I may be the wrong age to have been a real David Bowie fan. He had his created and killed off Ziggy Stardust before I even understood music, and by the time I was a teenager he was in his Let’s Dance phase, which made him feel to me no different from the rest of the pop charts. Sigh.
Luckily for me I grew out of that feeling, mainly by discovering most of what he did in the 1970s, a decade in which he released 10 albums of original material, a collection of covers and two live recordings. Let’s just say I Reckon he’s about as important as The Beatles or Robert Johnson, that sort of level.
We know Major Tom’s a Junkie…
When Bowie’s first hit Space Oddity was re-released in 1975 this young boy loved the storytelling and the astronaut. He might have missed out on the alienation and tragedy. A few years later he thought he was older and wiser, until he encountered the deranged Pierrot clown walking with some very strange-looking people along a beach, with a bulldozer, in the Ashes to Ashes video.
Most of the lyrics still made no sense, but
Ashes to ashes, funk to funky, we know Major Tom’s a junkie
was a hook like no other. The electronic soundscape of the song sounded like it came from the future, and I’m pretty certain my parents didn’t get it. This was the start.
Didn’t know what time it was, the lights were low, I leaned back on my radio…
In the years that followed I learned more about Bowie through late-night radio. Radio Luxembourg on 208AM and John Peel on Radio 1, volume low so as not to alert my mum, cheek pressed against the corner of the radio. Many times I woke up with the radio, now drained of batteries, still pressing into my face.
The intimacy of no distractions helped feed my growing sense of musical snobbery. The arrangements and production in everything Bowie did are amazing. His early work features lush strings and saxophones. The stylophone drone and glissando in Space Oddity makes me smile every time I hear it. The ‘rattlesnake maracas’ in Jean Genie, that Rebel Rebel riff, Robert Fripp’s guitar on Fame and Heroes, it’s almost overwhelming. He wrote great songs but he had a f**king amazing band to deliver the vision. There’s more skill and creativity in one middle-eight section of a Bowie song than in many pop careers.
Ain’t there one damn song that can make me break down and cry…?
Not only did Bowie write great songs, he was a bad-ass singer. He could turn himself to almost anything and make it sound perfectly natural. There is no single Bowie sound, but everything he does, from the Philadelphia Soul of Young Americans to the foot-stomping Rebel Rebel to the pop-tastic Let’s Dance immediately sounds like Bowie.
He has a fabulous rich baritone voice, and a crystalline falsetto. This line from Young Americans is his equivalent of Freddie Mercury at the climax of Somebody to Love: it sends shivers down my spine. But then, so does the high tenor of Heroes, somewhere between ecstasy and anguish. He nails it in any octave you care to mention.
Put on your red shoes and dance the blues…
Noone alive and with access to Radio 1 or Top of the Pops in 1983 could fail to recognise this line, and the iconic video that went with it. I didn’t care for it at the time. WTF is serious moonlight anyway?
Turn and face the strange…
In recent days I’ve most appreciated the way Bowie reached out to young people in so many of his songs. I was the wrong age to appreciate this at the time, but it’s there in so many songs.
Oh you pretty things, don’t you know you’re driving your mamas and papas insane…
And these children that you spit on as they try to change their world are immune to your consultations. They’re quite aware what they’re going through.
Changes – Don’t tell them to grow up and out of it
Changes – Where’s your shame? You’ve left us up to our necks in it…
Let the children lose it, let the children use it, let the children boogie.
Turn on with me, and you’re not alone…
And then there’s the fabulous Rock’n’Roll Suicide. The closing track of The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, it follows the barnstorming title track, and is at once a searing depiction of alienation and an uplifting message of hope for his fans. I’m pretty certain Pink Floyd’s The Wall used Ziggy as a template.
I reserve the right to change my mind, but I Reckon this is my favourite Bowie song. Or possibly Heroes.
Time takes a cigarette, puts it in your mouth
You pull on your finger, then another finger, then your cigarette
The wall-to-wall is calling, it lingers, then you forget
Ohhh, you’re a rock ‘n’ roll suicide
You’re too old to lose it, too young to choose it
And the clock waits so patiently on your song
You walk past a cafe but you don’t eat when you’ve lived too long
Oh, no, no, no, you’re a rock ‘n’ roll suciide
Chev brakes are snarling as you stumble across the road
But the day breaks instead so you hurry home
Don’t let the sun blast your shadow
Don’t let the milk float ride your mind
You’re so natural – religiously unkind
Oh no love! you’re not alone
You’re watching yourself but you’re too unfair
You got your head all tangled up but if I could only make you care
Oh no love! you’re not alone
No matter what or who you’ve been
No matter when or where you’ve seen
All the knives seem to lacerate your brain
I’ve had my share, I’ll help you with the pain
You’re not alone
Just turn on with me and you’re not alone
Let’s turn on with me and you’re not alone
Let’s turn on and be not alone
Gimme your hands cause you’re wonderful
Oh gimme your hands.