Ever feel like running off to the circus? I had one of those days recently, but let’s face it, it’s not always a practical option. So I had to make do with a song. And that got it out of my system. I can’t juggle either.
It still seems impossible to be living in a world without David Bowie. He was so intensely alive, so vivacious in his performance and personality that the whole idea of his death still seems slightly absurd. It’s taken me a week to collect my thoughts; every night I’ve been out running in the dark with his songs as the soundtrack.
My Bowie adventure began when I borrowed his Changesbowie collection from Rugby library along with a copy of Hanif Kureishi’s Buddha of Suburbia. At 14, this felt like a big cultural step up from The Beatles and Tintin, and I wasn’t really expecting to like either of them. I took the tape on my French exchange and listened to it incessantly in the run-down chateaux near Nantes. It was astonishing. I couldn’t get over the thrilling swagger of Suffragette City, the lush Changes and epic posturing of Heroes. Even Blue Jean sounded pretty exciting. Every song was like the best song I’d ever heard, which to be fair, happens all the time when you’re 14 and just discovering rock and roll.
I continued to pick up his records here and there, only getting up to speed with that incredible run of seventies albums when I arrived at Newcastle University in 1993. Sunday morning trips to Tynemouth Record fair became a bit of a ritual. One week I returned with Diamond Dogs, Hunky Dory and Low, with change from a fiver. They spun continually, their covers stuck with blu tac to the walls of my room.
Fellow Newcastle student, Darren Giddings, poet, musician and cultural provocateur, helped fill crucial gaps – switching me onto Lodger and Station to Station. In a pre YouTube age, he was also able to show me the man in the flesh, with a pile of ancient VHS tapes; Boys Keep Swinging from 1979 was particularly brilliant, with Bowie essaying his trade mark peacock strut inter-cut with him in drag, looking alternately like Jerry Hall, Joan Collins and bizarrely an ancient Greta Garbo. It was utter genius. Seeing that I liked this, Darren also spun TVC 15, an addictive slab of stylish funk n’ roll, which became a massive favourite (he did a great, supercharged performance of this at Live Aid).
I’ve loved Bowie ever since, including his later work in the 90s and 2000s, which I felt was unjustly neglected in favour of the Ziggy and Let’s Dance eras in the recent career round-ups. So I’m going to attempt to redress this, attempt the impossible and come up with a top five from each decade of his output:
Slim pickings, but here is the best of the crop. With one notable exception, these are generally curiosity value only.
Can’t Help Thinking About Me – revived for his VH1 Storytellers performance, this is a great, Who flavoured track, showcasing his higher register. Maybe a little too derivative to be an unqualified success.
Space Oddity – tapping into the zeitgeist of the moon landings, Bowie delivers his eerie lullaby come opera and his first truly brilliant song. When it blast off at the line, ‘This is Ground Control to Major Tom …’ a new star is born …
Love you Til Tuesday – Pure Austin Powers but a jaunty little song, marred only by a slightly dodgy branch/romance rhyme.
Let me Sleep Beside You – More recognisably Bowie, mellow but ultimately forgettable. ‘Lock away your childhood and throw away the key’.
Ching a Ling – Proving that any parody of the Sixties doesn’t match up to the trippy reality. Sung with an astonishing earnestness and ending with a splendidly emphatic hand clap.
The quality goes up to maximum; a choice of five seems perverse. If you were asked to choose thirty songs, you would still be hard pressed.
Moonage Daydream – Heart-stopping guitar, imperious crooning = total joy. ‘The church of mad love is such a holy place to be …’
Watch That Man – A glam rock stomp that crushes all competition, kicking off the Aladdin Sane album in wild style. Inexplicably missing from most Bowie compilations.
Suffragette City – Unbeatable, adrenalin fuelled rock and roll
Station to Station – the icy, industrial epic and masterpiece of stately funk
Beauty and the Beast – ‘Someone fetch a doctor, someone fetch a priest, you can’t say no to the beauty and the beast …’ Highlight from the Heroes album, with Robert Fripp’s hypnotic guitar part.
Less to choose from, with a nose dive in quality after 1983, but still plenty of fruit on the branch …
Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) – clattering kitchen sink production; menacing tone, another winner
Fashion – More mind-blowing guitar transforms a droll song into stratospheric brilliance
Ashes to Ashes – self referential, postmodern defining moment and mind blowing production; like a whole album cut up into one song.
Let’s Dance – invincible sounding, floor filling classic; Emperor Nero meets Chic
China Girl – melodically irresistible, plus the immortal line about Marlon Brando …
A surprisingly busy decade for Bowie, making up for a largely squandered 80s, taking in all styles from metal to drum n’ bass.
You Belong in Rock and Roll – The Tin Machine II album was generally much better than the first effort; along with Goodbye Mr Ed from the same period, this puts forward a good case for reappraisal
Jump They Say – Ultra sophisticated dance tune with expensive production; genuinely better than anything since Let’s Dance
Buddha of Suburbia – truly exceptional song from the soundtrack to the TV adaptation of the Hanif Kureishi book; coherent, South London, outsider lyric and nostalgic musical quotation from Starman makes for a compelling coming of age statement
Strangers When We Meet – featured on both the Outside and Buddha of Suburbia albums this is thrilling retread of his epic sound, coming out somewhere between Heroes and Under Pressure – no bad thing. The Outside version is superior.
The Heart’s Filthy Lesson – with a suitably filthy riff, nightmarish feel and deadly focus, this is riveting stuff from the Eno produced Outside album.
Just two albums, both of them corkers …
Slow Burn – with Pete Townsend on guitar, this is a blistering mid pace slow burner (as the title suggests) with a soaring Bowie vocal. From the excellent Heathen album.
Afraid – one of my all time Bowie favourites, this directly follows Slow Burn on Heathen, with a Pixies style guitar sound and a perfectly pitched vocal simultaneously full of menace and vulnerabilit. Moving reference to old mate John Lennon’s song, God (‘I believe in Beatles’).
Everyone Says Hi – Elegiac, reflective, tone, genuinely beautiful melody. He has rarely sounded more better.
New Killer Star – ace, post-glam rocker with crunchy guitar and hypnotic vocal, bursting into a Technicolor chorus (from Reality.)
Pablo Picasso – brilliant Jonathan Richman cover; Bowie had not had this much fun in ages. Also from Reality.
The great resurgence, with two of his career best albums, both stuffed with gold as well as intimations of mortality
(You Will) Set the World on Fire – slashing guitar, thunderous tune, brilliantly bonkers cut up lyrics
Where Are We Now – the comeback single, with memories of Berlin, musical echoes of Space Oddity, wearily beautiful vocal, and gorgeous tune
Atomica – from the Next Day EP – would have been one of the strongest tracks on the Next Day album; an electro rock monster with great pop sensibilities. I’ll Take You There from the Deluxe version of Next Day album is equally good, a distant cousin of Fashion. There was clearly an embarrassment of riches from these sessions; personally I think some different track choices and re-sequencing would have made a stronger album. But hey, we’ve got it all anyway.
Blackstar – A dark, complex, brilliant journey into Bowie’s soul. Arabic sounding melody over discordant beats and riveting instrumentation
Lazarus – Riveting parting gift, with harrowing vocal, mournful sax and a heartbreaking lyrics. ‘Look up here, I’m in heaven.’
And the rest is silence; thanks David. Hope you’re up there with the bluebirds; the music lives forever.