David Bowie may no longer have a lucid plan for how to keep up with the stylistic grandchildren — his 1995 tour with Nine Inch Nails proved to be a generation-gap disaster as young Reznorfarians turned their backs on the funny old guy doing a bunch of songs that weren’t half as fuckinamazin as “Closer” — but he certainly hasn’t lost his will to try. If Bowie’s attempts to be as inventive as he once was have been marked by ideas less likely to redirect the course of rock (or, occasionally, produce listenable albums) than the costume-illusion distancing of Ziggy Stardust, the ’70s soul rapprochement of Young Americans or the avant-garde sound of Station to Station, his unflagging enthusiasm and curiosity have at least kept him a credible and provocative figure. Leading an unchartable multi-media course of stylistic discontinuity and precipitous reinvention — doing whatever total change of pace comes naturally — London boy David Jones is still productively making it up as he goes along.
Throughout his lengthy career, David Bowie has worked in many widely disparate musical areas, and virtually all of them have proven enormously influential, even if sometimes it’s taken years for the rest of the rock world to catch up with him. Nonetheless, the mercurial star continues to shift gears, styles and fashions almost as often as shirts and, by example, helps keep pop and rock developing and changing. (Unfortunately, long after he’s abandoned some excessive dalliance or another, his camp followers trundle on, missing the ephemeral and transitory essence of Bowie’s work.) Even if only as the source of unreproachably hip songs to cover, Bowie has played an essential role in glam-rock, new wave, post-punk, neo-soul, dance music, etc.
Although he actually began recording in the late ’60s, we join the Bowie show in progress at the dawn of the ’70s, when he dropped some of his more theatrical Anthony Newley affectations and got down to rock’n’roll cases. (The discography omits some of the less significant compilations and repackages, as well as film soundtracks, collaborations, EPs and spoken-word records.)
The Man Who Sold the World begins Bowie’s affair with guitar-heavy rock’n’roll, courtesy Mick Ronson. Tony Visconti’s compressed production gives the album an utterly synthetic audio quality; few records this simply played sound as studio-created. (Visconti would go on to produce much better albums with Bowie through the remainder of the decade, and would resume work with the artist in the next century.) In retrospect, the grim futurist imagery of “Saviour Machine,” “The Supermen” and “Running Gun Blues” seems far more prescient than the thrilling but unadventurous band’s music. Still, a shockingly strong debut for the electrified Bowie. (Besides illustrating the album’s various covers, the Ryko reissue adds a previously unreleased track and “Holy Holy,” a 1970 single, as well as both sides of the 1971 Arnold Corns 45: early versions of “Moonage Daydream” and “Hang on to Yourself,” both of which would get full play on Ziggy Stardust. EMI skipped the Ryko bonus tracks for its reissue of The Man Who Sold the World in 1999, as it did for all its Bowie reissues that year.)
Hunky Dory was a detour of sorts, briefly returning a seemingly innocent Bowie to his hippie-folkie-cabaret days for the catchy “Changes” and the obnoxiously precious “Kooks,” plus such atypically direct tributes as “Song for Bob Dylan” and “Andy Warhol.” But the album also contains the redemptive “Life on Mars,” “Queen Bitch” and “Oh! You Pretty Things,” all essential cornerstones in the burgeoning glam-sci-fi-decadence world Bowie was assembling. (The Ryko reissue adds an alternate mix of the album’s “Bewlay Brothers” and a demo of its “Quicksand,” as well as a second version of the previous LP’s “Supermen” and an unreleased ’71 song, “Bombers.”)
Bowie began his fey alien role-playing in earnest on Ziggy Stardust, a classic rock’n’roll album. He introduces this new persona via the pseudo-biographical title track; otherwise, songs paint a weird portrait of an androgynous (but sexy) world ahead. Armed with supercharged guitar rock and truly artistic production (Bowie and Ken Scott), and mixing rock’n’roll stardom imagery with a more general Clockwork Orange outlook, the peerless set (including “Suffragette City,” “Hang on to Yourself,” “Rock’n’Roll Suicide” and “Moonage Daydream”) outlines some of the concerns that underpinned a lot of rock songwriting in the ’70s and ’80s. (The Ryko reissue — also available in a deluxe edition with a slipcase and book of liner notes — adds demos of the title track and “Lady Stardust,” the otherwise unreleased “Sweet Head,” a ’71 B-side, “Velvet Goldmine,” and a remix of the 1972 single “John, I’m Only Dancing.” EMI’s 2002 deluxe edition includes all of the Ryko bonuses on a second disc, along with three of the four bonus tracks from the Ryko edition of The Man Who Sold the World, covers of Chuck Berry’s “Round and Round” and the Jacques Brel / Mort Shuman song “Port of Amsterdam” — which had previously been issued as a bonus on the Ryko edition of Pin Ups — and a 1998 remix of “Moonage Daydream” done for a TV commercial.)
Bowie’s label then dredged up an oldie, reissuing 1969’s lightweight Man of Words/Man of Music as Space Oddity (after the memorable lead-off track, but clearly in the hopes of cashing in on Ziggy‘s sci-fi content). The Ryko edition adds a 1970 B-side (“Conversation Piece” and a two-part single version, with Mick Ronson’s first appearance, of the album’s hippy dippy “Memory of a Free Festival”). EMI’s 2009 edition includes those same extras, along with demos, alternate stereo mixes and a few BBC performances, all on a bonus disc. In another dose of déjà vu, an American corporate relative of Bowie’s old UK label put together a two-disc set of even earlier recordings (primarily from the 1967 David Bowie LP), titling it Images 1966-1967. Years later, London condensed Images into the single-record Starting Point. The 1997 Deram Anthology expands on Images with five additional tracks; the 2010 reissue of David Bowie includes both stereo and mono mixes of the original album’s 14 tracks plus a second CD of masters and mixes from the Deram vaults and five recordings from Bowie’s first visit to the BBC.
Having peaked so gloriously with a character that could not last indefinitely, Bowie adjusted Ziggy a bit on Aladdin Sane and came up with a weird set of tunes — some tremendous, some minor — and a distant, unpleasant left-field studio sound. “Panic in Detroit,” “Watch That Man,” “The Jean Genie” and “Drive-In Saturday” are some of his greatest songs, painting bleak pictures of detached existences, with cinematic strokes and killer riffs. Rather than singing about apocalypse, Bowie captures the barren feel of a dead world, and feeds it into the music. Aladdin Sane is also notable for allowing a serious crooner side to re-emerge — as on “Time,” a foreshadow of future developments. That said, it must be noted that Bowie’s revisionist cover of “Let’s Spend the Night Together” is utterly misguided. (The 2003 deluxe reissue on EMI adds a second disc featuring a different version of “John, I’m Only Dancing,” a mono mix of “All the Young Dudes,” single edits of “Time” and “The Jean Genie,” and six live tracks from Bowie’s 1972 tour.)
In a surprisingly guileless gesture, Bowie next made an all-covers album of songs by great mid-’60s English bands. (In a remarkable coincidence, it entered the British charts precisely the same week as Bryan Ferry’s first solo album, also a collection of favorite oldies.) Although not easily related creatively to Bowie’s creative flow, Pin Ups is a wonderful, loving tribute that contains generally ace renditions of classic but, in America at least, largely unknown songs by the Pretty Things, Pink Floyd, Them, Mojos, Merseys, Kinks, Yardbirds, Easybeats and Who. If nothing else, Bowie’s reverent consideration helped give the songs and artists much-deserved cachet in the new rock world. (The Rykodisc edition adds two worthless items: a previously unissued rendition of Bruce Springsteen’s “Growing Up” and a drippy studio version of “Port of Amsterdam” that had been used as a B-side.)
Bowie then jettisoned his band and drafted a new bunch of sidemen to further explore his trendily somber vision of a doomed future on Diamond Dogs. Although the LP contains one of Bowie’s most incredible and concise songs — “Rebel Rebel,” perfectly describing his followers and their role in the new society — and such significant items as “1984” and “Rock ‘n Roll with Me,” it also has a pompously overblown and underdeveloped concept. In retrospect, Diamond Dogs isn’t so bad, but it does suffer significantly from eccentric, seemingly unfinished, production and strident sound. The 1990 reissue addresses the latter concern with much-improved remastering, unexpurgates the cover painting to its intended form and adds two tracks: an intricate demo of the album’s “Candidate” and 1973’s previously unreleased soul stomp “Dodo.” The 2004 deluxe reissue on EMI includes two alternate versions of each of those songs, along with “Growin’ Up” and single edits of “Diamond Dogs” and “Rebel Rebel,” plus a 2003 remix of the latter tune, all on a bonus CD.
Bowie’s first concert record, the two-record David Live, was recorded in Philadelphia at two 1974 shows with a ten-piece band featuring guitarist Earl Slick. Featuring a fine song selection broadly drawn from the preceding albums, the program also includes renditions of the Stax classic “Knock on Wood” and “All the Young Dudes,” a song Bowie had graciously given Mott the Hoople. The 1990 reissue adds “Time” and “Here Today, Gone Tomorrow.” The 2005 reissue goes further, adding “Space Oddity” and “Panic in Detroit” to the program. (A single-LP selection of this concert was released in the Netherlands in 1979 as Rock Concert. The same LP was reissued in 1982, again in the Netherlands, as David Bowie at the Tower Philadelphia.)
Dropping his gimmicky costumes, Bowie donned a fine suit and made Young Americans, an album mainly composed of phony (but pleasant) Philadelphia soul/rock mixed with other oddities, like a truly awful collaboration with John Lennon, “Fame.” It took five years for the British new wave, finally bereft of their own new ideas, to ape Bowie and start reflecting African-American idioms into their work. The 1991 reissue adds the outtakes “Who Can I Be Now?,” “It’s Gonna Be Me” and “John, I’m Only Dancing (Again),” a track previously available only on Changestwobowie. The 2007 collector’s edition includes those three songs (using an alternate mix of “It’s Gonna Be Me”) as well as a DVD of live performances of “1984” and “Young Americans” on The Dick Cavett Show and an interview with Bowie from the same broadcast.
Following that brief infatuation, Bowie launched an experimental phase that directly influenced far more bands, especially the “new romantics” and arty minimalists. Station to Station is a strangely impersonal mixture of chilly show ballads, techno-pop and whatever was passing for disco that year. The album features the hit “Golden Years,” but also the experimental and challenging “TVC15.” The 1991 reissue adds “Word on a Wing” and “Stay” recorded live in 1976 at Nassau Coliseum. The 2010 collector’s edition includes that entire concert on a bonus CD, plus a complete Dolby 5.1 Surround mix of the original album.
If Station to Station marked Bowie’s artistic detachment from his rock-idol role, he moved further down that path with Low, co-opting the modernistic sensibility of Brian Eno (his collaborator on three consecutive studio LPs) on an album less of songs than word-paintings or, in several cases, simply mood pieces. Moving from the grandiosity of Young Americans to the art-noise sketches here, Bowie took heart from intellectual, bare-bones rock bands like Wire and, in turn, helped legitimize and promote such spartan stylings. The 1991 reissue adds two outtakes, “Some Are” and “All Saints,” along with a contemporaneous remix of “Sound and Vision.”
As the follow-up to Low, Heroes has slightly fleshier production, though nearly one full side is comprised of whizzing synthesizers and amorphous textural noodling. Robert Fripp contributes lead guitar, and his presence adds a bit of sinew to the overall sound, something lacking in the less-forceful Low. The album leans heavily on chilly, European affectations (with a large debt owed to Kraftwerk), but also has room for a genuine and spectacular pop single, the atmospheric, concertedly European title track (also released in French and German). The Ryko reissue adds a remix of “Joe the Lion” and an instrumental outtake from the Heroes sessions that Bowie eventually titled “Abdulmajid” (the surname of Iman, the model and businesswoman Bowie married in 1992).
Bowie’s second double-live LP, Stage, features a Carlos Alomar/Adrian Belew guitar lineup and includes hits (“Ziggy Stardust,” “Fame”) as well as Eno-era album tracks (“Warszawa,” “Beauty and the Beast”). The 1991 reissue adds a rendition of the Brecht / Weill standard “Alabama Song”; the 2005 edition includes that cover, along with performances of “Be My Wife” and “Stay.”
Lodger, the third installment of the Bowie-Eno trilogy, finds Bowie drifting back into a solid song-oriented context. Though much of the material seems to be stream-of-consciousness, there are a couple of pure poppers, such as “D.J.” and “Boys Keep Swinging,” that recall a more commercial time. Also of interest is Bowie’s version of “Sister Midnight,” rewritten as “Red Money.” The 1991 reissue adds the outtake “I Pray, Olé” and a 1988 recording of “Look Back in Anger.”
Scary Monsters is Bowie’s most consistent LP since the pre-Low period, a culmination of the styles that had been showcased individually on previous discs. The tone is up-front, a confrontation with the real world of alienation Bowie always ascribed to his fictional settings. Scary Monsters contains two soon-to-be standards: “Ashes to Ashes” (a return to the “Space Oddity” story, bringing the listener up to date on Major Tom’s travails) and “Fashion.” The 1992 Ryko reissue includes several non-US single sides — an unplugged version of “Space Oddity,” the instrumental “Crystal Japan,” a studio recording of “Alabama Song” — and a previously unreleased version of “Panic in Detroit.”
Having tired of years of acclaim matched with only sporadic, middling glimmers of the kind of success that superstars are supposed to enjoy, Bowie changed labels and made Let’s Dance, a calculated effort (with the production assistance of Nile Rodgers) to get in step with the sound of today, rather than tomorrow or yesterday, his usual habitats. Not surprisingly, Bowie succeeds at whatever he sets his mind to, and the record was a worldwide smash. “Let’s Dance,” “Modern Love” and “China Girl” may not be the Thin White Duke’s finest creations, but they do hit a solid compromise between art and commerce, and don’t harm his reputation nearly as much as expand his audience (and bank balance). The 1995 reissue on Virgin adds “Under Pressure,” Bowie’s memorable 1982 collaboration with Queen.
After a mega-tour to consolidate the album’s huge success, Bowie banged out Tonight, a casual, smug cookie-cutter job geared for easy chart ascent. (What other recording challenges are left for Bowie? He’s tried self-indulgent art and go-for-the-jugular commercialism, scoring just what he wanted on both fronts.) In its losing defense, the album does include a duet with Tina Turner and a remarkably swell pop hit, “Blue Jean,” that recalls far earlier times in his career. Virgin’s 1995 reissue goes to the movies for its bonus tracks, adding Bowie’s soundtrack contributions to The Falcon and the Snowman (“This is Not America”), Labyrinth (“As the World Falls Down”) and Absolute Beginners (“Absolute Beginners”).
The styleless Never Let Me Down was released to general indifference and critical derision. Although this casual loud-rock outing — Peter Frampton and Carlos Alomar share guitar responsibilities with Bowie — seems on first blush to be slapdash and slight, the first side is actually quite good, offering provocative pop-culture lyrics delivered with first-take enthusiasm and carefree backing. “Day-In Day-Out” is silly but charming in its way; the verses’ catchy ticktock pop on “Beat of Your Drum” makes it resemble a Cars song; the Lennonish title track is equally weird and likable. Bowie has rarely sounded so unconcerned and relaxed. The inferior second side starts off with the subsequent tour’s fantasyland nonsense theme song (“Glass Spider”) and ends with Iggy’s “Bang Bang,” a cute digression in keeping with the record’s flip attitude. The Virgin reissue deletes “Too Dizzy” while adding two B-sides and a movie theme (“When the Wind Blows”).
After Never Let Me Down, Bowie went off and formed Tin Machine, a collaborative modern-rock quartet with guitarist Reeves Gabrels and the fraternal rhythm section of Hunt and Tony Sales. The group’s debut, Tin Machine, presents an uneven (thanks mostly to bouts of Gabrels’ idiotic guitar-god riffwank) but entertaining rough’n’ready vision of contemporary rock as blunt, vulgar, violent, ephemeral and derivative — in short, the direct antithesis of Bowie’s prevailing artistic ethos. The title track is an amusing rewrite of the Yardbirds’ “Over Under Sideways Down” (a Pin Ups flashback, perhaps?); “Under the God” addresses neo-fascism with a sly Ramones citation (“Beating on blacks with a baseball bat”), while “Crack City” (“Louie, Louie” recast as a Diamond Dogs outtake) ludicrously sets out to slay a dragon — or at the very least indignantly call drug dealers bad names. The cover of John Lennon’s “Working Class Hero” is fair but irrelevant, and the album’s catchiest melody (“Baby Can Dance”) is oddly saved for the very end. All in all, Bowie’s exercise in self-denial doesn’t actually trim much out of the diet — it’s not a great leap forward, but a fun ride all the same. (The Virgin reissue adds a live version of “Bus Stop.”)
The ancient nude statuary on the front of Tin Machine II outraged retail moralists, who declined to stock the album and forced a redesign. Such disfavor would have been easier to accept if they’d simply listened to the thing. Making it obvious that Bowie’s agenda for the band involves self-conscious slumming and a desire to revisit his past under cover of an autonomous timeline (thereby escaping accusations of regression), the album displays a singing style (on “Baby Universal”) that hasn’t been heard in years; a cover of Roxy Music’s glam-era “If There Is Something” and nonsense originals like “You Belong in Rock & Roll” all suggest a futile effort to reclaim lost innocence. Whatever Bowie’s motivations, Tin Machine was clearly designed for instant obsolescence. It only takes drummer Hunt Sales stepping up to sing the generic blues “Stateside” for Bowie’s experiment in democracy to collapse in a miserable heap.
Nevertheless, the group (augmented on tour by an extra guitarist) pressed on long enough to leave an egregious live album, Oy Vey, Baby, as its final squalling-guitar statement. Between crummy sound, Gabrels’ numbing fill-every-space onslaught and rearrangements that exacerbate an irrational set list (not to mention Bowie’s always dangerous saxophone exercises), it’s a woeful epitaph in any language. (The U2 joke of the title is cute, though.)
After that escapade, Bowie wisely returned to his own monotheistic world; unfortunately, the record he chose to make was Black Tie White Noise, an ill-conceived if reasonably well-executed (by Nile Rodgers) adventure into acid-jazz — or whatever other description might characterize a pretentious album of mildly ambient dance grooves with trumpeter Lester Bowie (no relation, ha-ha) blowing his horn in half-hearted opposition to a third of the tracks. (Other guests, including onetime Spiders From Mars Mick Ronson and Mike Garson, complicate the remainder.) Covers of Cream’s “I Feel Free” and Morrissey’s “I Know It’s Going to Happen Someday” (from Your Arsenal, an album Ronson produced) are capricious red herrings, so is the hapless Bowie/Bowie horn jam, “Looking for Lester.” The title number is a glossy R&B duet (with Al B. Sure!) that cites both Marvin Gaye and “We Are the World” in an oblique consideration of the LA riots. Although the album’s main theme is a sense of racial and personal harmony resulting from Bowie’s marriage (“The Wedding” even opens the procession with church bells), its most compelling track digs at the other end of life’s yard. “Jump They Say” is a vague take on society’s deadly power. (Some copies of the album include a remix of “Jump They Say” and an outtake, “Lucy Can’t Dance.” The latter appears on the bonus CD in the tenth-anniversary reissue of Black Tie White Noise, along with three other remixes of “Jump They Say,” remixes of five other songs from the album, a version of “Don’t Let Me Down & Down” sung in Indonesian, and “Real Cool World,” from the Cool World soundtrack.)
Ironically, the little-noticed Buddha of Suburbia, an album expanded from the soundtrack work Bowie did for a BBC-TV mini-series of the Hanif Kureishi novel, takes a far more effective and enthralling spin on the modern dancefloor. Recorded quickly as a two-man endeavor with multi-instrumentalist Erdal Kizilcay, the album benefits from a paradoxically random simplicity (of sound, not designs: like his confrère Eno, Bowie sets and meets arbitrary conceptual challenges here). Although fully realized, the scattered pop songs — “Strangers When We Meet,” the Pet Shoppy “Dead Against It,” the “Fame”-like “Bleed Like Crazy, Dad,” two versions of “Buddha of Suburbia,” one of which has a hideous Lenny Kravitz guitar solo — have an ebullience and directness, an ingratiating why-not-try-this? aspect that counteracts Bowie’s implicit high-art seriousness. The rest of the album meanders through fascinating rhythms and varied atmospheres like a wealthy shopper in a fine department store, picking up the latest styles, trying them on and then scampering on to the next rack. Bowie’s liner notes make the whole thing seem obnoxiously self-conscious, but you’ve got to love a brilliant piss-artist who can admit to repeating bits “at varying intervals so giving the impression of forethought.” Downplaying the source and eliminating Bowie’s exegesis, the belated American issue has a completely different cover and booklet than the import.
Bowie reunited with Eno as co-writer, co-producer and instrumental collaborator for Outside, which is subtitled The Art-Ritual Murder of Baby Grace Blue and described as “A non-linear Gothic Drama Hyper-cycle.” So much for humor and humility. (“A convoluted load of bollocks” would be a more apt underline.) Flying in the face of all we know to be true about concept albums, Bowie cobbles together a lurid meta-plot and peoples it with processed-voice characters. As is often the case with such preposterous projects, the construction process involves some quality songs, and it hardly matters that the bubbling techno calm of “We Prick You” is indicated as being sung by members of the Court of Justice, that Leon Blank renders “The Motel” or that Detective Nathan Adler delivers “The Hearts Filthy Lesson,” a dance track loaded up with random instrumental action. If there’s nothing else self-evident about the artist, it’s that Bowie — in whatever guise he affects — is always Bowie. Outside‘s raucous highlights include “Hallo Spaceboy,” a pulverizing industrial flip of the nine-inch tail, and “Voyeur of Utter Destruction (As Beauty),” a powerful, King Crimson-like charge lanced by lines of feedback and colliding rhythms. The album also contains passages of orchestral grace and quiet solace, like the febrile piano/drum jazz inventions at the heart of “A Small Plot of Land” and the nearly subliminal buildup of “The Motel.” The story of Outside is not worth telling, but the master of musical language still festoons it with brilliant sonic poetry. The bonus disc in the 2004 reissue combines the outtakes “Get Real” and “Nothing to Be Desired” with an edit of “A Small Plot of Land,” the album version of “I Am With Name” and ten remixes of three songs (“The Hearts Filthy Lesson,” “Hallo Spaceboy” and “I’m Deranged”).
Following his ill-fated tour with Nine Inch Nails, Bowie decided to update his music with some of the latest high-energy grooves on Earthling. (Bowie produced the disc with Gabrels and bassist/keyboardist Mark Plati.) Setting aside, for the moment, the depressing implications of this strategy — Bowie following a trend rather than trying to start one — the busy drum-and-bass rhythms work well on such tracks as “Little Wonder,” “Dead Man Walking” and “The Last Thing You Should Do.” “Battle for Britain (The Letter)” sounds a bit like a techno version of “Space Oddity” — until Gabrels kicks up his guitar abrasion a notch or two. “Seven Years in Tibet,” with its subdued, pulsing verse, noisy chorus and vivid depiction of violence and oblivion (“‘Are you okay? You’ve been shot in the head / And I’m holding your brains,’ the old woman said / So I drink in the shadows of an evening sky / See nothing at all”), suggests what Nirvana might someday have done with electronica. (Not such a drastic speculation, after hearing Bowie’s fixation with the Pixies — a key influence on Cobain — surface on Tin Machine’s recordings.) “I’m Afraid of Americans” also employs the soft-verse-loud-chorus structure, along with a Cobain-like (or “Young Americans”-like) sense to its wordplay: “I’m afraid of Americans / I’m afraid of the world / I’m afraid I can’t help it.” As the disc progresses, though, too many tracks start to sound alike — particularly weaker ones like “Looking for Satellites,” “Telling Lies” and the album-closing “Law (Earthlings on Fire).” All the busy rhythms, caustic guitar riffs and spacey keyboard filigree can’t disguise those songs’ essential flimsiness. Earthling doesn’t offer the bold new direction Bowie might have been aiming for, but at least its rhythmic approach keeps Major Tom reasonably close to terra firma, rather than letting him drift too far into the pretensosphere. (The 2004 reissue includes four remixes. The Digibook edition, released the following year, adds a second disc of remixes. That bonus disc also includes a version of “Seven Years in Tibet” sung in Mandarin and live recordings of “V-2 Schneider” and “Pallas Athena,” performed at the Phoenix Festival in 1997 by Bowie and his band under the pseudonym Tao Jones Index — a play both on the artist’s given name and the IPO of “Bowie bonds” that year.)
Trying on a hot new sound didn’t win Bowie any more points with the younger generation than associating himself with a hot young band. The lyrics to several of the songs on Hours… can be read as an attempt to reconcile with older fans. (Gabrels co-wrote and co-produced.) In the opening track, the soulful “Thursday’s Child,” Bowie spells out his position at the crossroads, reminding listeners of his stature (“All of my life I’ve tried so hard / Doing my best with what I had … Something about me stood apart … Maybe I’m born right out of my time”) and pleading the case for his recent trend-hopping efforts (“Throw me tomorrow / Not that I ever had a chance”). Even the title implies that, like Thursday’s child in the nursery rhyme, Bowie still has far to go. The folk-tinged “Survive” maintains that almost-but-not-quite apologetic stance: “I should have kept you / I should have tried / I should have been a wiser kind of guy / I miss you / Give me wings / Give me space / Give me money for a change of face.” What really stands out about those numbers, though, is Bowie’s renewed focus on songwriting: they’re his most tuneful compositions in years. The album’s first half maintains that melodic standard, but starts to drag, thanks to the unchanging mid-tempo flow and soul-meets-synth-pop arrangements. (Did Bowie expect that his fans had aged into the MOR / lite-pop demographic?) Things start to pick up with “What’s Really Happening?”; the buzzing, leering synth adds an edge to the mix, and Gabrels lets loose with some of the guitar clamor that listeners expect from him. That sets the table for “The Pretty Things Are Going to Hell,” the album’s liveliest rocker, an obvious (and not entirely complimentary) suggestion that his fans have become the mamas and papas who get driven insane: “The pretty things are going to hell / They wore it out, but they wore it well.” Hours… is a mature, listenable album that really doesn’t chase any trend — except, in a few of its lyrics, the one toward nostalgia. For all its little hints and reminders of his iconic status, though, this album completely misses the spirit of adventure that made Bowie an icon in the first place. (The 2005 reissue adds four B-sides, a demo of “Seven” and about a dozen remixes, all on a second disc.)
Perhaps Gabrels found the subdued approach on Hours… a violation of his inalienable right to shred; he parted ways with Bowie shortly after its release. Reuniting with producer Tony Visconti for Heathen, Bowie did a prudent thing: he reconnected with the sound and spirit of his classic work. The album opens with the slow-building “Sunday,” a number that would’ve fit well on any of the “Berlin trilogy” albums. The piano ballad “Slip Away” likewise recalls the sound and wistful storytelling approach of Hunky Dory (“Oogie wakes to see another day / Drags his Bones to see the Yankees play … Twinkle twinkle, Uncle Floyd / We were dumb, but you were fun, boy”). The soul-informed “5:15 The Angels Have Gone” hints at Young Americans, and the single “Slow Burn” (featuring Pete Townshend on guitar) would’ve fit in great on Scary Monsters. Bowie isn’t cribbing from his past, though; thanks to the focus on songwriting that he maintains from the preceding album, none of these tracks come across as rehashes. Heathen‘s sound seems to be the result of genuine inspiration and enthusiasm. Clearly, Bowie clicks with Visconti as well as he ever did, and responds to this chemistry by bringing more passion to his performances than he has in ages. He references John Lennon in the string-enhanced rocker “Afraid”: “I put my faith in tomorrow / I believe we’re not alone / I believe in Beatles / I believe my little soul has grown.” “I Would Be Your Slave” includes a verse that describes the restless exploration that has characterized Bowie’s career: “I don’t sit and wait anymore / I don’t give a damn / I don’t see the point at all / No footprints in the sand.” The selection of covers — the Pixies’ “Cactus,” Neil Young’s “I’ve Been Waiting for You” and the Legendary Stardust Cowboy’s “I Took a Trip on a Gemini Spaceship” — is the best to appear on any single Bowie album since Pin Ups (although the “D-A-V-I-D” cheerleading chant that pops up in “Cactus” is a bit obnoxious). The closer, “Heathen (The Rays),” brings the disc full-circle — back to Berlin, as it were. Track for track, Heathen is Bowie’s strongest, most satisfying album since Scary Monsters, his last collaboration with Visconti. And judging from its commercial success, the fans heard what they’d been waiting for: music that sounds like David Bowie, rather than product that alludes to his legacy. (The deluxe edition includes two remixes and two outtakes — one of which, a 1979 recording of “Panic in Detroit,” appeared previously on the Ryko reissue of Scary Monsters.)
The collaboration with Visconti continued to bear fruit on Reality. This time, rather than letting identifiable echoes of the artist’s classic work infuse the songs, Bowie and Visconti synthesize various strains of his music into an overall sound that, while not necessarily “new,” does stand on its own merits — energetic, passionate and identifiably Bowie. (Okay, granted, the drum beat of “Looking for Water” does sound an awful lot like “Rebel Rebel.” Can we move on now?) Bowie addresses a theme on Reality that hasn’t shown up before in his work. On several songs, the artist acknowledges that he’s getting older — always a difficult topic in rock ‘n’ roll, especially for a star who’s built his career around such frequent changes of sound and image. Over the clipped guitar verses and surging, chorale-sweetened chorus of “Never Get Old,” he sings, “Again and again / I think about this, and I think about personal history…I’m screaming that I’m gonna be living till the end of time…And I’m never ever gonna get old.” For all his “screaming,” though, he knows it’s inevitable: in the raucous guitar-driven title track, he wails, “Now my sight is failing in this twilight / Now my death is more than just a sad song / But I swear, yes I swear / I still don’t remember how this happened / I still don’t get the wherefores and the whys / I look for sense, but I get next to nothing / Hey boy, welcome to reality.” Both cover selections — the George Harrison-penned waltz “Try Some, Buy Some” and Jonathan Richman’s “Pablo Picasso” — fit well with the introspective theme, though the latter comes off a bit overcooked, with its electric-flamenco guitar and cartoonish baritone sax riff. Elsewhere, “She’ll Drive the Big Car” describes a wife’s failed attempt to leave a dead-end marriage, whereas the delicately strummed “Days” suggests what might have driven her to walk out that door: “All I’ve done / I’ve done for me / All you gave / You gave for free / I gave nothing in return / And there’s little left of me.” Reality does more than just keep the mature artist on a creative roll; it also shows that, for all his apparent slips and stumbles after the success of Let’s Dance, Bowie’s creative powers had never really diminished. The special edition adds three bonus tracks, including a new version of “Rebel Rebel” that appeared in the Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle soundtrack.
To support Reality, Bowie undertook his most extensive tour since the 1995 trek with NIN; it turned out to be his biggest success since the Sound+Vision Tour in 1990. But what started out as a triumphant return to the world’s arenas and stadiums turned out (so far, at least) to be Bowie’s last stand. Apparently, those concerns over aging he sang about on Reality were more than just a theme. After enduring some pain onstage (thought at first to be a pinched nerve) during a June 2004 show in Germany, he underwent an emergency angioplasty for a severely blocked artery. He had to cancel the remainder of the tour to recuperate. Since then, apart from a few guest appearances onstage (most notably with Arcade Fire, at two New York shows in September 2005), Bowie has kept the relatively low profile of unofficial semi-retirement.
A Reality Tour was recorded at Dublin’s Point Depot in November 2003. A DVD of the concert was released the following year, but the album didn’t hit the racks until six years later. Of 33 songs spread across two compact discs, a third come from Reality and Heathen. More than just the expected appearances of an artist’s newest stuff, though, the tunes serve to underscore his recent artistic reinvigoration. The rest of the set ranges across his catalog, from ace renditions of “The Man Who Sold the World” and “Life on Mars?” to two selections each from Outside and Earthling — closing the show with three songs from Ziggy Stardust. (The album appends three songs — “Fall Dog Bombs the Moon,” “Breaking Glass” and “China Girl” — that didn’t make it to the DVD. The iTunes download includes two more bonus tracks.) Bowie and his six-piece band are in top form. They throw plenty of little surprises at the Irish audience, from using the drum opening of “Young Americans” to kick off “All the Young Dudes” to blending a taste of T. Rex’s “Get It On” into “Cactus.” (Okay, so that one’s not such a big surprise.) Throughout the show, the group plays with a near-perfect blend of tight interaction and relaxed confidence. Bowie himself is in good voice and self-effacing humor. (Stammering as he tries to announce one song, he laughs and admits to the crowd, “I blanked! I don’t know the album, don’t know the year.”) Bassist Gail Ann Dorsey ably handles Freddie Mercury’s part in “Under Pressure,” and the group builds its versions of “Heroes,” “Five Years” and Iggy’s “Sister Midnight” from low, subdued grooves to soaring climaxes. The set isn’t flawless: the tempo of “Ziggy Stardust” drags a bit, and the band should’ve benched “Fame” if they couldn’t do any better with it than this lax take. Overall, though, A Reality Tour stands as the Thin White Duke’s best regular-issue live album. He’ll surely receive a warm welcome, if he does return to the limelight.
The Changesonebowie compilation covers a lot of stylistic ground in 11 tracks: from “Space Oddity” and “Changes” to “Rebel Rebel” and “Golden Years.” Changestwobowie is weaker, but still has such amazing tracks as “Sound and Vision,” “Starman,” “D.J.” and “1984.” The 18-track Changesbowie, issued to coincide with the 1990 greatest-hits tour, includes all of the first Changes LP (replacing the original “Fame” with a remix), adds “Fashion” and “Ashes to Ashes” from the second, and then tops it off with “Heroes,” “Let’s Dance,” “China Girl,” “Modern Love” and “Blue Jean.” Fame and Fashion — drawing only from RCA albums — straddles all three, with a half-dozen or so in common with each and only one song (“TVC15”) that doesn’t appear on any of the others. The pointless and unnecessary Golden Years repeats Fame and Fashion‘s “Fashion,” “Golden Years” and “Ashes to Ashes,” but also contains things like “Joe the Lion,” “Wild Is the Wind” and “Scary Monsters.”
Rykodisc’s wholesale reissue of Bowie’s catalogue, which began with the 1989 boxed set Sound+Vision, refurbished the sound, artwork and contents of his ’70s and ’80s albums, adding bonus tracks — B-sides, outtakes, alternate versions, non-LP singles, live bits — to all but two of them (Aladdin Sane and the thanks-I’ve-had-enough Ziggy Stardust concert film soundtrack, which EMI remastered and resequenced — to little discernible effect — for its 2003 reissue). In 1995, having already replaced Sound+Vision Plus, the audio/video bonus disc that originally came in the box, with a more current CD-ROM, Ryko redesigned the set to eliminate the 12 x 12 box and the multi-media item, leaving three music discs in a regular-sized jewel case.
Meanwhile, Rhino packaged up a nifty set of Bowie’s earliest singles (and some outtakes) as Early On, thereby putting the amusing music from some previously highly prized 7-inch obscurities within easy reach. Rykodisc then trumped its own Changesbowie (and, in the process, the two similarly named RCA compilations it had replaced, as well as the slapdash Golden Years and Fame and Fashion) with a prodigious 39-track greatest-hits, The Singles 1969 to 1993, two discs that follow Bowie’s musical saga all the way from “Space Oddity” — the leadoff track of 1969’s Man of Words/Man of Music (later retitled Space Oddity) — right up to the doorstep of Outside. (Early copies of the compilation included a bonus third CD of Bowie’s warmhearted Christmas duet with Bing Crosby.) Whether or not it was planned this way, The Singles neatly complements Sound+Vision — a beautifully appointed three-CD collection of classics, obscurities, outtakes, concert recordings, etc. that is everything but a greatest hits — with a minimum of overlap.
By the mid-‘90s, Rykodisc was out of the Bowie business. EMI took over from there, starting with The Best of David Bowie 1969-1974 and The Best of David Bowie 1974-1979, two single-disc releases full of singles and worthy album cuts. The first volume includes the studio “All the Young Dudes,” the Ziggy Stardust bonus track “Velvet Goldmine” and the “saxophone version” of “John, I’m Only Dancing.” The latter compilation includes more single-length edits than it needs to, but at least picks up Bowie’s cover of Springsteen’s “It’s Hard to Be a Saint in the City” (previously available only in the Sound+Vision box set, which was out of print at that time). The Platinum Collection combines those two compilations with The Best of David Bowie 1980-1987 (released separately the following year). That third set features most of Bowie’s best-known singles from the ’80s, but also includes “Alabama Girl,” along with another Brecht/Weill song, “The Drowned Girl” (originally recorded for the BBC’s 1982 production of the German duo’s musical Baal, in which Bowie played the title role). It also includes the well-known movie soundtrack numbers “Cat People (Putting Out Fire),” “This is Not America,” “Absolute Beginners” and “When the Wind Blows,” along with “Underground” (from the Labyrinth soundtrack).
In its British two-disc configuration, Best of Bowie covers a lot of ground, from “Space Oddity” all the way to “Slow Burn.” The American single-CD version of the same title does a much clumsier job. Basically, it duplicates the track listing of Changesonebowie (omitting “John, I’m Only Dancing” and “Diamond Dogs”), then adds “Under Pressure,” “This is Not America” and “Dancing in the Street” (an execrable 1985 duet with Mick Jagger, recorded for Live Aid — as if starving people on a faraway continent don’t have it bad enough already), and finally jumps ahead more than a decade to “I’m Afraid of Americans.” Don’t bother with this one. (Different two-CD versions of Best of Bowie were issued in different countries — including, eventually, an American two-CD edition of that title.)
Bowie at the Beeb collects radio recordings from 1968 to 1972 on two compact discs. The first progresses from dandyish Carnaby Street pop, recorded with the 14-piece Tony Visconti Orchestra, through folk and early sci-fi rock with several leaner band configurations. Sound quality is muddy on some of those tracks, but the disc offers a good summary of Bowie’s youthful explorations. His passionate March 1971 rendition of “It Ain’t Easy” (which closes Disc One) provides the first hint of the superstar moves to come. (That session’s cover of Chuck Berry’s “Almost Grown” definitively proves that the world did not lose out when the young David Bowie chose not to go down the Berry-fixated path the early Beatles and the Stones followed.) After opening with a pair of tracks (“Eight Line Poem” and “The Supermen”) recorded just by Bowie and Ronson, Disc Two presents four sessions by the Spiders From Mars, all recorded in the first five months of 1972. The second session aired on John Peel’s Sounds of the ’70s show two weeks before Ziggy Stardust‘s release. One only can imagine how the Beeb’s listeners responded to that first exposure to Ziggy and the Spiders, but comparing these sessions in sequence reveals how much the band’s confidence grew in just a few months. Those 1972 sessions would be Bowie’s last recordings for the BBC until 1991, when he would return with Tin Machine. (The initial release of Bowie at the Beeb includes a third CD of Bowie’s June 2000 taping for the BBC Radio Theatre — a 74-minute performance of a very wide-ranging set list, from “The Man Who Sold the World” to two songs from Hours…)
Unlike the Ziggy Stardust concert film, which captures Bowie’s last stand with the battle-weary Spiders From Mars — including the star’s announcement that the show would be the group’s swan song, surprising not only his audience but his band — Live Santa Monica ’72 captures Ziggy and the Spiders in top, tight form, on their first US tour and in full flush of their glam ascendance. Originally recorded and aired by KMET-FM in Los Angeles, the sound quality is first-rate. Even the remastered film soundtrack is still muddy compared to this one, especially during the mid-show acoustic set (although it’s hard not to chuckle at the way Bowie chooses to replicate the lift-off effect in “Space Oddity”). This is a crucial artifact for Bowiephiles — at least those who don’t already own a good bootleg copy of this gig.
For a change from the obvious, The Collection cherry-picks a decent selection of non-single album tracks from Bowie’s RCA years. iSelect, a skimpier compilation initially given away as a supplement to the UK weekly The Mail on Sunday (and released by itself in the UK four months later), likewise eschews the singles in favor of deeper tracks. It ranges a bit past the RCA albums to include tracks from Tonight and Never Let Me Down, and closes with a teaser selection from Live Santa Monica ’72 (released in the UK the day after the Mail on Sunday tie-in).
EMI issued an augmented version of the Sound+Vision box in 2003, expanding the selection out to 1997 with plenty of singles from Bowie’s post-RCA releases, along with two tracks from the Baal soundtrack, three songs from Buddha of Suburbia, six Tin Machine songs, and the Tao Jones Index live recording of “Pallas Athena.” (The reissue dispenses with the original edition’s video disc — not to mention its beautiful packaging.) The 2007 release David Bowie (on Sony) packages Outside, Earthling, Hours…, Heathen and Reality with a disc of remixes, B-sides and outtakes from each album — ten CDs in one box. Only the last two of those companion discs offer anything new for collectors. The one for Heathen includes all the tracks from the deluxe edition of that album, along with six B-sides, including re-recordings of a few of Bowie’s oldest songs — “Shadow Man,” “You’ve Got a Habit of Leaving” and “Baby Loves That Way.” (The original versions of those last two songs first appeared on a 1966 single by Davy Jones & the Lower Third.) The companion disc for Reality includes covers of the Kinks’ “Waterloo Sunset” and Sigue Sigue Sputnik’s “Love Missile F1-11,” along with three different versions of “Rebel Never Gets Old” (a mash-up of the re-recorded “Rebel Rebel” and “Never Get Old”). Shoppers will recognize this box set by its cover art, which echoes that of Outside, and by the fact that it’s really heavy.