Diamond Dogs is Bowie’s 8th record, and is half concept album based on George Orwell’s 1984. Originally thought to be used in a musical version of the novel, Bowie was not granted permission for the rights, and the songs were used in this album instead. Bowie is the lead guitarist for the first time following Mick Ronson’s departure. Before we get to the songs, I just have to say that this cover has always weirded me out. I’m not a fan of the Half Bowie/Half dog that graces the gatefold, it’s creepy. After a spoken word intro track, the album begins with the very Stones-esque Diamond Dogs, which features Bowie’s newest persona, Halloween Jack. It’s evident from the beginning that Bowie is moving away from his glam rock period and heading into a dirtier, bluesier rock and roll much like The Rolling Stones or The Stooges. Sweet Thing/Candidate/Sweet Thing (Reprise) is an epic 3 part story that takes up about half of the first side of the record. Gritty and angry at times, desperate at others, this could be as theatrical as anything Alice Cooper ever recorded. Rebel Rebel is another all time favorite, as it sounds more like his earlier glam rock work. As I’m listening to this record I am wondering why I don’t play it more often. I have a feeling it will get more spins now. When 1984 starts with the wah-wah guitar, it instantly reminds me of the theme from Shaft. “They’ll split your pretty cranium, and fill it full of air, And tell that you’re eighty, but brother, you won’t care. You’ll be shooting up on anything, tomorrow’s never there, Beware the savage jaw, Of 1984” It would’ve been interesting to see what Bowie would have done with the 1984 musical he wanted to create, but at least some good songs came out of the idea and found their home on Side B.
I love glam rock, but I also love some blue eyed soul. Because of this, Bowie’s 9th record, Young Americans, is another go to album for me to play regularly. I just want to touch on the fact that all these great albums were being made and released within a calendar year of each other. Bands just don’t have that kind of output anymore. He toured, and continued writing, banged another album out, and then back on the road. In 8 years we got from a song about a gnome to a song like Young Americans. Some bands take that long to release 2 records, let alone 9. Former Bowie bass player Tony Visconti produced and mixed a majority of the album. Drawing heavily on American soul music, Bowie featured a lot of background vocals and horns on this record. It was the beginnings of the Thin White Duke. According to Visconti, 85% of the album was recorded live in the studio with the full band and Bowie playing together. Fun fact: Luther Vandross is one of the vocalists on the album. Luther also helped co-write the song Fascination, and it is just straight up funky. Fun fact: This song has never been performed live. How about a Beatles cover featuring John Lennon himself on guitars and background vocals? Well just check out Across the Universe then. Fame is another famous single off of this record, and was also co-written by Lennon.
It’s 1976, and David Bowie is not in a good place. He’s using drugs heavily, living in Los Angeles, and losing his mind. He recalls little of the recording of this album, mostly due to his heavy cocaine addiction. He had filmed The Man Who Fell From Earth shortly before starting work on songs which he originally thought were going to be used as the film’s soundtrack, but they weren’t. The previous album had hinted at the birth of the Thin White Duke, but this was his birth. The character is described as a hollow man who sings intensely about love, but feels nothing, “ice masquerading as fire”. He seemed to be living a life not unlike the main character in Pink Floyd’s The Wall, perhaps Roger Waters drew some inspiration from Bowie, as well as himself. The opening, and title track, Station to Station is 10 minutes long and practically two songs in one. It starts slow and haunting and evolves into an upbeat bluesy rock song. Fun fact: This album would be Bowie’s highest charting one in the US until last year’s The Next Day. Golden Years was the biggest hit off the record. I’m still unsure of what I think of the song, even after all these years. I like some of it, and some of it I don’t. I hate the repeated “Golden Years” lines sung throughout, but I love the bridge and chorus. I’m cool with the whistling bit too, nothing wrong with a good whistle break. TVC15 is based on a story involving singer Iggy Pop. Evidently during a visit to Bowie’s house, Iggy, under the influence of drugs, hallucinated that the television set was swallowing his girlfriend. This album set the table for his next three albums which are referred to as The Berlin Trilogy.
Album 11, Low, was released in January 1977 and begins his collaborations with Brian Eno. Fun fact: The cover, much like Station to Station’s, uses photographs from the film The Man Who Fell To Earth. This one is supposed to be a pun; Low profile. The album opens with his first instrumental track, Speed of Life. At this point in time, Bowie had moved to Berlin to escape the cocaine capital of the world and kick his habit. Sound and Vision is an amalgamation of his Young American album mixed with the synthesizers of Eno. Always Crashing In the Same Car hints towards the direction he is going and would work with during the 80’s. A New Career In a New Town is another upbeat instrumental that closes out the first half. Most of the songs on Side One are quite short, and then Side Two features the mostly instrumental pieces he was working on for the film. Side Two begins with Warszawa, the most famous of the tracks on this part of the album. Very moody and ambient, it bares little resemblance to Ziggy Stardust from 5 years prior. I once played this album at the store while working with a former employee who suffered from depression. They told me if they played this album while in one of their down periods, it’d make them want to kill themselves. I believe it was Art Decade that would’ve sent them over the edge, so obviously the album title is appropriate. It reminds me of work Peter Gabriel, another favorite of mine, would be experimenting with around this time.
Heroes, Bowie’s 12th album was released just 9 months after Low, in October 1977. Recorded 500 yards from the Berlin Wall, its content reflected the environment in which it was made. Beauty and the Beast stands out immediately after just playing the instrumental second half of Low. The snarling guitars grabbed me immediately. I will be honest and say the first time I heard Heroes it was sung by Jacob Dylan and The Wallflowers. However, that cover led me to the original song and I like it much more. (As I said, I had to find Bowie on my own since no one I knew listened to him, except for random singles on the radio.) Never a massive hit when released, it has now become one of his more iconic songs. Bowie again starts quiet and by the end he is belting out the song, straining to be heard over the music. From Wikipedia: “To achieve this desired sound Tony Visconti rigged up a system of three microphones to capture the epic vocal, with one microphone nine inches from Bowie, one 20 feet away and one 50 feet away. Only the first was opened for the quieter vocals at the start of the song, with the first and second opening on the louder passages, and all three on the loudest parts, creating progressively more reverb and ambience the louder the vocals became. Each microphone is muted as the next one is triggered. Bowie’s performance thus grows in intensity precisely as ever more ambience infuses his delivery until, by the final verse, he has to shout just to be heard….The more Bowie shouts just to be heard, in fact, the further back in the mix Visconti’s multi-latch system pushes his vocal tracks, creating a stark metaphor for the situation of Bowie’s doomed lovers.” Black Out ends Side One . Much like Low, Side Two features a lot of atmospheric moody ambient music composed with Eno. However, I find Low to be superior as an album.
Finally, Bowie wraps up the 70’s, as well as his Berlin trilogy, with Lodger. This album features no instrumentals and comes off a bit more accessible than the previous two. That being said, I find it to be a mediocre album. Most of the songs don’t jump out at me. Red Sails, which ends Side One, was the first one to make the playlist. DJ was a single and had a music video, but it peaked at only #29 on the UK charts. You can hear the 80’s approaching on this album, it has a slight new wave vibe to it. Look Back In Anger completes three straight songs in a row that in my opinion make up for the slow start. Honestly, this is the first one I’ve gotten a little bored with. I don’t think it’s because I’ve listened to nothing but David Bowie for 9 straight hours, it’s because it isn’t on par with previous work to my ears. Oh well, onto the 80’s!!