Sunday, January 8, 2012

The Essential David Bowie (1969-1980)

January 8, 1947, a boy named David Robert Jones entered the world just 12 years after the arrival of another icon coolness named Elvis Presley. Yet, David Bowie would re-define cool in various guises whether he’s Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, the Thin White Duke, Screamin’ Lord Byron, or Jareth the Goblin King from Labyrinth. There is no one who kept changing and kept making great music throughout his career and be vital, other than Bob Dylan. Since 1967, Bowie has made numerous albums into his career ranging from 60s folk-pop to big 80s pop while returning the world of art rock in the 1990s and 2000s. Yet, it’s the music that Bowie has made from 1969 through 1980 that is pretty much essential to any music fan.

From the 1969 second self-titled release to 1980’s Scary Monsters, the records Bowie made during that period is an outlook into his evolution as an artist while taking on various trends where he would either re-define them or start something new. In honor of his 65th Birthday, it’s time to rank the albums Bowie made in that period including the two live albums he released during that period.

1. Hunky Dory

The album that pretty much would be Bowie’s masterpiece as his fourth studio release would show the artist in not just a state of transition but an indication of things to come. The first of three albums to feature the Spiders of Mars line-up of guitarist Mick Ronson, bassist Trevor Bolder, and drummer Mick Woodmansey. With an array of different styles of songs ranging from the rocking Queen Bitch to the symphonic-drama of Life on Mars?. There’s so much about that record that fans often come back to as it’s definitely an album everyone must have.

2. Low

Definitely one of the most esoteric and daring albums by any major artist made in the history of popular music. It’s often stated that there wouldn’t be synth-pop, electronic music, or any forms of electro-rock if it wasn’t for this album. The first of a trilogy of late 70s album Bowie would make with Brian Eno, the album is defined by experimentation from a very fragmented first half that features material such as Speed of Life, Be My Wife, and Sound & Vision to a more ethereal second half that features instrumental cuts like Warszawa, Art Decade, Weeping Wall, and Subterraneans. It’s the album that showed Bowie being an innovator and displaying a fearlessness that isn’t seen much in popular music.

3. Aladdin Sane

While it’s often debated which record during Bowie’s glam period with the Spiders of Mars was better. There is no question that Aladdin Sane is an album that can stand on its own. Songs such as Watch That Man, The Jean Genie, Cracked Actor, and Panic in Detroit show a much raunchier sound in the Spiders of Mars band. The album’s title track and Time show the range of Bowie as a songwriter as well as some of the best piano performances by longtime Bowie cohort Mike Garson. It’s a record that has a more American sound with a bit of avant-garde while songs like Drive-in Saturday and Lady Grinning Soul feature Bowie’s best vocal work at that time.

4. Station to Station

While there’s only six cuts on the album with its shortest track in the funk-tinged Golden Years being its shortest cut at four minutes. It is definitely one of the most adventurous albums ever made at a time fueled by cocaine. Yet, it’s a great example of how good records were made under the influence of drugs as indicated in the line “it’s not the side-effect of the cocaine” in the 10-minute, fourteen second title track. Songs like Stay and TVC15 show Bowie at a transition moving where puts a bit of soul and funk into these songs while ballads like Word on a Wing and a cover of Wild is the Wind features Bowie’s vocals at a peak. Notably the latter where he makes the song into his own.

5. The Rise & Fall of Ziggy Stardust & the Spiders of Mars

The album that made Bowie into a superstar in the 1970s where he would introduce the world to one of his famed characters in Ziggy Stardust. The album is about this alien’s rise and fall into rock stardom and then die on stage. Songs like Hang On to Yourself, Suffragette City, Star, and Ziggy Stardust show the Spiders of Mars at their most rock that also includes the roaring Moonage Daydream which includes a blazing solo from the late, great Mick Ronson. Other cuts like Starman, Rock N’ Roll Suicide, Soul Love, and Lady Stardust show what the band could do whether it’s ballads or mid-tempo cuts. And it is recommended that this album should be played at maximum volume (unless you’re in your 40s or above and don’t want to damage your hearing).

6. Scary Monsters

The culmination of everything Bowie had done in the late 70s showcase what is often called Bowie’s last great album. Yet, Scary Monsters is also a record where Bowie took the experimentation of the Berlin trilogy into something that is more accessible. Songs like It’s No Game, Up the Hill Backwards, a cover of Tom Verlaine’s Kingdom Come, and Teenage Wildlife show Bowie’s love of art rock that is both complex but melodic. Songs like Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps) show an early idea of what industrial rock could be while Fashion is one of Bowie’s most humorous and playful cuts. Yet, it’s the Space Oddity sequel in Ashes to Ashes that is the major highlight of the album as indicates how far Bowie has grown lyrically and musically from that hit song back in 1969.

7. “Heroes”

The second part of Bowie’s Berlin trilogy with Brian Eno shows a more accessible sound than its predecessor while still being very experimental in its approach to electronic music. With a first half that features more raucous yet abstract songs like Joe the Lion, Blackout, and Sons of the Silent Age as well as its anthem-based title track. The second half show more emphasis on instrumentals such as the haunting Sense of Doubt, the elegant Moss Garden, and very esoteric V-2 Schneider.

8. Young Americans

Bowie’s take on the world of Philly soul is probably the most underrated album of that period. While some might accuse of him of jumping onto a trend that was hot at the time, Bowie was able to put his own personality rather than do what everyone else was doing. Featuring appearances from then-unknowns in jazz saxophonist David Sanborn and late soul vocalist Luther Vandross. Songs like its title track, Win, Can You Hear Me?, Fascination, and Right show that Bowie can be funky and be a soul crooner. The single Fame, that was co-written by John Lennon and Bowie collaborator Carlos Alomar, shows Bowie at his funkiest with biting lyrics about the world of fame that would be his first #1 U.S. hit.

9. Lodger

The third and final album of his Berlin trilogy with Brian Eno is an album that doesn’t feature any instrumentals. However, it is still a very wild album that has Bowie and Eno dwelling into the emerging trend of world music in cuts like African Nite Flights, Yassassin, and Red Sails in its first half. Cuts like D.J. and Boys Keep Swinging show Bowie’s strange sense of humor along with amazing guitar work from Adrian Belew. Plus, it’s a record that features the best musical performances of guitarist Carlos Alomar and the rhythm section of bassist George Murray and drummer Dennis Davis which is indicated in the thrilling Look Back in Anger.

10. The Man Who Sold the World

The album that moved Bowie away from folk and into the world of hard rock and proto-punk. It is also the album that introduced audiences to Mick Ronson’s whose soaring guitar work is shown in cuts like the epic opening track The Width of a Circle, She Shook Me Cold, and All The Madmen. A lot of the material is loud and in-your-face while showing a more mature side to Bowie’s work as a vocalist as he takes on very heavy themes of madness, alienation, and chaos. It’s an album that is often overlooked though was given more profile thanks to a famous cover by Nirvana on the album’s title track.

11. Diamond Dogs

Originally meant to be a concept album based on George Orwell’s 1984, the album was really a transitional record for Bowie moving from the world of glam-rock and his fascination with the world of Philly Soul. While glam is still evident in its title track and the very catchy Rebel Rebel. It’s the trilogy of Sweet Thing/Candidate/Sweet Thing (Reprise) that showed a new side to Bowie in his approach to lyrics where would use William S. Burrough’s cut-up writing style to tell a very strange story. Songs like the funk-driven 1984 and the eerie Big Brother maintain Orwell’s themes as it’s a very dark yet sprawling album for Bowie.

12. David Bowie/Space Oddity

The second full-length album from Bowie has him straying from music hall influence of his 1967 debut for a more folk-rock sound that is emphasized in the song Space Oddity. The record is definitely one of the most underrated of Bowie’s recordings of that period as songs like Unwashed and Somewhat Slightly Dazed, The Wild-Eyed Boy from Freecloud, An Occasional Dream, and the nine-minute, thirty-three second Cygnet Committee feature lyrics about his distaste towards 60s idealism and the search for something more. Cuts like God Knows I’m Good is among one of Bowie’s most underrated songs as he explores the plight of a shoplifter as it’s a record more people should hear.

13. Pin Ups

A covers-only album from Bowie made shortly after his final performance with the Spiders of Mars band. It is an album where Bowie pays tribute to some of his favorite artists of the 1960s. Covers of songs by the Who, the Kinks, the Easybeats, the Pretty Things, Them, the Yardbirds, and the Mojos show a very fun, rocking side to Bowie that has an element of garage rock mixed in with glam courtesy of Mick Ronson’s guitar. There’s also a great cover of Pink Floyd’s See Emily Play as a tribute to its fallen member Syd Barrett while Bowie’s take on the Merseys’ ballad Sorrow is one of Bowie’s best work as a crooner.

14. Stage

The second live album Bowie released in his career is the best of the two live albums he released during that period. Notably for the way Bowie was able to incorporate the material from Low and “Heroes” into a set for its first half the album while the second half is a more exciting due to some of the songs from Ziggy Stardust he was able to re-create with the live band at the time that included Carlos Alomar, Adrian Belew, George Murray, and Dennis Davis. Vocally, Bowie sounds more confident and relaxed in his approach to songs while not doing any kind of radical re-arrangements to his old songs.

15. David Live

The album that made Bowie into a star in the U.S. is definitely the weakest record he released during that famed period of 1969 to 1980. While his longtime producer Tony Visconti was able to give the album a proper remix for its 2005 reissue. The album is a mess due to Bowie’s strained vocals in some spots although there are some great performances in cuts like Knock on Wood, Cracked Actor, and Time. The 2005 expanded reissue of the album is a major improvement although it is still quite spotty in some parts of the record.

Other Related Albums:

In the aftermath of Bowie’s great period of 1969-1980, there has been a slew of live recordings and compilations that showcase the best of that period. Of the compilations aside from best-of albums which often would go further into Bowie’s career in the 1980s and 1990s. The 1989 Sound + Vision box set is the best place to uncover the rarities and B-sides. Although the expanded 2003 version also features material from the 1980s and 1990s and a lot of them can be found in expanded reissues for albums like the second self-titled album, Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, Diamond Dogs, Young Americans, and Station to Station. It is a very comprehensive take into the material Bowie had made during that famed period.

Another compilation that features Bowie at his best which dates further back in 1968 is Bowie at the Beeb. A two-disc collection of Bowie’s best performances for the BBC from 1968 to 1972. Featuring lots of rare performances in various broadcast throughout the years. It is the best collection of material that showcases Bowie’s evolution as an artist as the first disc emphasized on early recordings from his first album from 1967 to the early performances he would have with the Spiders of Mars. The second disc is more rocking as it features material from the Ziggy Stardust album along with cuts from other albums prior. It is a must-have for Bowie fans while there’s also a limited edition that includes a third disc of Bowie’s BBC Radio Theatre performance in 2000 that features a wide mix of material from the 70s, 80s, and 90s which makes the entire collection far grander.

There’s also a couple of live albums recorded during the Ziggy Stardust period that are essential to Bowie’s stature as a legend. The first is the final concert with the Spiders of Mars chronicled in D.A. Pennebaker’s 1983 concert film Ziggy Stardust: The Motion Picture. The 2003 expanded/remastered edition album almost features the concert in its entirety with the exception of a performance of The Jean Genie with the Beatles’ Love Me Do and a cover of Chuck Berry’s Round and Round with Jeff Beck. Remixed by Tony Visconti for its 2003 release, the Ziggy Stardust: The Motion Picture album is an exciting portrait of that final concert as it features some of Mick Ronson’s best guitar performances.

The other live album of that period is a much-famed bootleg album that was given an official release in 2008 in the Live Santa Monica ‘72 album. With a new mastered mix, the album retains the roughness of the original bootleg which was recorded as a radio broadcast back in 1972. The album is among one of the most exhilarating records that captures Bowie with the Spiders of Mars and Mike Garson performing these songs with an energy and bravado that isn’t seen much in rock n’ roll.

Well, that is pretty much it for what is said about David Bowie though he was still able to make some fantastic music following that period. As of 2012, Bowie hasn’t made any new recordings for some time and is rumored to have retired. If he ever decides to come back or not, at least he’s done enough to make him one of the greatest artists that has ever lived. So in part, I think it’s best to close this Bowie birthday tribute with this…

© thevoid99 2012


  1. Ahhhhh! I am seriously obsessed with Bowie ("Heroes" and Diamond Dogs have settled into the top spots as my favorite albums). Like, since forever, it's a love that just doesn't die.

    Love that you took the time to comprehensively cover his career, but now I have to ask: do you have an opinion on Outside?

    1. I think Outside is among one of his better records that he did from Black Tie White Noise through Reality. I really liked a lot of the art rock elements in that album. I'm a bit disappointed that he and Eno didn't follow-up on that album for its sequel Contamination.