The death of David Bowie in January 2016 tolled the bell on lives lived, personae affected, boys swung, stations stationed. It augured a twelve-month period when Maurice White, Phife Dawg, Merle Haggard, George Michael, and closest rival Prince let their legacies breathe on when they no longer could. Worse, our experiment as a republic suffered a perhaps mortal blow on Election Day. In an oeuvre fascinated with apocalypse, first as a grotesquerie in itself that is a function of ahh-youth, then as a manifestation of a restlessness immune to cocaine and a happy marriage, Bowie’s albums taught me how a species of wanderlust keeps despair at bay and is itself despair. As much a so-called confessional songwriter as Lennon, Joni Mitchell, and James Taylor, Bowie used his image manipulations as peeks into a psyche about as interesting as yours and mine. Above all else, I learned how The Real Me comprises the gestures, sentences, and obsessions thrown away or fussed over; the rest isn’t worth consideration. The young aesthete who sang “Planet Earth is blue/and there’s nothing I can do” was not indulging an echt-gloom: he stated a truth. Twenty-five studio albums set aflame a century’s worth of self-help pieties. Continue reading
Dividing instrumentals from song? Folly! My readers will wonder why, say, “Blackout” deserves slightly less praise than “Always Crashing in the Same Car.” Well, it depends on the order in which you heard them. Bought in chronological order at a mall (!) record store for the 2020 equivalent of $23, David Bowie’s Visconti-Eno trilogy addressed me as simplicity itself. Each song on Low meant what it said. “You’re just a little girl with grey eyes/Never mind, say something.” “Waiting for the gift of sound and vision.” The thinness of the mix was the point; no other rock ‘n’ roller (look out!) had presented such banal fragments since fellow poseur Bob Dylan in New Morning. But these albums cleansed: listening to Low conjures censers and confessions.
Wanna know how the press treated David Bowie as if he were a racist uncle? SPIN voted him Worst Comeback in its 1995 year-en issue. Still smarting from the combination of hamhanded skronk and Thierry Mugler suits, the rock press saw no slot this year in which Bowie could thrive. Anyone with ears to tell could hear he was trying again, this time applying his melodic instincts. The concept — art crimes and dead babies or some such nonsense — focuses him and kills him. The further he strays from the narrative he insists on, the stronger the tunes. In the essential A Year with Swollen Appendices, Eno laments his erstwhile collaborator’s baroque tendencies; Eno hears quieter songs. To expect restraint from Bowie is like expecting Robert Fripp to play acoustic guitar. He required excess. The worst songs, though, collapse from concept and thesauri overcoming common sense.
For more about this album, read here.
Strangely, I found Bowie’s album closers less compelling than the openers. “The Secret Life of Arabia” and “Red Money” work fine as shimmering, weird album tracks that don’t quite end their albums like “Subterraneans” and “Bring Me the Disco King” do.
I hear exceptions, though. I have a memory of driving home shortly before two in the morning sometime in August 2002 when the University of Miami college station played “Heathen (The Rays)”; the experience was so powerful I almost pulled over to compose myself. For those who persist in thinking Bowie peaked before 1980, I refer to “Strangers When We Meet.” This grand ballad, released in 1995, shared a title with the Kirk Douglas-Kim Noval sudster and a romantic yearning. Using chord progressions owing a bit to “Heroes,” Bowie offers a tale of finding love when least expected but, upsetting expectations, offers a statement of increasing fragmentation; sense crumbles bit by bit, until the lyrics flicker as semaphored haiku of desire. It destroys me. Continue reading
Here’s a fun list! I’m not asking about the best song, but about the best track to open one of Bowie’s albums. In many cases he followed sixties orthodoxy about best song first; in the case of Never Let Me Down, he had no idea what the best songs were.
I wrote the following on ILM:
For sheer pop joy, “Modern Love.”
For sheer wtf-ness, “Speed of Life”
For sheer epic build and release, ebb ‘n’ flow, “Station to Station”
For gutbucket rock, “Watch That Man.”
For an example of how terrible a singer and songwriter he could be, “Day-In Day-Out.”
But I’ll stick with the song to which I listened anew when a friend popped ‘Heroes’ in the car the spring of 2001. He had never heard Robert Fripp. He had never heard Eno. He had never heard guitar screeches like this. We weren’t exactly sober. Someone fetch a priest — you can’t say no to the Beauty and the Beast. Dah-liiiiing!
Day-In Day-Out’ (from Never Let Me Down, 1987)
Thursday’s Child (from …hours, 1999)
Heaven’s In Here (from Tin Machine, 1989)
Magic Dance (from Labyrinth Original Motion Picture Soundtrack, 1986)
Rosalyn (from Pin Ups, 1973)
Uncle Arthur (from David Bowie, 1967)
Future Legend (from Diamond Dogs, 1974)
Leon Takes Us Outside (from 1. Outside, 1995)
Little Wonder (from Earthling, 1997)
The Wedding (from Black Tie White Noise, 1993)
The Width of a Circle (from The Man Who Sold the World, 1970)
Space Oddity (from David Bowie/Space Oddity, 1969)
New Killer Star (from Reality, 2003)
The Next Day (from The Next Day, 2013)
Buddha of Suburbia (from Buddha of Suburbia Original Motion Picture Soundtrack, 1993)
Baby Universal (from Tin Machine II, 1991)
Loving the Alien (from Tonight, 1984)
Good to Great
Beauty and the Beast (from “Heroes”, 1977)
Modern Love (from Let’s Dance, 1983)
Station to Station (from Station to Station, 1976)
Speed of Life (from Low, 1977)
Young Americans (from Young Americans, 1975)
Blackstar (from ★, 2016)
Watch That Man (from Aladdin Sane, 1973)
Fantastic Voyage’ (from Lodger, 1979)
It’s No Game (No. 1) (from Scary Monsters…and Super Creeps, 1980)
Five Years’ (from The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, 1972)
Changes (from Hunky Dory, 1971)
Sunday (from Heathen, 2002)
The artists who most imaginatively covered The Dame understood the tumult in his quiet songs (Dinosaur Jr) and the ghostly disquiet of the faster ones (Warpaint; M. Ward; Nirvana, of course) My favorite today is British Electric Foundation and The Associates’ Billy Mackenzie, who turn “The Secret Life of Arabia” into a prolonged workout for kick drum, hand claps, slap bass, and a ghoulish vocal that repeat the original’s outro chant. That cover and Beck’s of “Sound and Vision” go the furthest on this list. Just don’t mention the Wallflowers’ “‘Heroes'” around me, thanks.
1. Billy Mackenzie/B.E.F-The Secret Life Of Arabia
2. Lulu – Watch That Man
3. Tegan and Sara – Rebel Rebel
4. Morrissey – Drive-In Saturday
5. Dinosaur Jr – Quicksand
6. Bauhaus – Ziggy Stardust
7. Mott the Hoople – All the Young Dudes
8. Chairlift – Always Crashing in the Same Car
9. Barbra Streisand – Life on Mars…?
10. Warpaint – Ashes to Ashes
11. The Dandy Warhols – The Jean Genie
12. Susannah Hoffs – Boys Keep Swinging
13. Beck – Sound and Vision
14. Nirvana – The Man Who Sold the World
15. M. Ward – Let’s Dance
I had no idea Bowie scored so many top forties in England after “Jump They Say,” a single I love more than most.
Dancing in the Street (with Mick Jagger)
You Belong in Rock ‘n’ Roll
Cat People (Putting Out Fire)
Knock on Wood
Never Let Me Down
Black Tie White Noise (with Al B. Sure!)
Everyone Says ‘Hi’
Peace on Earth/Little Drummer Boy (w/Bing Crosby)
The Laughing Gnome
Sound, Solid Entertainments
Under Pressure (w/Queen)
Up the Hill Backwards
The Hearts Filthy Lesson
This is Not America (w/Pat Metheny)
Hallo Spaceboy (with Pet Shop Boys)
Dead Man Walking
The Buddha of Suburbia
Where Are We Now?
Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide
John, I’m Only Dancing
Time Will Crawl
Good to Great
Sound and Vision
Boys Keep Swinging
The Jean Genie
Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps)
Beauty and the Beast
Ashes to Ashes
Strangers When We Meet
Jump They Say
For the second time in as many weeks, I delved into an artist’s work not long before his death. Savoring the mediation on medieval Provençe called The Mays of Ventadorn and thumbing through one of his final collections The Shadow of Sirius, I awoke to the news about poet W.S. Merwin. At the same time, I had acquired a rather expensive (for 2019) used copy of The Climate of Hunter. I’d heard it in dribs over the years. I relish uneven accommodations to mainstream taste; years after admiring Scott 4 (1969) and learning how to listen to Tilt (1995), I needed to catch up. Now I have all the time necessary.
Scott Walker was not a fringe artist in 1984; a scan of the credits reveals the names of Mark Knopfler and Billy Ocean, flashed like FBI badges, both having or about to have their greatest pop moments. If Walker intended The Climate of Hunter as his contribution to the MTV-indebted New Pop explosion, then it failed. On ballads “Rawhide” and “Sleepwalkers Woman” the climaxes don’t happen in the expected places if they happen at all. The squeezed plushness of the American-born Walker’s vocal approach, like Edith Evans singing through a paper towel roll, enforces a waiting game; with a voice this unusual, this mannered, there had to be a payoff. Meanwhile the rhythm section burbled and rumbled at a discreet, discrete remove, as if an engineer happened to record it. At all times the use of strings was unnerving: while Walker stayed in place, they screeched like a replay of Bernard Herrmann’s Psycho score; when Walker chose to keep up with the bass and drums, the strings hung fire.
Similar dynamics applied to Tilt‘s “Manhattan,” in which sustained Bach-like organ chords keep up anxiety levels. Other instruments, unidentifiable or avoiding their usual functions, buzzed — “each instrument is locked into a hovering circle of vibrato, like bees moving in swarm formation,” in Derek Walmsley’s perfect description. When Pulp hired Walker to produce their final album We Love Life, it’s clear that the band wanted to organize “The Trees” around these tensions. On the title track Jarvis Cocker’s performance demonstrated why Pulp wasn’t Scott Walker: it does build to a climax, a glorious one. In Walker’s later music it would have been a principle betrayed, a concession to a mass taste he hadn’t courted since the sixties. Who needs a boring old guitar solo when a donkey’s bray will do?
About the Walker Brothers material and Nite Flights in particular I will cede insight and knowledge to Chris O’Leary, whose extensive writing on Walker’s influence on David Bowie (and Bowie’s own generosity acknowledging the influence) persuaded me to give Walker another chance. I have not much else to write about the albums released after Tilt except to note his needling score for The Childhood of a Leader, directed by Vox Lux‘s Brady Corbet, in 2015. But let me return to Scott 4, on which I’ve spent most of my time. Drenched in a chansonnier tradition that ran parallel to rock through the sixties and into the next decade, Scott 4 adduces Jacques Brel, Dionne Warwick, the Richard Harris of “MacArthur Park.” A stately collection, “classy” in the booboisie sense; also, louche and mildly decadent in the manner of fading European nobility persisting into the Nixon and Heath era. Walker rarely allowed him a couplet as plummy as the following in “Duchess”: “With your shimmering dress/It says no, it says yes.” Male chorales compete with strings in the perfumed air of “The Old Man’s Back Again,” in which, speaking of faded glory, the ghosts of Stalin, Dostoevsky, and Voznesensky insist on being remembered. Ian McCullough and Pet Shop Boys no doubt wore out their vinyl copies.
All this, plus, to use the Randall Jarrell method of listing praise, “Two Ragged Soldiers,” “Plastic Palace People,” “It’s Raining Today,” “Fat Mama Kick,” and cover material of marvelous fluency and vitality. To say Walker toyed with camp is to accuse water of being wet. Camp is irony at its most equable. When Walker unleashed that vibrato on an unsuspecting syllable, he called attention to a limited physical range that was determined to break through emotionally anyway. Sound – the suggestive possibilities of phonemes; the dynamic on those later albums whereby the spaces between instruments and voice had a disjunctive power – intoxicated him. In the songbooks of Bob Crewe and Leiber-Stoller he saw unexplored corners of weirdness: the weirdness of a David Lynch movie in which an old man drives a lawnmower across the verdant lawns of rural America and neighbors say howdy. Scott Walker’s corpus will continue to fascinate the devoted and to elude casual listeners. At his best he alerts listeners to how fluttering things, to quote a poet whose composed, cologned mien hid a musky imagination, have so distinct a shade.
I haven’t heard 1980’s Soldier, but I made do. Special thanks to Phil Freeman, whose rankings are his own but he had shrewd insights about all of them.
1. The Idiot (1977)
For a while Lust For Life sounded like the better album: it was faster, had loud guitars, and moved. Now I prefer his debut because it’s slower, has loud keyboards, and plods. In recent years accounted as a Bowie album in all but name, The Idiot has a humor of which only James Osterberg was capable (“Funtime”) and a literalness that was beyond Bowie: “Nightclubbing” is not a metaphor, it’s about nightclubbing. I blame Bowie for “China Girl,” a crummy arrangement. The rest of The Idiot reproduces the sensation of keeping your wits as your sobriety crumbles; often it’s better than that, as the concluding pair “Tiny Girls” and “Mass Production” demonstrate.
2. New Values (1978)
To show he didn’t need Bowie, Igs writes half the tunes himself. “An album whose punk genes,” I wrote five years ago, “are exposed not by the arrangements, which suggest Mott The Hoople wrestling with horn charts and percussion, but in in Iggy’s contrapuntal, staccato vocals and the way in which he comes at rhythm sideways; the guitar on “I”m Bored” even sounds like a pretzeled Captain Beefheart bit from the same era straightened and desalted.”
3. Lust For Life (1977)
Taking its cue from its zombie-smile sleeve, Lust For Life presents an Iggy nominally ready to pierce through the narcotic fog of his previous Bowie collaboration. When the splat of “Some Weird Sin” is happening and the call and response vocals of “Success” keep going beyond their abilities, it’s the most alert album in rock — no one has earned the right to be this buoyant for so long. I’ll take Siouxsie and the Banshees’ cover of “The Passenger,” though.
4. Blah-Blah-Blah (1986)
Chris O’Leary’s upcoming book will cover the history of Bowie’s reunion with Iggy in 1985-1986; his blog posts on Blah-Blah-Blah inspired me to reevaluate an album forgotten by history. Blah-Blah-Blah is no sellout: it’s an attempt to bring Iggy to an AOR landscape dominated by the Georgia Satellites and Steve Winwood; indeed, the zealous backup vocals on the wonderful “Hideaway” rebuke “Higher Love.” “Real Wild Child” was a deserved comeback — no chorus, just Kevin Armstrong’s light distortion. Closer “Winners and Losers is his most impressive since “Mass Production,” with Erdal Kizilcay’s Middle Eastern swirl and Kevin Armstrong hitting hard those strings.
5. Brick By Brick (1990)
Maybe the presence of white-hot B-52’s singer Kate Pierson helped Iggy get his only top forty hit in America to date. The rise of VH-1 and the commercial renaissance of boomer icons like the Stones, Dylan, et. al. explains the enthusiasm for Brick By Brick, produced by Don Was (who would also produce the mentioned icons) and on which the L.A. studio rock elite (Waddy Wachtel!) provide Igs with his most professional backing. Much of it is performative maturity (“I Won’t Crap Out”), signified by the choice of a John Hiatt cover, Hiatt himself the choice of many a Poppy Bush Interzone recording artist when they sought the comfort of roots rock maturity. “Starry Night is Iggy attempting John Mellencamp’s “Cherry Bomb” with Mellencamp’s drummer.
6. Zombie Birdhouse (1982)
In which Blondie’s Chris Stein settles into the Bowie spot. However, Blondie in 1982 had reached the sodden nadir of their genre experimentation, an approach that suite Iggy Pop like a bowler hat and spats. “Run Like A Villain,” a first draft of 1986’s “Real Wild Child,” kicks off this frustrating collection — the loopy country-influenced “The Ballad Of Cookie McBride” has Iggy trying a lugubrious Foghorn Leghorn accent over pedal steel, for example. “Platonic,” with its synthesizer line from the Berlin Trilogy period (think “Weeping Wall”) is a better “mature” song than what he’d essay on at least a third of Brick By Brick eight years later.
7. Instinct (1988)
The single was called “Cold Metal.” Apt album descriptor too.
What’s there left to say? The late David Bowie rarely embarrassed himself during the period after his biggest corporate paychecks, and if listeners lower their expectations this work offers reward. ★ is the exception: it’s one of his ten greatest albums.
I don’t need to say much about Lou Reed that I didn’t in 2013. You won’t find his outré experiments here; he wasn’t good at them. He wanted to be “normal.” This drive inspired his weirdest moments.
I’m gay because of Lou Reed. David Bowie made me insouciant about it.
1. New Sensations (1984)
Like Reagan meeting with Gorbachev one year later, Lou could get away with what John Lydon called stepping over into re-enterprise because of two decades’ worth of accruing a reputation for doing the opposite. The title is descriptor and manifesto: without grandstanding, Reed puts himself in the company of fellow experts of the demotic, of men who make art after punching the clock. After writing about heroin, bondage, and putting jelly on your shoulder, Reed’s devotion to banality requires a similar accommodation on the part of the listener. He writes two valentines to male relationships. He loves Sam Shepard’s plays. He wants the principles of a timeless muse. So what if it sounds like he couldn’t afford Bob Clearmountain?
2. The Blue Mask (1982)
Unloved now, but, really, people, the blue filter? He’s (cheaply) rewriting Transformer a decade later — one of the first times a boomer icon used the eighties to rewire how we’d thought of him. Let’s face: most people, let alone critics, didn’t consider Lou Reed a boomer icon in the same breatha s Dylan, Fogerty, McCartney, and so on. I’m less offended by “Women” than most people — discovering the in the most literal chordal and lyric sense was for this put-jelly-on-my-shoulder guy a deeply weird phenomenon. The climax occurs at the title track’s 3:50 when Quine, as if reminded he’s Best Supporting Actor, steps back and lets Reed take his wildest solo since 1969.
3. Coney Island Baby (1976)
Lou’s James Taylor record without the L.A. pedigree. See? This is why he needed these musicians. When he wanted to write about crazy feelings for Charley’s girl and the football coach, he needed the cushion of soft rock guitars. His friendliest record — I just wanna bury my face in his Afro.
4. Ecstasy (2000)
Overpraised for Magic and Loss, ignored for the rest of the nineties, Lou needed a Major Statement. Set the Twilight Reeling wasn’t one, thank fucking Christ. Ecstasy was, and let’s call it his last functional record. “Paranoia Key of E,” “Mad,” and “Tatters” limn the shit that Glenn Close and Jonathan Pryce do in The Wife, only less maturely. Had Lou died in 2000, the roar of “Big Sky” would’ve served as appropriate envoi.
5. Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal (1973)
A diva turn. Steve Hunter and Dick Wagner masturbate for three minutes before Lou Dietrich takes the stage. Boy, is it fun, though, boasting the scariest performance of “Heroin” on a Reed-associated live album. For years his only gold record.
6. Set the Twilight Reeling (1996)
A forgotten but vital part of his canon, this 1996 set combines the hooks-galore casualness of New Sensations with the let’s-get-serious-let’s-fall-in-love approach of The Blue Mask. Nothing knew for Lou; going home to Laurie Anderson was just another, as he points out, “fourteenth chance at this life.” STTR also boasts a vulgar-awesome anti-GOP rant called “Sex With Your Parents (Motherfucker),” a vulgar-cute ode to eating egg creams, many adult love songs (the title track, “Hang On to Your Emotions,” “Adventurer”) and lots of feedback, created by Reed himself.
7. Transformer (1972)
An important record more than a great one, but maybe it doesn’t matter. “Satellite of Love” is ground zero for “TCV 15,” Peter Schilling’s “Major Tom,” U2’s “Zooropa,” and every song, rock and R&B, in which the singer looks beyond the ugliness of Earth. Also, Transformer has “Vicious” and “Walk on the Wide Side.” For too many years I resented Lou for the performative coming out in “Make Up,” complete with tuba, but someone needed to cut through the Mott the Hoople/Alice Cooper bullshit.
To think there was a time when David Bowie was considered a singles artist! Continue reading