The career arc of David Bowie was nothing if not fascinating. From his early attempts at just about anything that would get him noticed, he managed a freak hit single after years of trying with the evergreen “Space Oddity” at the back end of 1969.
Following the success of “Space Oddity” and the relative lack of success for his sophomore album, it genuinely looked as if David Bowie was destined for one hit wonder status. For many musical acts this would have been the death knell for their career. True, Bowie retreated, but in doing so he stumbled across an act that would launch him beyond the furthest reaches of his starry-eyed dreams. Drummer Woody Woodmansy and Hull born guitar-slinger Mick Ronson joined Bowie and producer-come bass player Tony Visconti at the sessions for Bowie’s follow up to his second unsuccessful album in a row.
The Studio Albums
The Man Who Sold the World is in some ways Bowie’s hardest rocking album, as he and his newly formed band dabbled with a musical form that was still in its early days. As a result of this it’s an album which sounds both dated, yet is also the sound of a newly formed band finding its way around each other and still trying to find its dynamic. Of course it wouldn’t truly find its way until Trevor Bolder joined on bass a few months later, but The Man Who Sold the World is effectively the baby-steps of The Spiders From Mars.
Despite my love of glam-era Bowie and hard rock, I have to admit that in places The Man Who Sold the World sounds relatively leaden and clumsy, perhaps even stodgy, but in the grand scheme of things it should now be viewed in the context of the albums that followed it and it’s thrilling to hear the giant leap made between this album and Hunky Dory and then on to the career pinnacle of The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars. If The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars is the fully formed end result , then The Man Who Sold the World is effectively the raw material.
A transitional album rather than a classic in its own right, The Man Who Sold the World is an album that struggles to stand alone as an artistic statement, but that’s not to say it isn’t one of the most important albums that Bowie ever put his name to.
Released a little over a year later, Hunky Dory was the first album where the genius of the former David Jones was obvious to all, and as such, it contains some of his most durable songs. It also presented the definitive line up of The Spiders From Mars, augmented throughout Hunky Dory by keyboard supremo in waiting Rick Wakeman.
At the end of the day though Hunky Dory’s strength lay in its songs. “Changes”, “Oh! You Pretty Things”, Life On Mars?” and “Queen Bitch” are now considered as some of the greatest songs of Bowie’s career, though they should not take praise away from other fine tunes like “Andy Warhol” and “Song For Bob Dylan”. It isn’t perfect though, as a song like “Kooks”transitions from being sweet to being unnecessarily saccharine.
Now seen as a landmark album, Hunky Dory is David Bowie’s first fully realised album. It’s not perfect by any means, but it does pave the way of greater things to come.
If Hunky Dory showed the first signs of David Bowie’s potential, Ziggy Stardust… saw that potential not only filled, but overflowing.
It’s difficult to imagine what kind of an impact that Bowie had on the pop kids when he first stepped out in his Ziggy Stardust regalia, but it changed everything forever. The radical image change could have been passed off as a cheap publicity stunt, were it not for the fact that Ziggy Stardust… contains some of the greatest songs of all time. It’s Bowie’s finest album by quite some considerable distance.
The strength of the material on offer here really is astounding. “Five Years”, “Starman”, “Hang On To Yourself”, Ziggy Stardust”, “Rock’N’Roll Suicide”, these are songs that changed the course of pop and rock music permanently and largely for the better.
Only on “Star” does the quality drop slightly, but even then it’s still a fine tune that most acts would have given their rhythm section for.
If I do have a criticism of Ziggy Stardust…, it’s that on this occasion Mick Ronson really should have been given co-billing with his illustrious frontman, as the success of Ziggy Stardust… is as much down to his guitar work as it is down to Bowie’s songs.
Over four decades later The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars remains a key album in the development of rock music and the album that cemented Bowie as the musical icon that endures to this day.
By the time he released Aladdin Sane, David Bowie found himself at the point he’d long dreamed of. He had nothing left to prove. Hunky Dory had given notice of his star quality and The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars had confirmed it. He’d made it to the top.
After the near perfection of Ziggy Stardust…, Aladdin Sane was always going to suffer by comparison, despite it containing some of his best work to date in “The Prettiest Star” (a song which sounds like it could have happily sat on Hunky Dory ), “Drive In Saturday” (which sounded like a track cut from Ziggy Stardust…) and of course “The Jean Genie”. The trouble is, other than the title track, none of the other songs here quite measure up to these standards. They don’t detract from Bowie’s legend, but they don’t exactly enhance it either. They’re just there.
Perhaps it was the exhaustion caused by two years of flat out creative genius, perhaps Bowie felt that he only needed to consolidate his position as biggest star of the early 70s instead of confirming it.
It’s not as though Aladdin Sane is a bad album, it’s just nowhere near as good as the two that preceded it.
Whereas the cover album has been strangely fashionable in recent years, Back in the 70s, it was seen as a brave commercial and creative move. Bowie’s Pin Ups is an album which comprises of covers of tunes from the mid 60s and notable for being the last album of his that would boast contributions from more than one Spider From Mars (though sadly Woody Woodmansy has already been given his marching orders by this point). This alone marks Pin Ups out as one of Bowie’s transitional albums, as he would never again find himself backed by a band with the fire, intensity and almost psychic-link closeness of The Spiders. Thrill then at Mick Ronson’s guitar work throughout this album, as Bowie would henceforth fail to find himself a more suitable second-banana, regardless of how showy their session work, or how highly Brian Eno rated them.
In terms of the songs chosen for this album, there are no great surprises as Bowie himself was very much informed by the acts that had made it bigger than him as he was trying to desperately break-through in the mid 60s. The Pretty Things, Pink Floyd, The Who, Them and even The Merseybeats get the nod from Bowie as he and his band rattle through a refreshingly brief and relatively flab-free selection of covers. Where these days someone doing a covers album may try to weave some sort of shakey concept around why they have chosen to record certain songs (take a bow Tori Amos and your Strange Little Girls album of songs written by men…), it seems that the songs Bowie recorded for Pin Ups were selected for no better reason than that Bowie liked them.
Sure, Pin Ups was pretty much a filler release, but given that the clock was ticking and Bowie would shortly abandon rock and roll to go self-consciously arty and start to disappear up his own rectum, in many ways it’s nice to hear him relax with friends before he showed them the door.
The inevitable conclusion of Bowie’s sci-fi-influenced glam period, Diamond Dogs is the final album of Bowie’s most pleasing era. It was arguably Bowie’s best album since The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars and a quick glance at the tracklisting backs this up. The title track, “Rebel Rebel” and “1984” are evergreen Bowie classics and among the best songs of the 70s. There are other, less celebrated, but equally worthy songs worthy of note, not least of these “Rock’N’Roll With Me” and “”Sweet Thing”.
If anything drags the album down slightly, it’s the feeling that it could have been even better. This album was the first David Bowie album in years that Bowie wasn’t working with Mick Ronson. Diamond Dogs misses Ronno’s swagger, and while the title track and “Rebel Rebel” are built around great riffs, but how much better would they have been if they had been played by Ronno? Diamond Dogs is certainly a good album, but it does miss that secret ingredient that would have made it great.
From here Bowie would record my least favourite Bowie album of the 70s, break America and spend the rest of the decade recording interesting albums that just fail to make my heart race. Sure, Station to Station and the mis-named Berlin Trilogy are seen as his creative apex and they are very good indeed, but they just fail to make my heart race like the albums he recorded in the first half of the 1970s.
The Live Albums
Despite neither being given an official release at the time, there two officially available live documents from Bowie’s glam period. Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders From Mars – The Motion Picture Soundtrack is the most famous. Originally released a decade too late, but well-timed enough to remind people how great glam-era Bowie was as well as ensuring that his former manager wouldn’t earn much from it, this double live album is frankly, a rather odd release. When it was first released in 1983 it sounded awful, but as it was the only commercially available live recording of Bowie with the Spiders From Mars, it sold in healthy enough numbers. When it was first released on CD, the lack of care taken made matters even worse. It wasn’t until this remastered release in 2003 that it finally sounded like a proper live album instead of a spruced-up bootleg.
In the grand scheme of things, this album is successful not because it depicts Bowie in his pomp, but because it is a historical document of a key moment in his career. This was the gig where Bowie, for better or worse, decided to retire the Spiders From Mars. The only parallel I can draw is with the official bootleg of Dylan’s ‘Albert Hall’ concert, which you don’t listen to so much for the music (it’s a pretty shoddy recording at best), but for the infamous ‘Judas!’ heckle and Dylan’s reaction to it. So it is that you don’t listen to this album for the performance, but for Bowie’s pronouncement towards the end of the gig.
For all his genre-hoping, pigeon-hole defying, musical chameleonics since, Bowie has never been able to replicate the ‘feel’ that the Spiders From Mars could support him with, particularly on stage. They were a proper band, a musical unit as opposed to a bunch of mind-bogglingly talented session musos who turned up, plugged in, did what needed to be done and did nothing to take the eye or ear away from the star of the show. Thing is, for years this was the only commercially available live document of the band and they sound frankly road-weary and knackered at the end of a long tour. This is the sound of a great band in need of rest, recuperation and a bit of recreational time and as such it sounds a little drained.
Another mark against this album is the fact that it’s now effectively obsolete. If you ignore its position as a turning point in Bowie’s career, it’s totally blown away by the Live Santa Monica ’72 release, which ironically actually is a spruced up bootleg. Where Santa Monica ’72 is a roaring, strutting, rock-beast, this album sounds tame and weary, a mere echo of the power that this great band once boasted.
Finally given an official release back in 2008, the much bootlegged Live Santa Monica ’72 recording captures Bowie in his Ziggy Stardust pomp and backed by the Spider From Mars. Harsh truth is Bowie needed The Spiders From Mars to keep his more questionably arty tendencies in check and make his music rock.
The star of this live recording isn’t so much Bowie, but rather Chief Spider Ronson. Throughout this gig it’s Ronno’s stainless steel riffs and hooks that create the biggest impression and stick on the mind. It’s the riff heavy numbers like “Queen Bitch”, “Ziggy Stardust”, “The Jean Genie” and blazing opener “Hang on to Yourself” that are the highlights of this set and its those songs that cling to Ronson’s riffs closest of all. While Bowie is in fine voice, Bolder and Woodmansey are at their rockingly rhythmic best and Mike Garson plays keyboards that enhance the tunes rather than draw attention to themselves, it is Ronno who is unarguably the star turn.
The setlist is pretty much what most of us would choose from this point in Bowie’s career, though it seem odd that of all tunes, it is “Starman” that is oddly absent. This is Bowie and his band as snarling rock beasts, which is what they were best at and something which Bowie himself would never be again after Aladdin Sane. After this Bowie would start to disappear up his skinny art-rocking backside, but for these brief few years he and Ronson jointly led one of the greatest rock and roll bands that prowled the earth. This release is a monument to not only how good a live act Bowie and the Spiders From Mars were at their height, but also (and more tellingly) how Bowie’s rampaging ego led him to drop the best band he would ever work with.
Where most Bowie compilations include material from his glam rock period, only a couple concentrate almost exclusively on it.
Released in 2000, Bowie at the Beeb is a two CD offering consisting of Bowie’s BBC radio sessions from 1968 through to 1972. It charts David Bowie’s ascent from obscurity to world-conquering phenomenon. The earliest material here pre-dates “Space Oddity” and it takes us right up to zenith of The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars.
The majority of CD1 can be classed as curios. Pleasant enough, but firmly rooted in its era. It’s only with “Kooks” (hardly a pinnacle of Bowie’s genius) and “It Ain’t Easy” do we really get the impression that he was destined for great things.
CD2 is where we find the reason that most of us will buy this album. The majority of it consists of lively re-recordings of material from Hunky Dory and Ziggy Stardust…, arguably two of his best albums, the rest of it consists of well chosen covers and a not too bad version of “Space Oddity”. Stripped of the studio polish we get Bowie in the raw as it were and it’s in this setting we are once again reminded why David Bowie needed Mick Ronson. Good old Ronno is rampant here, revealing himself to be the uncluttered riff-monster that Bowie so badly needed during his glam years.
The other compilation was one that Bowie himself did not officially authorise and unlike almost every other Bowie compilation The Best of David Bowie 1969/1974 isn’t sequenced in chronological order. As a result of this the focus was less on Bowie’s chameleonic qualities and more on the quality of the individual songs, with particular emphasis on his unbeatable trilogy of Hunky Dory, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars and Aladdin Sane, with only a track a piece from Space Oddity, The Man Who Sold the World and Pin Ups and the most commercial cuts from Diamond Dogs. It also has its fair share of surprises, including superior alternative versions of “John, I’m Only Dancing”, “The Prettiest Star” and his version of “All the Young Dudes”, a track he had donated to Mott the Hoople , but had previously never released himself. The net result of all this is the single greatest David Bowie compilation ever released, and as a result the other two discs can only come as something as a disappointment.
I make no apologies for the fact that I am a fan of Bowie the rock star rather than Bowie the artist. For me his golden years were 1970-1974 and since then he has been interesting, but despite his heavyweight reputation as an ‘artist’, he has all too rarely released a whole album which could hold my attention since. After Bowie unceremoniously ejected his wonderfully dynamic rock-orientated backing band, he seemingly went all out to erase his recent history by claiming that they weren’t any good in the first place over the next few years. While his reputation only grew throughout the 70s, as Bowie made the transition from glam-rock icon to his much ballyhooed Berlin trilogy, he dropped too many of the things that I found great about him.