David Bowie meant so much to so many, and the tragic news of his passing has left his fans floored. Orchestrating the release of his final album Blackstar to coincide with his flailing health, Bowie’s death has been described by producer Tony Visconti as ‘[being] no different from his life – a work of art’.
In this tribute I wish to discuss the music, and not the man. Releasing 26 studio albums over a period of 49 years, Bowie was perhaps the last of the icons, and as such I’ve picked the crowning glory from each album. Some you’ll have heard of, some you won’t, but the undeniable fact is that each is worthy of undying praise.
The Laughing Gnome – David Bowie – 1967
The first time you hear ‘The Laughing Gnome’ you’d be forgiven for thinking you’re high. Featuring a jaunty backing track layered over Bowie duetting with a sped-up version of himself (as the titular gnome), ‘The Laughing Gnome’ is essentially a comedic song.
As the gnome, Bowie delivers laughable puns incorporating the word ‘gnome’, my personal favourite being: ‘Right, let’s hear it / Here, what’s the clicking noise? / That’s Fred, he’s a “metrognome”, haha.’
There is simply no way this song would work by any other artist, and it probably wouldn’t have worked in Bowie’s later material, but the entirety of David Bowie sounds vastly different to the sound that would eventually make him an icon. That’s not to say that it should be disregarded, though.
Space Oddity – David Bowie / Space Oddity – 1969
‘Space Oddity’ is one of those songs that everybody knows, whether they’re a Bowie fan or not. Strumming guitars and drawn out trumpet bursts manage to capture the majestic nature of Major Tom’s journey through the stars, and though he only featured on two Bowie songs (three if you consider the Pet Shop Boys’ remix of ‘Hallo Spaceboy’, and maybe even four if you consider the video for ‘Blackstar’), Major Tom has become a part of music culture.
Psychedelic in nature, ‘Spade Oddity’ is synonymous with Bowie. ‘Ground Control to Major Tom / Commencing countdown, engines on,’ Bowie sings in distinct tones that help you somehow picture the infamous Major Tom stranded above Earth in his tin can.
‘Space Oddity’ achieved Bowie’s first UK number one single.
All the Madmen – The Man Who Sold the World – 1971
Opening slow, with acoustic guitar layered over recorder notes, ‘All The Madmen’ soon warps into Bowie’s trademark hard rock. Dealing with insanity in a world where sane men are described as being the same as the insane, ‘All The Madmen’ was, according to Bowie himself, written for and about his half-brother – who was diagnosed with schizophrenia and was incarcerated in the Cane Hill mental institution.
Referencing lobotomy and EST, ‘All the Madmen’ is perhaps the first song by Bowie which references his uniqueness: ‘Id rather play here with all the madmen / For I’m quite content they’re all as sane as me.’ As such, it deserves to be lauded for its ingenuity and braveness.
Oh! You Pretty Things – Hunky Dory – 1971
Another slow opening, in which Bowie laments the death of the human race over simplistic piano, ‘Oh! You Pretty Things’ soon bursts into life with undeniable refrain. It’s one of Bowie’s many songs which discusses extraterrestrial life, something which also became synonymous with Bowie. His obsession with space and aliens carried onto the re-release of his penultimate album in 2013.
‘Homo sapiens have outgrown their use / All the strangers came today / And it looks as though they’re here to stay,’ Bowie laments over jaunty piano bursts that help to fuse two of Bowie’s preferable sounds: rock and glam. As such, his frank depiction of the youth of society is groundbreaking.
Starman – The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars – 1972
The first single from the concept album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, ‘Starman’ is another example of a song that everybody knows. Its frequently used in movies and television to the point that everybody can sing along.
‘Starman’ discusses an alien waiting in the sky who wants to come and help Earth, a recurring theme across the 1972 album which is wildly regarded as one of Bowie’s best. Its been described as a classic and a gem.
It was during this time that Bowie began discussing his sexuality, and as such the album was met with controversy at the time of its release. The titular Ziggy Stardust is famously bisexual, as is the artist himself.
Bowie discussed the concept of the album with William Burroughs, which certainly sheds light on the connections of the songs:
‘The time is five years to go before the end of the earth. It has been announced that the world will end because of lack of natural resources. Ziggy is in a position where all the kids have access to things that they thought they wanted. The older people have lost all touch with reality and the kids are left on their own to plunder anything. Ziggy was in a rock-and-roll band and the kids no longer want rock-and-roll. There’s no electricity to play it. Ziggy’s adviser tells him to collect news and sing it, ’cause there is no news. So Ziggy does this and there is terrible news. ‘All the young dudes’ is a song about this news. It’s no hymn to the youth as people thought. It is completely the opposite. […]
‘The end comes when the infinites arrive. They really are a black hole, but I’ve made them people because it would be very hard to explain a black hole on stage. […]
‘Ziggy is advised in a dream by the infinites to write the coming of a Starman, so he writes ‘Starman’, which is the first news of hope that the people have heard. So they latch onto it immediately…The starmen that he is talking about are called the infinites, and they are black-hole jumpers. Ziggy has been talking about this amazing spaceman who will be coming down to save the earth. They arrive somewhere in Greenwich Village. They don’t have a care in the world and are of no possible use to us. They just happened to stumble into our universe by black hole jumping. Their whole life is travelling from universe to universe. In the stage show, one of them resembles Brando, another one is a Black New Yorker. I even have one called Queenie, the Infinite Fox…Now Ziggy starts to believe in all this himself and thinks himself a prophet of the future starmen. He takes himself up to the incredible spiritual heights and is kept alive by his disciples. When the infinites arrive, they take bits of Ziggy to make them real because in their original state they are anti-matter and cannot exist in our world. And they tear him to pieces on stage during the song ‘Rock ‘n’ roll suicide’. As soon as Ziggy dies on stage the infinites take his elements and make themselves visible.’