', as it is sometimes called? How could the radio stations tolerate this song when it's a blistering parody of modern youth 'values'? Personally, I think I laughed my navel off first time I heard it, and actually, I'm still laughing. What an unbelievably cool thing. I actually upgraded the album's rating one point for all the fun. I don't even mind the 'beats' on that one, they all fit in the joke.

Of course, one song can't still help a whole album - that's understood. Nobody's welcome to dabble around in techno - techno makes even the cleverest person faceless, dull and totally deprived of personality. Let us just hope Bowie will never repeat the mistake again.



Year Of Release: 1999
Record rating = 6
Overall rating = 9

Some of this sounds more like Phil Collins, of course. In any case, this is Bowie finally assuming the position of an Old Man.

Best song: SEVEN

Track listing: 1) Thursday's Child; 2) Something In The Air; 3) Survive; 4) If I'm Dreaming My Life; 5) Seven; 6) What's Really Happening?; 7) The Pretty Things Are Going To; 8) New Angels Of Promise; 9) Brilliant Adventure; 10) The Dreamers; [BONUS TRACK:] 11) Thursday's Child (unreleased rock mix).

Bowie's latest greatest (already not the latest, but it sure was when I first reviewed it - whoah, I'm getting old at this stuff), it was also well publicized by David's famous Internet stunt: he'd uploaded the whole album two weeks before its official release on CD for fans to download. He seems to be highly interested in the Net, in fact, and, while I respect and appraise that kind of attitude, I also have to say that this was just a well-thought-out commercial trick. As of now, it is yet too early to speak of a global 'internetization' of the musical business - I'm sure it's a matter of the nearest ten or twenty years, but there gotta be suitable conditions made, you understand...

Anyway, on to the record. When I first put it on and the first notes of 'Thursday's Child' hit me, I was simply left dumbfounded. Why? We've grown to expect everything possible out of David, and indeed, there are few musical styles and moods he hadn't tried. There's just one image, though, which he still hadn't modeled on himself up to that point: the image of a washed up old fart waxing nostalgic. Now there you go. If anything, he's simply gone and made the biggest mistake of his life - at least, that is how things might turn out to be. His pals like the Stones, Paul McCartney, Townshend, and company, everyone has been long written off as past legend; Bowie still held up - not because he was still making something terribly new (actually, he was never making something 'terribly' new), but because he was always trying to follow the fashion, display signs of youthfulness and - rule number one - never turn back to his past with a tear on his cheek. This is exactly what happens on Hours. Musically it is his least innovative and least interesting album of the Nineties: Earthling might be crappier when it comes to bad taste, but Hours is just a tad too fluffy. Most of these tunes are your average Nineties 'moderate' pop - a steady dance drumbeat, moody, 'heavenly' synths, computer processed guitars, and MTV production values that threaten to suck all the life energy out of these songs. Problem is, few of them ever had that energy in the first place. There are a couple 'rockers' towards the end of the record, but they mostly sound like Earthling outtakes.

Hmm... so what do we have to do? Do we have to take these pretty, but somewhat bland ballads as revelations, or do we have to dismiss them as generic marketed pop crap? Some sixth feeling tells me that they're actually closer to 'art' than to 'shit' (you know, that bad old 'shit' as opposed to the good old one); but it takes a long time and, what's more important, a lot of good will, to admit that some of the songs really cook. I didn't mention Phil Collins for nothing in the opening paragraph: some of these songs have all the necessary Phil trademarks, including a sorta sappy, weird sentimentality. Nevertheless, I've still come to like 'Thursday's Child', 'Something In The Air' and 'Survive' for their tasty arrangements, confessional lyrics - confessional? are they really confessional? God only knows! - and a general peaceful, relaxed mood. Reeves Gabrels also does a good job on these ones, adding brilliant short solo stabs instead of his usual trademark metal style.

The record's centerpiece, 'If I'm Dreaming My Life', will supposedly be declared a masterpiece by the critics - hey, after all, it's the lengthiest and the most pompous number here. And yeah, it's good, more in the Outside style than everything else, but once again, any possible traces of decent melody are substituted by dance beats and the song ends up completely unmemorable. Nope, my favourite song here would probably be 'Seven', a curious, almost folkish ballad, that begins with David simply strumming his acoustic guitar (over some synth backings) as in the good old days of Space Oddity. And lo and behold, there's a melody! And suddenly even the synths don't sound so cheesy! And there are these luvvvly Gabrels licks in the background! And the lyrics? 'I've got seven days to live my life and seven ways to die'. David, my friend, you're really so cute! Now this is a song I've really been waiting for since God knows when...

A pity it is that 'Seven' is also the song where I simply have to turn down the volume and go make myself some coffee, as none of the last five songs really seem to cut the mustard for me. Like I said, the 'rockers' are ultimately generic and bland ('What's Really Happening' gets on my nerves with all the 'yeaaaaah' sounds in the background, and 'The Pretty Things Are Going To' is simply much, much too pedestrian), although nowhere near as crappy as their predecessors on Earthling. The strange, grungey sound of 'New Angels Of Promise' still does not conceal its total lack of melody, 'Brilliant Adventure' is nice, but after all, it's just a short instrumental, and 'The Dreamers'... 'The Dreamers'... well, that one might be good, after all. Partly. It holds the function of the record's anthem, so if you like anthemic Bowie, it might just be for you. David sounds fine on that one, proving that his voice is still powerful after all those years of playing the guitar with his teeth. But, again, no melody - no real cheers.

And you know what? This is a pretty normal album. There's really nothing trully weird or totally surprising about it. Just a normal, contemporarily-fashioned Nineties pop album. Not a bad one, mind you - just decent. But who really needs a 'normal' album from Bowie? Either this is just another surprise, or, which is more probable, David is entering his final phase - the phase of summarization and conclusion-drawing. Nothing wrong about that, of course, just a little sad, but after all we gotta give him his due. He's in the business for about as long as the Stones, and he's definitely earned a right to make a 'normal' album. Now all we have to do is to sit back and watch his next move - will he really release a sequel to Outside and will it be a masterpiece or will it just suck? In the meantime, please feel free to make your bets.



Year Of Release: 2002

Record rating = 9
Overall rating = 12

I refrain from one-sentence judgements on this issue. Besides, I can't bear the look of these eyes. I have to scroll down.

Best song: SLOW BURN

Track listing: 1) Sunday; 2) Cactus; 3) Slip Away; 4) Slow Burn; 5) Afraid; 6) I've Been Waiting For You; 7) I Would Be Your Slave; 8) Gemini Spacecraft; 9) 5:15 The Angels Have Gone; 10) Everyone Says Hi; 11) A Better Future; 12) Heathen.

Look, I'm still saying that Bowie doesn't have genius, whatever "genius" is. But if you don't have genius, that doesn't mean you can't have brains - as well as a sensitive soul burdened down by decades of personal experience. And I don't know if Bowie just produced this album by means of a one-evening marathon brainstorm. Or by hauling out old-time producer and pal Tony Visconti to inject some of that crispy old Seventies' inspiration into his work. Or by hauling out all of his records in a row, listening to them and taking out all the best and perennial and discarding all the worst and outdated. Or anything else, whatever you might think of. I only know that I really did not suspect he had that much potential in him - not after an album like Hours.

There's one thing that David took right out of Hours, and that's sentimentalism and vulnerability. But in the context of these songs, it doesn't sound like he's just givin' up to his old age or, worse, jumping on the adult contemporary bandwagon again. On the contrary, it sounds like he's matured since that record - and Heathen doesn't make a point out of being so "introspective" and "confessional" like Hours. Because it actually is not introspective at all. No, in its essence and its spirit I guess that the album is much closer to Ziggy Stardust, and not just because Visconti produced it again, but because the crucial "mood" elements of that particular epoch are resuscitated here again. Darkness, Fear, Spaciness, Futurism, Utopianism, and Romanticism - they're all here in a way that you couldn't really remember, not since the Ziggy days definitely.

That doesn't mean that Heathen is a return to the good old days; Bowie is too smart for his own good to just produce solid, but definitely second-rate nostalgia trips like Elton John's latest albums. The Ziggy mood is dominant, but then there are throwbacks to lots of other things. There are guitar bits that sound like Fripp's work on 'Heroes', trip-hop beats and electronic gimmicks such as were "all the rage" on Black Tie and Earthling, bits of soul and bits of Krautrock inserted... like I said, it's as if Bowie sorted out the good and the bad on all of his records, then shuffled all the good in random order, put Visconti to glue the pieces together and came out with a total winner of a record.

It's dark, dark and spacey, yet the songs are all either catchy or so goddamn atmospheric you forget about the lack of catchiness. There's a great deal of terrific guitarwork (much of it courtesy of guest pal Pete Townshend), Bowie's in excellent vocal form himself, and his vast knowledge and understanding of modern technologies certainly works much better when he tries to apply it to his own musical vision (well, what I'd call his "musical vision", of course) rather than when he just tries to work in the "mould" of somebody, be it Nine Inch Nails or the Backstreet Boys.

Every song has something to offer. 'Sunday' again eerily opens the record with a day-o-the-week reference, but it's a far more powerful musical statement than the nice but oh-so-insubstantial 'Thursday Afternoon'. The little tinklin' guitar riff, the steadily creepin' atmosphere, with vocal harmonies, little creaky percussion, and - towards the end - solid erupting drumbeats and grim basslines, all work towards making this a truly shivery opener. 'Everything changes, nothing has changed', Bowie tells us in the song, and who can argue with that kind of message? Speaking of the lyrics, by the way, I wouldn't place my bets on them - as usual, the lyrics are good, but it's the music that matters here. The mysticism, paranoia and spaciness of the lyrics is nothing compared to said qualities of the music.

Not that the album is monotonous. A part of Bowie's surrealism is that he makes the incompatible compatible, or, to be exact, shows the ways to combine what could be thought as incompatible. Thus, his cover of the Pixies' 'Cactus' feels totally at ease with everything else - and it's actually done with enough respect to the original. And so is his cover of Neil Young's 'I've Been Waiting For You' - sweet Jesus, just what vaults exactly did that man empty to satisfy his choice in covers? And yet it's a great choice, because Young's song isn't just a love song. It's exactly the same kind of uncertain, unclear, vague, shaky, unsatisfied, "mental" song as everything Bowie himself pens on here. For contrast, I'm not sure it would be right if Bowie chose, uh, em, 'Southern Man' instead. And the squirming high pitched guitar feedback at the beginning of the song out-Neils Neil himself, by the way.

'Slip Away' is Bowie at his most starry-eyed, and that song definitely wouldn't have been out of place on the original Ziggy - stuff like 'Moonage Daydream' and 'Starman' definitely come back to mind as Bowie intones his 'twinkle twinkle Uncle Floyd' chorus, soon-to-be-legendary I expect. Maybe it's just silly nostalgia, but I can't help being drawn in anyway. Maybe 'Slow Burn', with its 'Heroes'-like introduction, is nostalgia too, but it's the best song on the album, with an even more exquisitely romantic lead guitar line and Bowie reveling in the role of lonely dark romantic like he never did since at least Scary Monsters. When it's time for the chorus, he'll blow your mind with the way he sings 'slow burn', too, with the special effects on the vocals. As for the guitar parts, said to be played by Townshend, well let's just say if it's really Pete, he plays the best studio guitar lines on here since his work on Quadrophenia.

Like I said, the songs are all similar and yet all different. Sometimes Visconti will bring in the orchestra, and they will nicely set back modernistic production values in favour of some soaring passages like in the good old days ('Afraid'). At other times they will reverse the cards and get a crazy technobeat, and it will perfectly fit in with the "theme" of the song ('Gemini Spacecraft'). Then there'll come a time for a sentimental ballad, and it will be carried by a little quiet bass riff chuckin' away against the background of perfectly attuned synths, atmospheric and heavenly and at the same time having nothing to do with the generic adult contemporary synth tone a la Phil Collins ('5:15 The Angels Have Come' - I wonder if the song title isn't a little nod towards Townshend seeing as how they were both involved in the project?). Or, when the actual song is just merely 'nice' in atmosphere, nothing to tell your grandma about, Visconti and Bowie will spice it up with a simple, but effective orchestral countermelody of such absolute beauty you'll be beggin' for the song to come on ('Everyone Says 'Hi'' which, unsurprisingly, becomes much less interesting for me in the second half, when that melody never reappears any more). Or you'll just have a good pop-rocker to be headbanging to ('A Better Future', with the catchiest vocal melody on the album).

Anyway, get this: the album gets denied a ten only because I find it above myself to be brave and actually give it to an artist who's already had an almost forty year old musical career behind him. And maybe, you know, Heathen is just a bit too perfect for Bowie. Everything works so fine on every song, all the goals achieved, all the limitations dealt with, all the production styles milked for all their worth, every note in its rightful place, that I'm almost scared of this thing. There he was only three years ago putting out inoffensive, harmless, slightly boring adult contemporary, and here he is tearing like a monster again - not necessarily "rocking the house down", but bringing out a great spectrum of emotions and a vast bag of musical ideas, both old and new. It's... weird.



Year Of Release: 2003
Record rating = 8
Overall rating = 11

Should be subtitled: "From a tired old man to a weary young generation."


Track listing: 1) New Killer Star; 2) Pablo Picasso; 3) Never Get Old; 4) The Loneliest Guy; 5) Looking For Water; 6) She'll Drive The Big Car; 7) Days; 8) Fall Dog Bombs The Moon; 9) Try Some Buy Some; 10) Reality; 11) Bring Me The Disco King.

Maybe it was released a bit too early. We got so used to getting a new Bowie album every two or three years that his sudden return to one-per-year schedule, even if it's temporary, could almost get annoying on a subconscious level: "What, again? So soon?" And perhaps I'm hallucinating in this particular way, or maybe it's the side effect of Bowie working with Tony Visconti again, but Reality seems like Heathen's minor brother to me. Brother, because, well, you know; minor, because it's not as good.

Oh, it's not as bad as Hours, either, so welcome to the happy golden middle. But where Heathen was at the same time grumpily conservative and radically new, Reality is just grumpily conservative. Actually, it's just grumpy; screw 'conservative'. It's a grumpy, grumbly, and gruffy record. From the same old man we've been witnessing for five years now. (Meaning that a song title like 'Never Get Old' sounds tremendously ironic to this reviewer's ears). Heathen was Old Man Bowie sitting on top of the world and toying with the Infinite, or at least, pretending to be toying with it. For a few moments out there, the Infinite even sort of appeared to be in sight, and it was solid. Reality is, well, reality: the Old Man got sore in the ass from too much mountain-climbing and is back in our beloved Shitsville, moaning and groaning and complaining and nostalgizing and commemorating dead rock music heroes. He certainly does this with style and grace, but I liked him toying with the Infinite.

In terms of melodies, this is mostly the same type of overproduced mid-tempo rock'n'roll alternating with lounge and R'n'B elements as we saw last time, but if you wanna know me opinion, not nearly as interesting - fewer memorable riffs, fewer inventive guest stars, fewer breathtaking atmospheric production tricks, less orchestral output from Visconti. (Which, for a moment, returns me to my first point - the album does seem a little bit "rushed", if you know what I mean). Fortunately, he still got enough vocal hooks to go along with the grim moods, and there's plenty of lyrical and emotional depth all over the place to label it a clear throwaway. There's also loads of slight nostalgic touches, and once again, many of the songs recall the "glam romantic" side of the early Seventies. (And even more 'Moonage Daydream'-like type chanting on the very first track!). But it ain't the Seventies. He wasn't so dang serious in the Seventies.

Upholding the tradition, Dave offers us a couple more covers. 'Try Some Buy Some' is, naturally, his tribute to the late George Harrison, and, of course, a sophisticated guy like Bowie just couldn't go the easy way and pick out 'Something' (as Macca did for his live shows) or 'My Sweet Lord' or any other instantly recognizable tune. Not that I suspect him of having any illusions about how this particular choice would send rock'n'roll fans in droves to the nearest musical store buying out entire stocks of Living In The Material World (which is, by the way, a fairly underrated George album, so there), but I guess he thought it would be cool to unearth this relatively unknown tune anyway. "Cool", unfortunately, does not equal "fine", and while the song is done well and was a fairly good song in the first place, there's nothing Bowie is able to do with it that George wasn't able to do. In other words, pointless - in the long run, that is.

The other cover is mah-vel-us, though. The Modern Lovers' 'Pablo Picasso' was fine, and John Cale's cover of it was fine, but Bowie's rendition is different - absurd, unpredictable, snappy, and, not the least important, the most "ass-kicking" on the entire album. And replete with ridiculous Spanish guitar insertions, no less! It's the only spot on the entire album where for a sec you can actually forget about David's age and just join in the fun. And, of course, it's such an obviously suitable song for Bowie to cover that the obvious question is - how come he actually hasn't done it earlier? It's right up the Heroes alley! With just a few bubbly Eno-like synth lines on top and there you go (there are some synth lines on here, but they're not exactly Eno-like). It's so damn good I even start thinking the heretical - hey, maybe it's time for Bowie to do Pin Ups Vol. 2? I mean, just choose the material carefully and all?

Never mind. Now, concerning the originals, they're all pretty even. The three introspective mid-tempo rockers - 'New Killer Star', 'She'll Drive The Big Car' and 'Fall Dog Bombs The Moon' - are pretty much interchangeable: steady unnerving tempo, loads of overdubbed sorrowful electric guitars, and a grumpy old Bowie singing about how all we are is dust in the wind. Oops, that was Kansas, wasn't it? Well, to tell you the truth, Bowie and Kerry Livgren sing pretty much about the same thing. Bowie just puts a ton of makeup on it, and I sure prefer to lick off Bowie's stylistic makeup rather than go straight ahead for Kerry Livgren's verbal diarrhoea. (Gee, now look what I've done - offended the music of Kansas in yet another location. Maybe it's time to take legislative action against me. I'd be only too glad). My fav here is 'Fall Dog', because the guitar on there beats every level of grumpiness there is. But they're all tolerable.

There's also one really fast, really "tough" hard rocker - the title track - which supposedly raises as much hell as 'Pablo Picasso', but considering it's the song in which Bowie sings 'my death is more than just a sad song', I really don't get the urge to tear down the walls while listening to it. It's really as mournful and moderately pessimistic as everything else, just faster, 'sall. 'Looking For Water' also beats and stomps frantically, but the message is far from heartwarming: 'I can't live in this cage, I can't eat this candy... The look in your eyes and never means never/The dawn's early light, baby, dark is forever/I'm looking for water'. More intellectual depression for youse, and a really paranoid lead guitar part to boot.

Of course, if that's how it is with the rockers, what to expect of the softer stuff? 'The Loneliest Guy' tries to proclaim that Bowie is actually 'the luckiest guy, not the loneliest guy', but again, the somber, dirge like atmosphere of the song suggests irony (or pseudoirony - frankly speaking, I don't see any reason for Bowie to consider himself the loneliest guy in the world, unless he's been suddenly struck by remorse about Angie or something). 'Days' could as well be recorded by The Cure: one of those "hey, I'm so happy I have you lyrically but it feels like we're collectively dying musically" ballads that leaves you in a totally suspended state.

Finally, the record ends on an openly risky note, with the almost eight-minute long soul epic, deceptively titled 'Bring Me The Disco King' (it sure has black overtones, but it sure as hell ain't no disco). It's exceptionally stylish and refined, and now that David's unexperienced blue-eyed soul period of the mid-Seventies is long over, he can tackle this style with all the professionalism and artsy negligence he's able to muster... but does it need to be that long? Oh, okay, maybe it does. You can turn it off safely at any second you like, because once you've heard the first minute or two, you've heard it all. As a subtle, exquisite, and suitably morose/nostalgic coda to the album, it works.

Overall, I'm not disappointed - two albums of Heathen-like quality in a row would prove to be a musical revolution for our age - but maybe just a wee bit upset that there was so little time to really sharpen and individualize all these numbers. However, the important thing is that, once again, Bowie bypasses trends and friends: Reality is just as pessimistic and disspirited as Hours, but not even for a moment sounds like 'artistic capitulation'. Because Bowie is finally doing it the way he deems it necessary to do, not the way that musical fashion expects of him. Keep it up, Mr Jones!


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