Saturday, 23 August 2014

Ten From The Top Drawer: David Bowie.

Recently, I had a Rolling Stone article brought to my attention by my good friend Brother JCC: a list of ‘20 Insanely Great David Bowie Songs Only Hardcore Fans Know.’ 

Ah well, it’s more like a list of ‘20 Insanely Great David Bowie Songs You Might Hear If You Owned A David Bowie Album That Wasn’t A Greatest Hits’, but you know how it is with lists. I hope it may serve a higher function than merely preaching to the converted; that hopefully a casual-but-intrigued Bowie neophyte may peruse the list and be tempted to go beyond the confines of a compilation  — but who doesn’t love to disagree with a list, any list, purporting to precis some pop-cultural achievement in twenty easy-to-digest bullet points?

So — with that in mind, but mindful of your time and tolerance, I present a mere ten songs by The Dame, in no particular order, that I rate most highly. There are many others of course, as my love of Bowie goes back to my first adolescent appreciations of music as an active consumer. His was the first corpus of work by any musician I consciously decided to investigate and collect, but I didn’t agonise over this list — I simply allowed myself a minute to think of musical moments in the Bowiesphere that I find are always welcome when they shuffle up to the surface on my iPod…and shuffle up they do, frequently. Feel free to disagree with my choices. 

Holy Holy: Rolling Stone and I concur — it’s an insane classic, with deliberately provocative occult-flirting lyrics that made quite an impression on me when I was 14 years old and heard it on the Bowie Rare album. The lyric sheet of this album (of European RCA provenance, I believe), should you ever read it, is a veritable velvet goldmine of badly translated mondegreens and typos (“bust just lest me be” instead of “but just let me be” being one of the milder examples in this song alone, if memory serves). Holy Holy also contains a sterling example of the quintessential 70s rock effect of a reversed gated reverb plastered on Bowie’s vocal, rendering the echo of the sung words audible before the words themselves. Legend has it that one James Patrick Page discovered this trick and this explains its earliest outings on certain Led Zeppelin guitar solos.

She’s Got Medals: Again, can’t argue with RS on this. I am a vociferous defender of Bowie’s soi-disant ‘juvenilia’, if defence were even needed, and it riles me when his experimental, fertile and eclectic Sixties output is summarised by tin-eared journalists and wiki-rote pub bores invoking the reductio ad absurdum of The Laughing Gnome (which incidentally is a great song, doing a successful job as a comedy number with a Mod-stomping backbeat that bears repeated listening. Can’t fault it. Form a queue to smack me upside the head if you dare). She’s Got Medals, along with The London Boys, is possibly my favourite song from Bowie’s career before his 1969 breakout. An engaging, semi-spoken lyric (top line: “she went and joined the Army; passed the medical — don’t ask me how it’s done!”) and a weirdly creepy oboe arrangement stand out, along with a blatant steal of Love’s version of Hey Joe (the bass line, mostly, although there’s shades of the Byrds version in there too), but all wrapped up in a very English, between-the-wars parochialism that sets the lightness of the delivery against something dark and sinister in a way only the Sixties ever managed. 

Sweet Thing/Candidate/Sweet Thing (reprise)/Rebel Rebel: OK, I’m cheating by citing three (four?) songs, but they are so artfully linked that they are indivisible (and programmed to come up as such on my iPod). Bowie almost goes Prog! There’s definitely a concept-album feel to Diamond Dogs (betraying its gestation as a musical version of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, nixed when Orwell’s widow refused Bowie the performing rights) and this three-song suite takes in a cracking range over a relatively short passage of time, with Sweet Thing alternately stately and darkly pretty, then (un)settling into the frankly creepy decadence of Candidate (a song that featured at the centre of a nightmare I once had concerning Bowie) before recapitulating Sweet Thing only to accelerate to the sleaze-out, stomp-riff finale of Rebel Rebel. This could well be the zenith of Bowie’s marriage of theatricality and rock — and the subsequent Diamond Dogs tour reflected that; possibly the high-water mark of Bowie’s live career — at least to begin with… 

Big Brother/Chant Of The Ever-Circling Skeletal Family: Diamond Dogs again, commanding a considerable amount of total minutes on this list. Scary Dave is back. There’s something almost cinematic about the placing of these songs and the atmosphere they convey (perhaps picked up subconsciously from the line in ‘Candidate’ where Bowie conspiratorially avers that “my set is amazing; it even smells like a street”) as we move in a distinct tracking shot (sonically speaking) down from the epic, crumbling tenement towers of Big Brother (with its brilliantly ‘failed’ attempt at a happy middle-eight) to focus on the Skeletal Family dancing round a burning oil drum in the precincts. Chant Of The Ever-Circling Skeletal Family completely obsessed me as a teen, with its theoretically endless, almost medieval tötentanz-ical whirl, while the mellotron/choir transition from Big Brother into the Chant is still up there as one of my favourite ever Bowie moments. The lyrics of Chant read on paper as the kind of interjections James Brown would bark out during one of his numbers (Brother! Ooh-ooh! Shake it up! Move it up!) but in Bowie’s delivery they become a ghostly, fleshless, minimalist mantra. Also noteworthy is the absolutely inspired, almost onomatopoeic use of guiro and claves to scratch-clatch out a hollow-boned percussive drive. Charles Schaar Murray once described Diamond Dogs and the subsequent tour LP David Live as ‘the final nightmare of glitter apocalypse…in which the corpse of Ziggy had been reanimated in hell to run through his act one more time’ — powerfully emotive, matchless metaphors indeed, realised no better than on these closing songs. To a certain post-Beatles generation, the repeated bro-bro-bro-bro fadeout must have been as resonant and final in the Seventies as the closing chord on the Sgt. Pepper album was in the Sixties — a slamming-down of the lid on the Glam Rock sarcophagus.

Life On Mars?:  As a very small child, my mother would sing me to sleep singing ‘Starman’, which she always thought had a nice melody even if that funny chap who sang it on telly wore makeup and looked, as she would put it, ‘a bit poofy’. Consequently, I had the man we sometimes call ‘Bromley Dave’ instilled in me from before I can remember. My earliest inklings of Bowie, visually speaking, were derived from several pop promos that seemed to be on TV a lot when I was a toddler: the Jean Genie film evinces a thrill of vivid childhood nostalgia for me, with the band filmed on The Streets Of San Francisco and the model Cyrinda Foxe vamping about trying to catch Bowie’s eye (which she did in real life, so I’m told). Ditto the Life On Mars? promo, filmed months, if not years, after the single release as it depicts a full-blown Ziggy on acoustic guitar (see link), rather than the Bacall-like, blond-locked and Oxford-bagged Bowie that was behind the mic on Hunky Dory. Throw in the photos of Ziggy in the red leather kecks, high boots and the eyepatch... and you had, er, Adolf Hitler. 

Adolf Hitler, yesterday.

Or at least that’s who I thought it was at the age of four. I blame this misattribution on my older brother, who with four years on me had developed a childish fascination with war films and spoke about Churchill, Hitler, the Nazis etc a lot. Somehow in my head I conflated one person onto the image of another and subsequently maintained, in my childlike manner, a theory that a) Hitler was alive and out there, somewhere and b) he looked like Ziggy Stardust. This was clearly a man to be feared. Consequently my earliest memories of Bowie are imagining him to be some kind of human monster in Maybelline, the epitome of fear incarnate Factored to the Max... who also released pop singles. By the time Bowie got to the Ashes To Ashes promo, the deal was sealed; he terrified me like the Daleks. Even today I am aware that the eyepatched Ziggy pics create a frisson of recognition in me that is as potent as seeing a blue Police Box and acknowledging its time-travel capabilities first over any mere mundane functionality for the boys in blue. I probably didn’t shake this doublethink off until I turned thirteen or so. My sister owned several Bowie albums and, as is healthy for a curious adolescent, my fear gave way to fascination and eventually affection. Funny, I was fascinated by Bowie as a child despite the fact he scared me; as an adult I liked him precisely because I knew he scared me. In fact, I think I like Scary Dave the best of all.

Anyway, there’s nothing more I can add about the self-evident genius of Life On Mars? other than it’s an instant classic, pisses on My Way even if it’s derived thereof, and Mick Ronson’s stunning string arrangement can never be overpraised, although frequently overlooked, it seems. Oh, and Rick Wakeman’s on it. David Bowie: one — rest of the world: nil.

Hang On To Yourself: … and then I’d say this song probably did more to (re)kindle an active interest in Dame Adolf as a teenager and initiate my ‘Bowie rehab’ (which ironically enough, meant I emerged a confirmed addict). This would be potent rock’n’roll by anyone, a crisp nugget of hard-hitting pop perfection and one of my favourite songs of all time. Amidst the Cochranesque riffing and the doo-wop hand-clapping, there is something so very Seventies about the half-heard “yeaaaaahhhh” that drifts across the speakers after the line “you’re the blessed; we’re the Spiders From Mars.” I love Woody Woodmansey’s machine-gun drum fills too. A song with a companionable arm round the shoulder for me. 

StationToStation: I loved StationToStation as a teenager more than Young Americans as I despised anything too funky or soulish in those days, reacting against the preponderance of disco-funk in the charts as a child (I have since reconciled myself with this oft-rewarding, but frequently-abused genre). I found Young Americans, despite Bowie’s ‘plastic soul’ assessment, to be too much like The Real Thing (can you feel the force?). StationToStation somehow packages the funky inflections in with music that is glacial, lengthy and decidedly progressive (I think it’s no coincidence that Bowie, unable to secure Roy Bittan’s services on keyboards for the Thin White Duke tour, opted for ex-Yes man Tony Kaye) and nowhere more effectively than the title track, which builds from practically nothing into a sneaky, almost snidey but steady plod of a tune that then makes one magical movement into weirdly freaked-out, discofied apotheosis, leavened immeasurably by Bittan’s joyous, scintillating piano part. It’s actually amazing how little Bowie himself contributes to the structure of the music, but the Thin White Duke’s presence presides over the proceedings, all-pervading, like a vampiric cloud.  Let us not forget that this album was recorded at Bowie’s lowest life-ebb to date, apparently leaving session boys Earl Slick, Bittan et al to get on with much of the arrangement while he descended into coke-induced, song-inspiring blackout. It is impressive that Bowie managed to parlay his demons into cohesive — and admittedly danceable — music to such successful effect. 

Look Back In Anger: Online intelligence informs me that this song is considered by some critics to be the low point of Lodger. I don’t understand why, as it’s simply a kick-ass song, with the lyric that tells me exactly where the idea comes for the angelic Mr Baker on the cover of the BBM album. The instrumental break that sort of comprises the second verse of Look Back In Anger (at least it comes before the second refrain of the structure) is a thrilling bit of tight ensemble playing, with Alomar’s simple but highly effective solo writhing over Dennis Davis’ astonishing drum part, one of the greatest takes of Davis’ illustrious Bowie career. I get the impression Bowie maybe had extra lyrics, but heard what his sidemen were doing on the backing track and elected to let some of the music breathe for several bars: it really is quite a piece of work. 

Come And Buy My Toys: Another one from the arcane, recondite vaults of Bowie’s psinister, psychedelic psixties. John Renbourn on acoustic guitar. Fact. Artless (arf arf) mention of a ‘cambric shirt’ and some Baroque palm-muted bass counterpoint. It’s a slight arrangement, but something about this song opens a wormhole to somewhere that manages to be sunblest and fell simultaneously. A Wicker Manish Boy.

The Jean Genie: A stone-cold classic. Time can flex like a whore and fall wanking to the floor all it wants, but it fails to diminish the sheer exuberant chug and swagger of this archetypal Spiders song. As a very small child, with the most minimal knowledge of pop music I initially believed it was by the Stones, and who can blame me? I remember this being played frequently when I was about five/six (a reissue, do we know?) on tv (in that aforementioned video) as well as on radio and the DJs talking so warmly of it that I liked it instantly and didn’t realise that ‘Adolf Hitler’ had recorded it until a while later. Then it scared me! 

That’s all from me for now. I’ll be doing more of these scrabblings around in my top drawers of pop culture soon.

But first, a drink.


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