- 10 Jan 21
What is David Bowie’s Greatest Record?
“An impossible question,” said one pal. “Glue them all together,” said another. Let’s ignore the gas ticket that shouted for the Labyrinth soundtrack. Choosing David Bowie’s greatest record is no easy thing. The first couple of albums certainly have their charms, but from Hunky Dory in 1971 up to Scary Monsters in 1980, Bowie did not put a foot wrong in the studio, and yes, I include the Pinups cover album in that, and while I’m about it, we’ll stretch to Let’s Dance as well. He had a wobble then; whatever about Tonight – and two songs do not a good album make - Never Let Me Down remains a pretty much irredeemable turkey, and Bowie, were he still around, would likely be the first man to tell you that. I know that they stripped it back for the box set, and that was certainly an improvement, but it was far from the revelation that Tony Visconti’s Lodger remix proved to be. Some things are just impervious to polish.
I can remember buying Tin Machine when it came out, thanks to the ‘Under The God’ single, and thinking ‘yeah, this is more like it’, and all the albums he made from then until the end of his life have at least three or four songs – and some, many more - to recommend them. Did he make another complete masterpiece after 1980? I’m not sure about that, but he was always interesting and always worth hearing, because he was always David Bowie.
So let’s forget about trying to decide on his ‘best’ album – there are at least nine or ten candidates – and instead allow me to pick a favourite. I needed to think about it though, and I very nearly went for Hunky Dory, the album where David Bowie became David Bowie, or Low, or Scary Monsters, and what about Ziggy? I’ll tell you what, ask me again next week.
It around about this point where all the best writers gush on about how David Bowie changed their lives, so allow a lesser one to have a go. Bowie, along with several others, changed my life, and quite probably ruined it at same time, denying me forever a glorious career in some financially rewarding profession, with two cars in my suburban driveway and regular golfing holidays to Torremolinos. Bowie turned my head when I was young and impressionable, and it never fully turned back. It was most likely the hit singles off Let’s Dance – I would have been about twelve – that I heard first, and then a friend’s older sister had the seventies albums. On a holiday, I bought a couple of his cassettes in some Cork record shop – along with Rewind by The Rolling Stones, which is another day’s work altogether – and that’s when he really got me. It’s no exaggeration to say I listened to little else for a long time. At that time teenagers had less distractions vying for their attention, and I wasn’t much taken with what was coming out of the radio anyway, so pocket money went on more Bowie – and Stones – cassettes. Hundred of thousands of people – and I know several of them – will tell you a very similar story.
I could pretend that I identified immediately with the examination of alienation in his work, or that I admired his constant need to change and evolve, but I probably just liked the songs and the singing, because he was very good at both of those things, and that, as it always has been, is the most important thing. I know now, because I’m all grown up and informed, that Bowie’s run of albums from 1971 to 1980 has never been – and is unlikely ever to be – bettered. Other artists have had he purplest of patches, but nobody sustained it for as long, with as many left turns that proved to be the right turns, as Bowie did. The Stones, The Beatles, Joni Mitchell, Prince, and many more artists we could both name all proved themselves time and time again to be divine beings with supernatural abilities who brought down the gift of fire to us mere mortals, but Bowie…
Accordingly, you could drop the needle anywhere in that decade and land on a record that could be reasonably argued, over the top of flowing glasses, to be his ‘best’. I shall instead don a blindfold, and throw a dart, not in lover’s eyes, but back in time. We are now in New York on the 17th of April 1974.
Take It In Right
Bowie is in RCA’s studio having a second go at recording ‘Can You Hear Me?’ with Lulu, who has just had a hit single with a Mick Ronson/Bowie-produced version of ‘The Man Who Sold The World’ – ‘Watch That Man’ is on the B-side – which was recorded during the Pin Ups sessions in the Château d’Hérouville in France. Bowie would himself record the song for his unreleased – until recently – soul album The Gouster, and a different, slightly inferior to these ears version would see release on Young Americans. It’s at this Lulu session that he first meets guitarist Carlos Alomar.
As a teenager in the 1960s, Alomar was already a member of the Apollo Theatre house band – when he left he was replaced by another future Bowie ally, one Nile Rodgers - and even toured with James Brown at the end of the decade, until the Godfather’s penchant for fining musicians for missed cues prompted him to walk. Bowie and Alomar – who had never previously heard of his new English friend – hit it off and Bowie wanted the younger man to immediately join the Diamond Dogs tour of 1974, a tour that quickly morphed from a lavish theatrical production into something else, either a result of management realising just how much it was costing, or the fact that Bowie had decided to ditch his glam rock guise before it completely ran aground and embrace his boyhood love of R&B, but most likely a mixture of both.
The tour took a break for a month and a half during which Bowie worked with Alomar in Sigma Sound Studios, in Philadelphia. This was the home of the marvellous sound of Gamble and Huff and their Philadelphia International label. MFSB were their house band – their hit ‘TSOP’ was the theme tune to the Soul Train TV show – and Bowie wanted them to back him on these recordings, but they were unavailable. Alomar instead brought in his wife, vocalist Robin Clark, as well as future-superstar Luther Vandross, prompting Bowie to properly go for it in the pipes department, as the released sessions attest. When the tour resumed, it was a very different animal. Bowie’s “plastic soul” period had begun.
Once the run of shows wound up, Bowie, Alomar, and producer Tony Visconti, who had also worked on the Philadelphia sessions, recorded more songs in New York. Visconti took the combined tapes to London to begin mixing, while Bowie continued working with engineer Harry Maslin. John Lennon was in the Record Plant studios at the same time, fashioning his Rock N’ Roll album. He already knew Bowie and they – along with Alomar – collaborated on ‘Fame’ and a version of Lennon’s late Beatles song, ‘Across The Universe’, with Maslin assisting in the co-producer’s chair. Guitarist Earl Slick – who had first worked with Bowie as a replacement Ronson on the Diamond Dogs tour – and drummer Dennis Davis – who Alomar knew from their time together with Roy Ayers – were also brought in. Coincidentally, I received a text message only yesterday from fellow Hot Presser Roisin Dwyer, asking me if I knew that Davis’ son is the drummer with Public Enemy? I didn’t, but it makes some kind of sense.
Is It Any Wonder?
There’s no arguing with ‘Fame’, which would provide Bowie with his first number one single in the US, but either – or both – ‘Who Can I Be Now?’ or ‘It’s Gonna Be Me’ which were recorded during the initial Gouster sessions would have sat better on the Young Americans album than The Beatles cover. Perhaps you disagree as you are more than entitled to do, but the recording session that produced it did put the personnel in place for the next record.
The success of Young Americans made Bowie a bona fide star in the US, and if you were a famous rock n’ roller in seventies America, there was only one place to go, Los Angeles. The problem was that Bowie had become a world champion cocaine addict by this point, and Los Angeles was practically running on the stuff. There are stories – some provided by Bowie himself, although he always claimed he had no memory of the period and only knew he was in L.A. at all because he read about it later on – of Bowie living in fear of witches stealing his bodily fluids while he survived on a nutritious diet of peppers and milk. If the video interviews that are available on YouTube are anything to go by, with the likes of Russell Harty and Dick Cavett, Bowie was in a precarious state, hanging right out over the abyss, (barely) living proof that cocaine might just be bad for you. You may also have seen Bowie as a paranoid wreck in Alan Yentob’s rather good documentary, Cracked Actor, which chronicles the period of transition from the Diamond Dogs tour to Los Angeles ghoul. Director Nicolas Roeg – who had form when it came to working with skinny rock gods – was certainly watching and put a call through, feeling he had found his "man”.
If ever anyone was born to play a role, then it was Bowie as Thomas Jerome Newton in The Man Who Fell To Earth, the alien who lands on earth looking for water to save his own planet but ends up a stranded drunk. It’s hardly a masterpiece and it’s properly out there – I remember showing a girlfriend a VHS copy of it back in the eighties after which she seriously considered running out of the house – just like Mary-Lou - to get away from me – but Bowie is certainly perfectly cast. Perhaps more interesting is the story of the soundtrack that never was. As far as Bowie was aware, part of his deal included creating the music to go with the film and he set to work on instrumental pieces he thought would be suitable. When he later found out that he was expected to submit his music for approval alongside others, he quite rightly threw a bit of a strop and refused to do any such thing. Another story goes that it was Roeg who rejected Bowie’s soundtrack ideas, opting instead for the folky warbling of Mamas and Papas man, John Philips. The music Bowie created still hasn’t surfaced, although one piece would become ‘Subterraneans’ on Low, an album that Bowie apparently later sent to Roeg, to show him what might have been.
Because of the stop/start nature of film-making, and the fact that his brain was racing at several thousand miles per hour as a result of his “diet”, Bowie also starting toying with some quasi-autobiographical writing in the form of The Return Of The Thin White Duke. Just like that soundtrack, this writing has yet to surface, but it did give Bowie the title of his next character, whose image came in part at least from the look of Newton, stills of whom would constitute his next two album covers.
Does My Face Show Some Kind Of Glow?
Back In California, once the film was completed, Bowie took up where he left off, drawing pentagrams on the floor, and getting high. However he managed it, he went into Hollywood’s Cherokee Studios in September of 1975 to begin his next record with the team assembled around him. Harry Maslin was in as co-producer, thanks to his work on the previous album’s final sessions, and the fact that Tony Visconti was busy elsewhere. Alomar and Slick were there on guitars, with Davis on the drums. Bassist George Murray was brought in to complete what would be called Bowie’s D.A.M. rhythm section, a trio that would work on every Bowie record up to and including Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps). The piano of Roy Bittan – that’s Professor Roy Bittan – is the last piece of the puzzle. Bittan, Springsteen’s pianist, was working with The Boss in the studio at the same time, and Bowie would have already been aware of him as a self-confessed Springsteen fan who recorded both ‘Growing Up’ and ‘It’s Hard To Be A Saint In The City’.
The record this motley crew would make there – in either a furious ten-day flurry or over a couple of months, depending on who you believe - was Station To Station, which, for the purposes of this argument, and for today at least, I’ll nominate as Bowie’s masterpiece from that decade run littered with them.
The first song worked on was ‘Golden Years’, the most obvious throwback to where Bowie had been on the previous album. It was apparently written with Bowie’s label mate Elvis Presley in mind and Bowie is supposed to have sent a finished demo to The King in the hope that he might record it. Unfortunately, he never did, but it is easy to imagine Presley’s rich baritone making it his own. He did, however, send Bowie a note wishing him well, which the English man kept for the rest of his life. The track itself illustrates the benefit of having two guitarists of such different styles and backgrounds working together. On top of Bowie’s two-chord progression, Slick adapts bits of Cream’s ‘Outside Woman Blues’ and Wilson Pickett’s ‘Funky Broadway’ for his contribution, while Alomar heard traces of Ben E. King’s ‘On Broadway’ in what Bowie played him and so added his own chord shapes in order to funk it up. Released as the leading single from the album in November ’75, it would reach the top ten on both sides of the Atlantic.
The two-guitarist trick is there again on ‘Stay’ in the middle of side two. This song grew out of an attempt to find a new live approach to Bowie’s ‘John, I’m Only Dancing’ – a song that Bowie released as a stand-alone single in 1972, then again with added saxophone in 973, and then recorded a proto-disco version at the time of The Gouster, which wasn’t released until 1979. Slick came up with the heavy riff which dominates and prompted Bowie to write a whole new song – well, not completely new, try singing the chorus of ‘John’ over ‘Stay’ to see what I mean. Alomar added the James Brown ninth-chord to the end of the riff and the furious chord playing that sits under the verses.
I May Just Jump Down That Rainbow Way
The song that opens the second side kicks off with the kind of barrelhouse piano that Bowie probably first heard on the R&B records he was trying to emulate back in his Lower Third days. ‘TVC 15’ is about Iggy Pop – who was quite possibly high at the time – imagining his girlfriend being eaten by her television, but you can ignore that it-was-probably-gas-at-the-time narrative and instead boogie along as the band speed up then drop back while Bowie and his mate Warren Peace – his school chum Geoffrey Alexander MacCormack – holler the oh, oh, oh, ohs.
I said earlier – with considerable understatement – that Bowie was “very good” at singing. He was quite a bit more than that, as proved on the cuts that close the two sides of the original record – six songs in all, coming in at a tidy thirty-eight minutes, which is perfect, although if you’re after something longer that outstays its welcome, there are plenty of Yes records in the second-hand section. The hymnal ‘Word On A Wing’ was written as a cry for help to the heavens from deep within the coke-battered psyche of the man who very nearly fell through the earth. He also started wearing a cross around his neck that his manager had given him at this time as a talisman against the demons. You can take all that or leave it, but you can’t argue with the voice that carries the message across, a miracle in and off itself given the coke and the life-long heavy gasper habit.
Station To Station finishes out with a seemingly unlikely choice, a cover of the Johnny Mathis-sung theme song – nominated for an Oscar - from a fifties western. Bowie was inspired to do it by a meeting with Nina Simone, whose recording of ‘Wild Is The Wind’ is closer to Bowie’s than the Mathis version. It is, quite possibly, the greatest vocal performance of Bowie’s career, which is certainly saying something for the man who captured the octave-hopping ‘Life On Mars?’ in one take and would go on to sing maybe the greatest torch song of all time in ‘Heroes’. The way his voice climbs higher and higher, slipping in and out of falsetto, as the song soars to its climax is nothing short of astounding.
I’m Sinking In The Quicksand Of My Thought
That’s five. The title track warrants an article all to itself. We’ve already established - another of my regular understatements - that cocaine is bad for you, but give a mountain of it to a man who was already obsessed with and immersed in the occult, Nietzschean philosophy, and various “magic systems” and you can’t be too surprised when the sparks start to fly out of his head. The Thin White Duke is introduced, although we’re told this is his return, the character born out of Thomas Jerome Newton while Bowie was filming in Albuquerque, the Duke City. Bowie would portray/inhabit him as a sharp-dressed man in waistcoat and white shirt with blonde hair slicked back like some sort of Aryan wet dream, a poster boy for the promised thousand year – which makes the millennial promise in ‘Golden Years’ that bit more sinister – Reich. If the European cannon of the lyric is spelt with a second ‘n’ then here’s the man who’d most likely be lighting the touchpaper. Bowie paraphrases Shakespeare’s magician, Prospero, but Prospero’s full speech refers to the “baseless fabric of this vision” and “this insubstantial pageant”, reminding the audience that what has gone before is but a play, so perhaps Bowie is including the reference as a reminder that this is all smoke and mirrors, that he’s playing a character, that we should be careful not to confuse the singer with the song.
Keter and Malkhut are emanations in the Jewish mystical system of Kabbalah, the system through which Ein Sof – God, by any other name – creates the physical and metaphysical realms. Keter is the divine subconscious – “the brow of the superbrain”, if you will – while Malkhut is at the other end of Kabbalistic Tree Of Life, and while it is also an attribute of God, it is the one that involves us, God’s creation, and how divine revelation is passed to us and we then reflect glory back unto Ein Sof. We are the one magical movement from the subconscious of God into life. Where could he go after that, driving like a demon from station to station, stations that are not, one expects, stops along a railway line or even, as some have said, those of the Christian cross, but the stations of the Tree of Life, down through the attributes of God to us, the beings created in its image? To love, of course, as the song becomes something else with Bowie proclaiming that it is not the effects of the drug that has ravaged his body, so it must be love.
If that European canon is spelled with only one ‘n’ then it surely refers to the new music that Bowie had fallen for after the Philly sound, the music of Germany, of Tangerine Dream, Neu! and Kraftwerk. The most obvious reference is the opening “train sound” – created through a series of effects on Slick’s guitar - which travels from speaker to speaker, if you’re listening to the record on the kind of equipment it deserves. This directly echoes the car heading off at the start of Kraftwerk’s 1972 22-minute epic, ‘Autobahn’. The ‘motorik’ beat is there in the rhythms of the song’s second half too. Some have referred to this ten-minute – Bowie’s longest recorded song – masterwork as ‘prog’, which is an awful insult. Better to say it is the song at the crossroads – or rail crossing – between where he has been and where he would go next.
Bowie has said that this is the album where the electronics and the R&B meet and it is handy and logical to see it as the halfway point between Philadelphia and Berlin, although I reckon - title track apart - there’s a lot more of the former than the latter, and even the title song swings like a bastard. The music of Kraftwerk has been called “European soul music” by a rather famous Irish man, and that’s what Station To Station is; David Bowie turning his towering intellect – that even lorry loads of drugs could not dull – back towards Europe, but bringing the sounds he found in America with him. It is the transition he sang of in ‘TVC 15’, the crowning statement from a colossus who stood astride the old world and the new.
I’m Torn Between The Light And Dark
Perhaps surprisingly, Station To Station was a huge success in America, hitting the number three spot on the Billboard chart, a placing he wouldn’t better until The Next Day went one rung higher in 2013. After its release, wrapped in a shot of Newton entering his ill-fated spaceship and the striking typography that Bowie would retain for his next release, Changesonebowie, he continued work on his Man Who Fell To Earth material with Paul Buckmaster until the proposed trial by committee put a stop to that. Instead, he went on tour.
Arriving on stage to the strains of Kraftwerk’s ‘Radioactivity’ after the audience had been treated the eye-slicing joys of clips from Buñuel and Dali’s Un Chien Andalou, Bowie was resplendent in his full Thin White Duke rigout, lit in swathes of white light, which the man himself said was a throwback to the expressionist German film work of the likes of Fritz Lang. Coked up to the nines, Bowie dropped a few clangers in the interviews of the time, calling Adolf Hitler the first rock star – “he staged a country” - and remarking that “Britain could benefit from a Fascist leader”. He would get away with this kind of chat by blaming it all on The Duke and the dust, unlike say Eric Clapton, whose racist rant in 1976 in support of Enoch Powell was a different thing altogether and used some pretty unforgivable language. The emerging Rock Against Racism movement took aim at both of them, however, and Bowie’s case wasn’t helped much by the Victoria Station Incident, where he was photographed with his arm in the air, stood in the back of a Mercedes convertible, in what looked like a Nazi salute. Bowie was most likely just caught mid wave, but there’s not much of a story in that.
What was definitely true is that he needed a break or he wasn’t going to get much older. He moved his family to Switzerland, mostly for tax reasons, while he and fellow drug hoover Iggy Pop sought anonymity in a working class quarter of Berlin, where his clean-up and his next chapter would begin, and where, with the help of Eno and Visconti – and the D.A.M. section – David Bowie would carve the future out of the wreckage of his recent past.
Photo: Andrew Kent, taken from his book David Bowie: Behind The Curtain