“The worst trick God can play is to make you an artist, but a mediocre one”
– David Bowie
I’ve always loved that quote from Bowie.
Medicority, however, is not something he would have ever had first-hand knowledge of, though, as I hope the tracks in Beat City Bowie Special demonstrate.
Bear in mind that we have not even begun to scratch the surface of the man’s body of work here.
David Bowie “Queen Bitch” (from the album “Hunky Dory”)
Bowie’s tribute to Lou Reed / Velvet Underground pastiche from the “Hunky Dory” album.
A year later Bowie and Mick Ronson produced Reeds ‘s “Transformer” album.
After Reed’s first solo album after leaving the Velvet Underground had tanked, despite featuring Bowie-collaborator Rick Wakeman of prog band Yes among the backing musicians, he turned to his new friend Bowie and Bowie’s guitarist Mick Ronson to co-produce and perform on his second LP. Ronno’s influence is all over the album – it was he who provided the now-famous arrangements for Walk On The Wild Side and Perfect Day. Note the trademark Ronson guitar riffage on “Satellite Of Love”, as well as some excellent Bowie backing vocals.
David Bowie “Born In A UFO” (from the EP “The Next Day Extra”)
Six months after David Bowie, suddenly and without warning, released “The Next Day” on the world, we were treated to that horror of horrors, the “Deluxe Edition” version of the album – never let it be said that Bowie was slow to pick up the prevailing winds, whether in music or in business.
However, in these days of digital purchases, fans had the option of just downloading the new tracks – and this one in particular is a little gem, a lot less tentative than the original “The Next Day” album, you get the idea that this was Bowie and producer Tony Visconti having a bit of a laugh.
“Born In a UFO” is a parody / homage to Bruce Springsteen – apart from the obvious Born In The USA echoes in the title, the verse sounds more than a bit like “Its Hard To Be A Saint In The City” (a song Bowie covered earlier in his career)
There’s a great Youtube clip going round of Bruce Springsteen saying nice things about Bowie and playing “Rebel Rebel” in Pittsburgh on the first date of his massive 2016 world tour, check the sleeve notes at tonythegigguy.com for the link and others.
David Bowie “Up The Hill Backwards” (from the album “Scary Monsters And Super Creeps”)
The “Scary Monsters” album almost comes across as Bowie drawing a line under his seventies albums by recreating / pastiching them all. “Up The Hill Backwards”, sonologically speaking, seems to mix a bit of Berlin-era guitar with “Station To Station”. “Fashion” sounds like its on “Young Americans”, the title track goes all “Diamond Dogs” on us and the “Ashes To Ashes” single is a dead giveaway as the lyrics reveal it to be a sequel to “Space Oddity” ten years on.
The famous “Ashes To Ashes” video is at the heart of the best of all the wonderful, touching stories I’ve read and heard since Bowie’s passing. This is courtesy of Michael Dignum – thank you so much, sir, this is just loverly.
“One part of my job is to keep the talent close while we make small changes to lighting and camera positions. While shooting the video for David Bowie’s Miracle goodnight we had a change that was gonna take 10-15 mins to complete. I decided to strike up a conversation to kill the time. Let face i was talking to my childhood hero. I asked Mr Bowie what was the biggest moment in his career. His reply was EPIC. and It went like this
Bowie…. Well let me tell you about it. I had quit the attitude as a young pop star, its easy to get caught up in the hype. It changes you. So i was on the set of the music video Ashes to ashes, do you know the one.”
Me………Yes i do. (thinking boy if only he knew)
Bowie… So we’re on the beach shooting this scene with a giant bulldozer. The camera was on a very long lens. (Camera is along way away, but the artist fills the frame) In this video i’m dressed from head to toe in a clown suit. Why not.I hear playback and the music starts. So off I go, I start singing and walking, but as soon as I do this old geezer with an old dog walk right between me and the camera.
Me………Laugh (seeing this video in my head and what that must have been like on the set)
Bowie….Well knowing this is gonna take a while I walked past the old guy and sat next to camera in my full costume waiting for him to pass. As he is walking by camera the director said, excuse me Mr do you know who this is? The old guy looks at me from bottom to top and looks back to the director and said….
Old Man……. Of course i do!!!! its some cunt in a clown suit
Bowie………. That was a huge moment for me, It put me back in my place and made me realize, yes i’m just a cunt in a clown suit. I think about that old guy all the time”
This was just one of the Stories Mr Bowie shared with me that day. I was so happy that my childhood Hero Stayed my hero as an adult.
RIP Mr Bowie..”
Now, try and watch this video without thinking “cunt in a clown suit” And smile.
David Bowie “Little Wonder” (from the album “Earthling”)
Opinions differ as to whether Bowie, taking on and shedding new personae at a whim, frequently changing musical styles, was a true innovator or simply a chameleon.
I’d lean towards a bit of both myself, while noting that his innovation generally came in partnership with carefully-selected others (Ronson, Eno, Fripp, Lulu) and also that when he jumped on a trend, it was usually one that was just around the corner, and always one that would last and not seem old-fashioned.
In 1997 Bowie was not seen as particularly relevant to anything at all. British music was firmly in he grip of Britpop, which while fun was hardly groundbeaking. The other major musical strand of the late 90s came from black music – jungle and trip-hop, which are the two genres that most inform the “Earthling” album.
“I guess …I can’t sell youth. ‘Cause I’m not a youth. So I’m selling whatever it is I am as a persona, which tends to be this kind of ironically enthusiastic old guy who’s still into this crazed sound”
Even in this he was ahead of the times – fast forward to 2016 and there has never been a better time to be a fifty-year old music enthusiast. Bowie was a pioneer in this, as in so much else.
If “Little Wonder” is more on the junglist / Prodigy side of things, this track is pure Tricky as far as I’m concerned.
David Bowie “Fascination” (from the album “Young Americans”)
“Fascination” is a reworking of a song called Funky Music Is A Part Of Me written by then-unknown Luther Vandross, given a new lyric by Bowie.
I’m not keen on the commonly-used term “plastic soul” for this part of Bowie’s career, even if the man himself did use it. It seems almost an apology for moulding soul into a Bowie-ised version of soul.
That said, its probably no coincidence that the most soulful song on the “Young Americans” album was originally written by Luther Vandross
(nitpickers note – yes, Luther’s version wasn’t released until 1976 but it was written well before then)
David Bowie “Yassassin” (from the album “Lodger”)
As far as I know, this is Bowie’s only attempt at reggae ever committed to record. Drummer Dennis Davis had a hard time learning the beat, since American musicians back then were generally unfamiliar with reggae – the music has never really gone mainstream in the USA. Going the other way, of course, American records brought back to Jamaica by migrant workers in the late fifties and early sixties certainly had a huge influence on reggae sound system culture.
And this song is about migrant workers, as it happens, written in Germany, inspired by the Turkish migrant workers Bowie encountered in the Neukolln district of Berlin.
Arcade Fire “Reflektor” (from the album “Reflektor”)
In 2013, shortly after “The Next Day” album had come out, Arcade Fire were recording what would become the title track of their magnum opus “Reflektor”.
According to the band’s multi-intrumentalist Richard Reed Parry:
“Bowie basically just came by the studio in New York while we were mixing, just to have a listen to the stuff we were doing. He offered to lend us his services because he really liked the song. In fact, he basically threatened us – he was like, ‘If you don’t hurry up and mix this song, I might just steal it from you!’ So we thought, well why don’t we go one better, why don’t you sing on our version? Thankfully he obliged, and we were really happy about that”
“Reflektor” has a Bowie-esque feel which seems to go well beyond the mere presence of the man himself singing backing vocals.
This wasn’t Arcade Fire’s first Bowie collaboration – that came in 2005 with this “Fashion Rocks” show in New York which saw them join forces on a selection of songs including AF’s “Wake Up” and Bowie’s “Five Years”.
David Bowie “It Ain’t Easy” (from the album “The Rise & Fall Of Ziggy Stardust & The Spiders From Mars”)
… and from the album that starts off with “Five Years”, this is an oddity. A throwback to his folkie years, it sounds out of place on “Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars”.
“It Ain’t Easy” was written by American songwriter Ron Davies – and not, as many people think, Ray Davies of the Kinks. By the time Bowie got round to cutting his version of the song, it had already been covered by Three Dog Night and Long John Baldry.
Franz Ferdinand with Girls Aloud “Sound And Vision”
Franz Ferdinand with their take on Bowie’s 1977 smash hit single “Sound And Vision” featuring Girls Aloud From an intriguing, sometimes annoying and occasionally brilliant album put out by BBC Radio One in 2007 to commemorate 40 years of the station by commissioning 40 of the top stars of the day to cover various songs from the lifetime of the station.
Kylie Minogue’s excellent cover of Roxy Music’s “Love Is The Drug” was another highlight – produced by Calvin Harris, its pretty much the perfect cover version, retaining the feel of the original while adding to it, and crucially NOT changing the words from “I say go, she say yes” to “I say go, he say yes”.
Props to all concerned. Definitely going to feature this on Beat City’s tribute to Bryan Ferry in 2028.
David Bowie “Alabama Song” (Brecht/Weill cover)
In 1978 Bowie was considering an offer to star in a revival of Bertolt Brecht’s “Threepeny Opera”. This did not come to fruition although one legacy was that he decided to play Brecht’s “Alabama Song” live.
It can be seen as both a celebration and a self-criticism of Bowie’s recent Berlin-based output.
The song was (and is) best-known to rock fans from the cover by The Doors.
In the Doors’ cover, Morrison had put a soulful rasp into the verses, making them flow better into the choruses. Bowie instead is inspired by Lotte Lenya’s version (below), singing the verses flatly while smoking a cigarette, then suddenly, dramatically falling into the chorus, swooning and closing his eyes.
Pleased with how “Alabama Song” was working in his live sets, Bowie brought his touring band into Tony Visconti’s Good Earth studio in London, the day after the final Earl’s Court show, to cut a version of “Alabama Song” as a prospective single.
Bowie shelved “Alabama Song” until early 1980, when he finally issued it as a single.
I heard it first – as I did so many other songs – on the John Peel show. The old curmudgeon was unimpressed.
“I know we should all be grateful for David Bowie and all that, but he kicks that one well into the stands in my estimation”.
Great though my respect for Peel is (and at the time he was basically God to me), I remember that being the first time I thought “hang on, he’s got that wrong”.
David Bowie “Baal’s Hymn” (from the “Baal” EP of songs from the 1982 BBC TC production) (Brecht/Weill cover)
In 1981 Bowie took the lead role in the BBC TV BBC TV version of the Bertold Brecht play “Baal”.
He also sang the five songs Brecht wrote (with Kurt Weill) for the play.
It’s well worth a look – check here although its been unavailable officially for years
David Bowie “I Took A Trip On A Gemini Spacecraft” (from the album “Heathen”)
Older Bowie fans who remember how jaw-dropping his records and indeed his every move was throughout the seventies tend to judge his post-“Scary Monsters” (or post-“Let’s Dance” if you’re feeling generous) output harshly but Tin Machine aside, it contains a couple of great albums – 1997’s “Earthling” being one and 2002’s “Heathen” being if anything even better.
This song is a cover of a 1968 song by The Legendary Stardust Cowboy. You can listen to it here but it isn’t to everyone’s taste, shall we say.
Bowie “We Are The Dead” (from the album “Diamond Dogs”)
David Bowie’s music has been there at the back of my head since I was about nine years old, in 1971. There have been some spectacular misheard lyrics along the way, of which the best example comes in this song – no he isn’t singing “I love you in your funky bumps” although twelve-year-old me decided that actually made perfect sense. He actually sings “I love you in your “fuck-me” pumps” which doesn’t really add up if you don’t know that “pumps” are a kind of shoes.
Now the album Diamond Dogs features a fantastic comic-book style illustration of Bowie on the cover as what can only be described as a sexy dog – and incidentally, definitely NOT a sexy bitch if you look closely. And we all did, believe me.
David Bowie “Boys Keep Swinging” (from the album “Lodger”)
This song is, to me, the quintessential Bowie song – not my favourite Bowie song (see a future blog post for that) but it just brings together a number of the things that made him such an icon in the seventies – the sassy delivery, the screeching guitar, the weird lyrics that hinted at other, more exciting worlds, and most of all, the dressing up as a woman in the video.
On a slightly dodgy television and without the benefit of video playback, my sisters and me couldn’t agree on whether all the backing singers were, in fact, Bowie. The third one to appear solo at the end of the video caused the most discussion, but its definitely him.
… I think …
There have been some excellent shows and pieces over the past couple of weeks. Here’s a few of the ones I’ve enjoyed most:
James Ward’s blog is really two in one – a takedown of the haters followed by a heartfelt and moving tribute to the man.
Marc Riley’s BBC 6 music show the day we all heard the news is something to be treasure (as is the whole of the station’s output for Monday 11th January, have a listen before the first week in February when it’ll disappear as far as I know) WARNING – he does play The Legendary Stardust Cowboy.
Terrific tribute from Frankie Boyle obviously not overwrittenor overprepared and all the better for it.
Alex Petridis’ measured and comprehensive Guardian lead article however, is hard to beat.
Let me know if you’ve got any more links I may have missed, or any blogs of your own or podcasts.
Hope you’ve enjoyed this show.
The next regular Beat City show will be available to download from Sunday.
Thank you. Come again.