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Continuing our journey though David Bowie’s greatest tracks, the third part of our countdown takes us through the years 1980 to 1995, a period in which Bowie became creatively exhausted, and sought to rejuvenate his interest in music.
Read the first two parts of our countdown here: part one, part two.
Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps) – Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps) – 1980
The title track off of Bowie’s 1980 album, ‘Scary Monsters’ see’s Bowie utilise a synthesiser to distort his exaggerated Cockney delivery. This is punk music at its best, and ‘Scary Monsters’ is one of Bowie’s most renowned tracks.
The track explores a woman’s withdrawal from the world around her, and a descent into madness, a recurring theme across Bowie’s discography. ‘And when I looked in her eyes they were blue but nobody home,’ Bowie sings over hypnotic guitars produced by Robert Fripp and Tony Visconti.
With this song, and the album as a whole, Bowie managed to straddle two worlds perfectly – he produced a commercially successful record that was also well received by critics and fans. The Berlin Trilogy obviously made its mark on him.
Let’s Dance – Let’s Dance – 1983
Let’s Dance sees Bowie experimenting with a trilogy of genres – disco, new wave, and dance, and with it produces one of his best tracks. His indistinguishable tones are layered over a groovy track that is pulled together with Chic frontman Nile Rogers.
Whilst Let’s Dance is loved by the fans, Bowie didn’t really like having to cater to a new, younger audience, and several years later he formed Tin Machine, a hard rock band, in an effort to creatively rejuvenate himself. Ever the perfectionist, Bowie exhaustively experimented across his five decade career.
Loving the Alien – Tonight – 1984
Tonight wasn’t well received by critics; it was labelled as a stopgap between great albums, and as being less innovative as previous efforts. It has been labelled as ‘rotten’. Bowie himself recognised that the album wasn’t as strong as some of his previous albums.
On ‘Loving the Alien’, Bowie himself says: ‘When I listen to those demos it’s, “How did it turn out like that?” You should hear “Loving the Alien” on demo. It’s wonderful on demo. I promise you! (laughs) But on the album, it’s … not as wonderful.’
But, for once, I think I have to disagree with Bowie (at least to an extent, for I’ve not heard the demo). ‘Loving the Alien’ is my personal favourite Bowie track. Exploring the ever changing history of Earth, as more and more is constantly being discovered, ‘Loving the Alien’ draws together two of Bowie’s greatest influences – religion and space.
‘But if you pray all your sins are hooked upon the sky / Pray and the heathen lie will disappear / Prayers they hide the saddest view / Believing the strangest things, loving the alien,’ Bowie delivers with relish. This is an utterly gorgeous track.
Glass Spider – Never Let Me Down – 1987
Never Let Me Down was Bowie’s last album for six years – which seems like nothing in comparison to the infamous 10-year reclusive period between 2003 and 2013. I’ve picked ‘Glass Spider’ as the best track, not because of it’s place as a piece of music, but rather its showcasing Bowie’s ingenious storytelling.
Storytelling is as much a part of Bowie’s music as the music itself, and ‘Glass Spider’ is a mythological story based on a documentary Bowie once watched about black widow spiders. In lyrically exploring these black widow spiders, Bowie manages to make something everyday – a spider from Earth – into something majestic and extraterrestrial: ‘Having devoured its prey it would drape the skeletons over its web / In weeks creating a macabre shrine of remains / Its web was also unique in that it had many layers / Like floors in a building.’
No other artist could describe a spider’s web the same way. Bowie had an ingenious way with words.
You’ve Been Around – Black Tie White Noise – 1993
‘You’ve Been Around’ is yet another prime example of Bowie trying something different. The first half of this track opens with drums and continues with no harmony until its midpoint – it is simply Bowie delivering guttural vocals over simplistic drumming. His voice in the beginning segments sounds rather robotic and autonomous. There are hints of electronic and house music in the second part, genres which Bowie flits with across the record as a whole.
This is a song that was written during the Tin Machine era, but was never successfully recorded, and Bowie later reinvented it for Black Tie White Noise. He’s stated that it’s a very sexual song, stating that ‘the sex is in the rhythm.’ This is never expressed more, however, than in its often frank lyrics: ‘When the flesh meets the spirit world.’
He even harkens back to his 1971 song ‘Changes’ by using the infamous refrain ‘Ch-ch-ch-ch-ch-ch-change’. This song, and the album, is all about Bowie embracing change, feeling artistically rejuvenated.
Hallo Spaceboy – 1.Outside – 1995
Two versions of ‘Hallo Spaceboy’ exist: the original, industrial rock version that features on the 1995 album 1.Outside. The second is a reworking by the Pet Shop Boys, which adopts a more alternative dance sound. Both are glorious.
On writing the track, Bowie said: ‘When I heard it back, I thought, “Fuck me. It’s like metal Doors. It’s an extraordinary sound”. That is it.’
1.Outside is a concept album which explores characters in a dystopian world on the eve of the 21st century. ’Hallo Spaceboy’ is quite hard to fathom, lyrically. It’s most famous line is undoubtedly, ‘Do you like girls or boys? / It’s confusing these days.’
This can be taken in two ways – either Bowie is referencing the more relaxed (though undoubtedly not completely) view that society as a whole had in 1995 with regards to sexuality, or he may be commenting on his own sexuality once more. He did, of course, come out to the press as gay, and then later bisexual, a claim that he later retracted as ‘the biggest mistake I ever made’.
Whatever the case, ‘Hallo Spaceboy’ is right up there amongst Bowie’s best work. Its Pet Shop Boys reimagining features the third reference to Major Tom (using chopped-up lyrics from ‘Space Oddity’) which, when coupled with the hazy hypnotic beat, adds to the claims made in the 1980 song ‘Ashes to Ashes’ that Major Tom is a ‘junkie’.