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The David Bowie works

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The Anders View Drop Down
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    Posted: January 03 2021 at 12:48
In this thread I will go through the works of David Bowie; for me one of the greatest artists in rock music, even it it should be no secret that I regard his 1970's optput higher than most of the other albums. I will focus mostly on albums, from his 1967 self titled debut to Blackstar. When I find it relevant, I will go through some non-album singles, but I can not promise to talk about all of them.

So let's begin. I decided to start with the 1964 to 1967 singles. In this period he released a handful of singles, first with different (backing) bands, The King Bees, The Manish Boys, The Lower Third, and later as a solo artist. In general, few of these, if any, really indicate that David Bowie was to become one of the most important artists in rock music.

The first is "Liza Jane", released in 1964 by the then 17 year singer - who had not yet decided on the artist name Bowie - along with his then band The King Bees. The song is written by the record producer Leslie Conn and is in the genre of British rhythm and blues. It's well executed, but hardly outstanding among other more prominent artists in that area (e.g. the Yardbirds). It is however interesting to hear him with a r&b vocal performance.

The second, "I Pity the Fool" (1965), recorded with The Manish Boys, is a cover version of the Bobby Bland song and finds him sounding remarkably like Eric Burdon from the Animals in the chords, but in the chorus it's easy to recognize his voice (listen for instance to his trademark vibrato). The sound is raw and unpolished and not without musical intensity.

"You've Got a Habit of Leaving" (1965, with The Lower Third) is self-penned and produced by Shel Talmy (known from early Kinks and Who singles) which is easy to hear in the production. Sadly the vocals are very weak, and the song does not hang together well. I sense an inspiration from Pete Townshend, but unlike in the best Who works there is an unclear formal structure, for instance the verse sounds more like a pre-chorus. I would however like to praise the production.

"Can't Help Thinking About Me" (1966) is the first song released under the name of David Bowie (again with The Lower Third), and while it is far from being a masterpiece, there's a hint at his later idiosynchracies. Just take the song title. Musically it's more daring, especially as different harmonic patterns clash, and we get quite around the circle of fifths. Sadly it's also rather disjointed, for instance, sometimes the melody ends on a note that doesn't fit with the chords. Production-wise I sense some folk inspiration.

"Do Anything You Say" (1966) is the first to be credited only to David Bowie, despite the presence of his then backing band The Buzz. It sounds more American, for instance with a Motown-like drumbeat and call and response vocals. Sadly, the melody is very insecure and unfocused, and the backing vocals are weak - and off-key at several points.

"I Dig Everything" (1966) continues in the same vain (Motown-inspiration), but the melody is even weaker. It resembles The Temptation's "My Girl". Vocally he doesn't sound like he really cares.

"The Laughing Gnome" (1967) is quite a change of pace. It's basically a novely song with the high-pitched "gnome" voice recorded at half-speed. The intro sounds remarkably like "Puppet on a String". Musically the song is much more focused than the previous songs, for instance with quite a strong chorus. There are also some lyrical jokes, f.e. "Where do you come from? Gnome-man's land"). In the long run, the gnome voice becomes tiring, but the song is not without charm, and it would go well as a children's song. While making no impact in 1967, it later became a British hit in 1973 after his breakthrough with Ziggy Stardust, much to Bowie's own annoyance.

All in all recordings of mixed quality, and few things really make them stand out from most music of the time.
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (1) Thanks(1)   Quote nick_h_nz Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: January 05 2021 at 15:54
Looking forward to your thoughts on “David Bowie” (1967j, which I quite like.
(Admittedly, I’m a fairly big Bowie fan, so there’s not really one of his albums I don’t like...)

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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote nick_h_nz Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: January 08 2021 at 03:51
Happy Birthday Bowie!

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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote Psychedelic Paul Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: January 08 2021 at 04:18
  3 stars David Bowie (1967)
 
 
This is going to be a lot of fun. I'll start right at the beginning with a favourite lushly-orchestrated song from David Bowie's self-titled debut in 1967, which I'm glad to note, doesn't include The Laughing Gnome. Smile
 
When I Live My Dream
 


Edited by Psychedelic Paul - January 11 2021 at 10:59
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (1) Thanks(1)   Quote The Anders Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: January 08 2021 at 12:03
And now for his first LP, David Bowie (1967)

This album, if I remember correctly, was released on the same day as the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper album, but it was completely ignored. Musically, it is a far cry from Bowies early rhythm and blues singles, being mostly in the style of easy listening and cabaret, sometimes with a feel of 1966/67 "Swinging London". The music is generally not very engaging. The melodies are for most part unmemorably and clumsy, and it often sounds like he is unsure of where the melody should actually go. Consequently they are often difficult to remember. A good example is "Sell Me a Coat" where the melody is very repetetive in the chorus. His chords are usually stronger though, and they sometimes take you to unexpected places. I suspect he often made the chorus first and then the melody.

Instrumentally, the playing sounds uninspired, and there's practically no energy. There are a few sound gimmicks now and then, like for instance in "Join the Gang", which spice the music up a bit, but only a bit. More outstanding is David Bowie's characteristic singing voice which adds a lot of personality to an otherwise very sterile sounding album.

Perhaps as a result of this, a lot of emphasis is on the lyrics which are often a bit "out there". Listen for instance to "Love You Till Tuesday": "Beautiful baby, my sweet desire started on Sunday, give me your heart and I'll love you till Tuesday... well I might stretch it till Wednesday". The most striking lyrics appear in "We Are Hungry Men" which is about overpopulation and how someone tries to reduce the number of people on earth by drastic means. It's a downright scary song, but it is sadly marked by the same musical weakness as most of the other numbers (uncertain melody and mediocre playing once again) - and then thre's a very annoying "Achtung! Achtung!" speaking voice that mostly sounds like a British idea of a German trying to speak English (á la Peter Sellers in Dr. Strangelove or several Monty Python sketches), rather than actual German accent.

"When I Live My Dream" is an example of a more cohesive song where music and lyrics fit each other. It is probably the album's best song, but it sounds more like a Frank Sinatra hit than something by the David Bowie we came to know from "Space Oddity" and onwards. Another remarkable track is the closer, "Please Mr. Gravedigger" where Bowie's singing is only accompanied by the sound of rain and thunder. There's some sneezing too, in what is essentially a novelty song. Quite a charming one though.

All in all not a very convincing album, and it is easy to hear why it made little impact at the time. However, you can sense some of the more quirky ideas from Bowie's later work.

Favourite track: "When I Live My Dream"


Edited by The Anders - January 08 2021 at 15:55
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (1) Thanks(1)   Quote Psychedelic Paul Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: January 08 2021 at 12:15
^ That's a nicely-worded review and it's good to see we both agree on "When I Live My Dream" being the best song on David Bowie's debut album. Thumbs Up
 
----------------------------------------------------------
 
 4 stars Space Oddity (1969)
 
Ground Control to Major Tom (ten, nine, eight, seven, six.....)  Commencing countdown, Engines on, Check ignition and may God's love be with me. Now it's time to leave the capsule if I dare, And I'm stepping through the door and floating in a most peculiar way....  
 
Space Oddity (1969)
 


Edited by Psychedelic Paul - January 11 2021 at 11:00
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote nick_h_nz Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: January 08 2021 at 12:41
I have “The Deram Anthology 1966-1968”, which includes the debut album in its entirety, as well as the singles released in the same time period. There’s nothing really that I don’t like, and there are some really good songs there, that could even be great with a little rearrangement. Something that Bowie himself recognised, and intended to rectify with the “Toy” album. A lot of what is “wrong” (for lack of a better word) with the debut album is the naivety. Bowie didn’t yet have the confidence to express his visions in his own voice, and uses vocal affectations that don’t really help matters.

It’s not my least favourite Bowie album, though....

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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote Psychedelic Paul Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: January 11 2021 at 11:03
  4 stars The Man Who Sold the World (1970)
 
The title track and my favourite song from the album, although I must admit, I prefer Lulu's version. Embarrassed
 


Edited by Psychedelic Paul - January 11 2021 at 11:42
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (1) Thanks(1)   Quote nick_h_nz Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: January 11 2021 at 12:46
Getting a little ahead of yourself, aren’t you Paul. We’ve yet to hear about the second eponymous album (aka Space Oddity). 😜

Cygnet Committee is my favourite on that album, but there’s a lot of good stuff on the album, and I often think it’s unfairly overlooked. I prefer it to Hunky Dory, though that album tends to get more universal acclaim.

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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote Psychedelic Paul Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: January 11 2021 at 12:54
Originally posted by nick_h_nz nick_h_nz wrote:

Getting a little ahead of yourself, aren’t you Paul. We’ve yet to hear about the second eponymous album (aka Space Oddity). 😜

Cygnet Committee is my favourite on that album, but there’s a lot of good stuff on the album, and I often think it’s unfairly overlooked. I prefer it to Hunky Dory, though that album tends to get more universal acclaim.

In that case, I'd better save my fave song from Hunky Dory until The Anders returns. Smile
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (1) Thanks(1)   Quote The Anders Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: January 11 2021 at 13:32
Think I will continue tomorrow.
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (1) Thanks(1)   Quote The Anders Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: January 12 2021 at 12:34
That's one small step for Major Tom - one giant leap for David Bowie.

Or is it the other way around? David Bowie had tried and tried and tried with different band constellations, artist names and style changes, releasing a handful of singles between 1964 and 1967 as well as his debut album in 1967. He had moved from rhythm and blues to cabaret and easy listening, but with little success. The releases have showed some signs that Bowie had some unusual ideas, but the quality was mixed, and overall the songs were not outstanding enough to make an impact on a scene where other artists had done similar things, just way better.

But then in 1969 came a truely unique single that didn't sound like anything else. "Space Oddity" was used for the BBC transmissions of the moon landing; it didn't make an impact at first, but later in the same year it suddenly climbed into the UK top 10, deservingly becoming David Bowies first hit. And I think most fans will agree this is where the story really begins. Indeed, almost all Greatest Hits compilations with David Bowie begin with "Space Oddity", or just have it as the oldest track. It is also worth noticing, that the many CD re-releases of his albums begin with the 1969 album on which it appears, thus omitting the 1967 David Bowie album which has only been re-releaed separately, along with his early singles.

For the first time, Bowie has written a truely original song. The melody is much more focused than anything he had written before, but a lot of praise should also be put on the creative arrangement. Clearly, there is an echo of psychedelic rock here (as can be heard for instance in the cacophonic fade out), but in some ways I also find it kind of proggy (laugh at me if you like); there is a mellotron after all, but more importantly, the song abandons classic song structure. The initial "verse" ("Ground control to Major Tom") never comes back for instance.

Then there are the lyrics where we meet the astronaut Major Tom for the first time as he is leaving earth with his spaceship, but then something goes wrong, and the ground control (a.k.a the earth) loses contact with him, leaving him to an uncertain destiny. Major Tom reappears in several later Bowie songs, and I suppose you could say he gradually became a sort of an alter ego for David Bowie - who likes to portray other characters (Ziggy Stardust, Halloween Jack, The Thin White Duke, Nathan Adler...). The tale of Major Tom who is lost in space could be interpreted in many ways, and consequently I have always found it kind of sad that the 1980 song "Ashes to Ashes" simply states that "We know Major Tom's a junkie". Surely there are other possibilities in understanding his space adventure than drugs, and I admire many Bowie songs for their ambiguity. Why kill that ambiguity? (apart from that, I really like "Ashes to Ashes", it's a very catchy song from a musical perspective).

"Space Oddity" also shows a clear connection between music and lyrics. You can sense the nervousness about the spaceship taking off during the initial "verse": just listen to the uneasy harmonic structure. In the "bridge" after the second "chorus" where ground control says "There's something wrong, can you hear me Major Tom?", the panic is underlined by some more dramatic chords where we change towards the minor parallel key and then try to get back again, but without succeeding. And I could go on, but it requires more time and space to deliver a full song analysis.

"Space Oddity" is also the opening track on his second album from 1969, originally released as David Bowie in the UK. Most re-releases of the album have been entitled Space Oddity, probably to avoid confusion with the 1967 Deram album. The rest of the album differs a lot from the opening track, being mostly in the area of hippy'ish folk rock, and if you listen to these songs first, and then "Space Oddity", the latter doesn't sound like it's from the same album. The main reason probably being that "Space Oddity" was produced by Gus Dudgeon, whereas the rest of the album was produced by Tony Visconti - the first of many Bowie albums to be produced by him (he dismissed "Space Oddity" as a "novelty song").

In general the other songs are not nearly as strong, and also, unlike "Space Oddity", they sound more like a lot of other things that came out at the time. "Unwashed and Somewhat Slightly Dazed" is more than a little Dylan-influenced, and it has a loooong fade-out; I'm just waiting for it to end. "Memory of a Free Festival" contains a "Hey Jude"-like fade-out, repeating the line "The song machine is coming down, and we're gonna have a party" over and over again. Quite catchy, but nowhere near the Beatles masterpiece in terms of musical intensity. "Don't Sit Down" is a quite an amusing filler, but nothing more than that, whereas "God Knows I'm Good" is an attempt at social realism that is unlike almost anything he would write afterwards. In any case, the songs are much stronger than Bowie's earlier efforts. The best of them include "Letter to Hermione" which is a moody farewell to a woman, "Janine", which has quite a catchy chorus, and is foreshadowing Bowie's play with different personalities in the 70's ("If you take an axe to me, you kill another man, not me at all"), and perhaps "The Wild-eyed Boy from Freecloud".

The most famous of these songs is probably "Cygnet Committee" which seems to be about the flipside of hippie culture, but personally I find the words in this song much more interesting than the actual music. Centered around a spiritual leader (or "thinker" as he is called in the song) who is rejected by his followers, it touches a theme that was later treated in Ziggy Stardust, but one might also think of The Who's Tommy in this context. The album came out in the same year after all.

In general, I think the real milestone of the album is "Space Oddity", deservingly a big classic, and one of Bowie's most famous songs. This is where the "chameleom" truely came into his own. It is easy to hear why it became a single hit whereas the actual album didn't make much impact at the time.

Favourite song: "Space Oddity".
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (1) Thanks(1)   Quote The Anders Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: January 21 2021 at 17:52
We've reached The Man Who Sold the World (1971).

This, in my opinion, is the first really great David Bowie album. On Space Oddity there is a very unique title song, but the rest of that album did not differ that much from what was otherwise released at that time - at least not musically...

With The Man Who Sold the World he seems to be through with following trends set by others, instead trying more to set the tone himself. This was also true when it came to the visual side. For instance he had begun performing in women's clothes - which at the time seems to have been very controversial and causing quite a stir. For people today, the controversy may be a little hard to understand, but I once read he was threatened with a shotgun, just for performing in a dress.

Also on the album cover of the original British album release, he is seen in a dress. I have always loved him for doing that, because he clearly challenged the macho ideals of rock, and that itself is very relieving, at least from my point of view. He would continue to play with sexuality and gender norms with his Ziggy Stardust stage persona a few years later.

But all these things would be very hollow if there hadn't been a clear musical and artistic vision, and that is exactly what we get on The Man Who Sold the World. Stylistically, it is quite a change from David Bowie/Space Oddity, from hippy'ish folk rock towards hard rock, and we get the first glimpses of the glam rock sound from albums like Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane. Whereas Space Oddity focused mostly on acoustic guitar, The Man... is all about the electric guitar. Mick Ronson plays a pivotal role here on his first performance on a David Bowie album, and his signature sound is recognized already on the first track, "The Width of a Circle".

The album is sometimes regarded as the birth of glam rock, but there is still an echo of the 60's in the music; perhaps most evident in "She Shook Me Cold" which has a sort of bluesy power trio sound a la the Jimi Hendrix Experience or Cream. Also "After All" with its dreamy, psychedelic feel, has echoes of the 60's.

Composition-wise the songs are becoming more original, but they are not as catchy as the best songs on his later albums. It's one of his less melodic albums; the most melodic song probably being the title track, but that is also characterized by an instantly recognizable guitar riff. But then the music has other qualities. "The Width of a Circle" is basically in two parts with different tempos and time signatures. There is also a small change of time signature in "All the Madmen" as the second chorus begins in 12/8 whereas the rest of the song is in 4/4. On the title track he skips a few beats to get a better flow in the melody (Nirvana, in their version, brought some of the missing beats back, thus making the song sound more reguar and taking away some of its quirks, which is why I don't like their version very much).

There are also many fine moments in the production. Favourite parts include the percussion instruments in the title track which add a latin flavour. Then there is the instrumental part in "Saviour Machine" where some keyboard instruments are coming in in the 9th bar, using the stereo spectrum in a creative way. It adds a lot of energy and intensity to the music. And then, perhaps most striking, is the weird recorder riff in "All the Madmen". It sounds totally insane, underlining the song's lyrical content (the recorders reappear in "After All", and later on "Life on Mars?" from Hunky Dory). Also, in "All the Madmen", there is a sudden abrupt break after the first chorus where the music changes mood completely with only some keyboard instruments, and Bowie narrating, but then we go back to the rockband sound with recorders. Another "insane" musical element.

The lyrics are also a thing to behold, and some of them deal with subjects that also occur in later David Bowie albums. "She Shook Me Cold" and "The Width of a Circle" have a clear sexual content, the latter also contains a hint a split personality ("Well I said hello, and I said hello / And I asked "Why not?", and I replied "I don't know"." - this topic of course had already been touch in "Janine" from Space Oddity, and it also foreshadows Bowie's role playing for instance with Ziggy Stadust). "After All" deals with reincarnation (Bowie was into zen buddhism at that time), "Running Gun Blues" is probably a comment on the Vietnam war - the protagonist, if you can call him that, is cold as stone talking proudly about his many killings. The "Supermen" in the final song don't seem very sympathetic either, and what's fun about being supermen when you are "guardians of a loveless isle"?.

I won't pretend I always get what he is trying to say, because many of the lyrics are pretty confusing. But it is had not to be intrigued by the many idiosynchracies that occur. What about "Please don't believe in me, please disagree with me" (from "Saviour Machine") for instance? A very odd thing to sing.

All in all we have quite a striking album with many musical and lyricals oddities, some of them rather disturbing. But art is not necessarily meant to be pleasant, plus the songs provoke thoughts, however comprehensible or incomprehensible they may be. Because of that, the album keeps fascinating the listener. It is not a masterpiece, because most of the compositions don't seem as mature as those already on the next album, Hunky Dory. But The Man... is still a great album where you keep discovering new dimensions for each listening.

Personal favourite song: "After All".


Edited by The Anders - January 21 2021 at 17:53
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (1) Thanks(1)   Quote uduwudu Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: February 09 2021 at 04:19
Originally posted by Psychedelic Paul Psychedelic Paul wrote:

  4 stars The Man Who Sold the World (1970)
 
The title track and my favourite song from the album, although I must admit, I prefer Lulu's version. Embarrassed
 


Oh yes, her version is terrific. Great song but her version just seems to have the edge on the original...
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