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The strength of David Bowie’s body of work was recently highlighted by his overtaking the UK charts.
In the top 100, Bowie held almost 20% of the chart, with an impressive 19 albums, as well as 13 singles. It’s safe to say his death has impacted many people. Part one of Vada’s look through David Bowie’s discography covered his first five albums. Today, we continue our exploration.
Time – Aladdin Sane – 1973
Featuring one of Bowie’s most famous refrains (‘Time – he flexes like a whore / Falls wanking to the floor’), ‘Time’ is a mixture of glam rock and avant-garde jazz, a sound combination that recently resurfaced on his final album Blackstar and its titular track.
‘Time’ is camp, with drawn out bursts of electronic guitar layered over Brechtian cabaret and Bowie warbling ‘La, la, la, la, la, la, la, la’ over and over on a seemingly never-ending loop.
‘Time’ is the prime example of a Bowie song that some may not ‘get’ or understand. It has famously divided critical opinion, but it most certainly got fans talking, and Bowie is renown for producing odd bodies of work. Just look once more at ‘Blackstar‘ – though some light has now been shed on its meaning following Bowie’s death, it’s overall structure and message is still hard to fathom, much like ‘Time’ itself.
Sorrow – Pin Ups – 1973
Consisting solely of cover songs, Pin Ups has been received unfavourably in comparison with a lot of Bowie’s other albums, but it was released in a period in which Bowie had pressure to try and gain more commercial success.
The highlight of this rather disappointing album has to be ‘Sorrow’, a folk rock track that sees Bowie singing about ‘a Devil’s daughter’. ‘With your long blonde hair and your eyes of blue / The only thing I ever got from you was sorrow,’ Bowie opens with particular relish, and he gives this song his all. The infusion of jazz from the trumpet and sax in particular help make this a standout track as everything is drawn beautifully together.
Rebel Rebel – Diamond Dogs – 1974
Another song that most know, ‘Rebel Rebel’ is Bowie’s goodbye to the glam rock movement that he helped pioneer. In particular, Bowie frankly references the styles that are associated with this movement: ‘You’ve got your mother in a whirl / She’s not sure if you’re a boy or a girl / Hey babe, your hair’s alright / Hey baby, let’s go out tonight.’
‘Rebel Rebel’ is regarded as a glam anthem and the female equivalent of ‘All the Young Dudes’. Incorporating a chanting chorus, and a distinct guitar riff, this is Bowie at his best. It’s hard not to sing along.
Fame – Young Americans – 1975
Funky ‘Fame’ is as close to dance as Bowie ever came, and with it came a new sound for the icon to pioneer. ‘Fame’ is slutty; it’s sultry and seductive and groovy. Written with ‘a degree of malice’ aimed at his management at the time, Bowie has gone on record to that ‘I think fame itself is not a rewarding thing’.
Within the song Bowie discusses his hatred for fame itself. ‘Fame, what you like is in the limo / Fame, what you get is no tomorrow / Fame, what you need you have to borrow / Fame,’ but he may also be commenting upon sexuality within the music industry.
As ‘Fame’ closes, Bowie whispers, ‘Feeling so gay, feeling gay? / Brings so much pain?’ Bowie famously retracted his claim of being gay and in 1976, a year after the release of ‘Fame’, he told Playboy , ‘It’s true – I am a bisexual. But I can’t deny that I’ve used that fact very well. I suppose it’s the best thing that ever happened to me’.
Later still, Bowie would go on to telling Rolling Stone that his admission of bisexuality was ‘the biggest mistake I ever made’ and that he was always ‘a closet heterosexual’. Whatever his sexual preference, there is no denying the impact that Bowie had upon homosexual identity within society.
Golden Years – Station To Station – 1976
‘Golden Years’ is a combination of funk and soul, and as such produces one of Bowie’s best every vocals. It was this album that spawned one of Bowie’s final personas – the Thin White Duke. In a period of high cocaine consumption, the Station To Station era saw Bowie at one of his lowest points.
Reportedly living solely on ‘red peppers, cocaine, and milk’, Bowie made controversial comments, was detained by Polish and Russian border control for possession of Nazi paraphernalia, and reportedly used a Nazi salute during a return to London.
It could be said that ‘Golden Years’ was a precursor for Bowie’s next three albums – the so-called ‘Berlin Trilogy’, which produced some of his best work. Indeed, the line ‘Don’t let me hear you say life’s taking you nowhere, angel’ is particularly haunting in its prophetic nature. Though Station to Station was released in 1976, ‘Golden Years’ was released as a single in 1975, and the following year saw Bowie moving to Switzerland, cut down on his cocaine consumption, and put his best back into his music.
Sound And Vision – Low – 1977
Another year, another change in genre for Bowie. ‘Sound And Vision’ is a mash of rock and funk with infusions of electronic, and it incorporates a long instrumental opening that takes up half of the song. ‘Sound And Vision’ discusses Bowie’s desire to overcome writer’s block. ‘Pale blinds drawn all day / Nothing to do, nothing to say / Blue, blue / I will sit right down / Waiting for the gift of sound and vision.’
It is perhaps a comment upon Bowie’s regrets of the past few years and his desire to produce something different. The line ‘Drifting into my solitude’ gives particular credence to this; ‘Sound And Vision’ was originally conceived of as a instrumental track.
Thankfully he overcame his writer’s block, as ‘Sound And Vision’ is one of Bowie’s best tracks.
“Heroes” – “Heroes” – 1977
‘”Heroes”‘ is a classic in its own right – it is Bowie at his very best, both in writing and deliverance. Depicting a story of two lovers who meet at the Berlin Wall, ‘”Heroes”‘ is almost anthemic in nature.
The backing guitars and drums swell throughout as Bowie delivers truly emotive vocals. Its lyrics are likewise emotive: ‘Then we could be heroes / Just for one day’. It’s a powerful statement to make, but one that it entirely true.
Boys Keep Swinging – Lodger – 1979
On the surface ‘Boys Keep Swinging’ is all about how great it is to be a boy. ‘Heaven loves ya / The clouds part for ya / Nothing stands in your way / When you’re a boy,’ Bowie sings over heavily layered bass guitar. Basically, being a boy is best.
But in 2000 Bowie said the following of ‘Boys Keep Swinging’: ‘I do not feel that there is anything remotely glorious about being either male or female. I was merely playing on the idea of the colonisation of gender.’
Whatever the true meaning of its lyrics, there is no denying Bowie’s deliverance. A low, grumbling vocal make this the standout from Lodger, the final album in the ‘Berlin Trilogy’. Its line ‘When you’re a boy. Other boys check you out’ caused considerable controversy at the time, showing once more that Bowie never really cared what critics thought of his music, or his sexuality. He did it for the social movement of the time, and for his fans.