I review music. They call me “Dr. Lurv.” Let’s get to it, shall we?
Full disclosure: I’ve known the headmaster of our little Papa Kenn Media academy from college. We hung out, ended up rooming together, and eventually became best friends. I am here because of pure nepotism, and so you will accept that as I write these words while on a pile of cocaine supplied by the endless advertising from Papa Kenn Media. Enough said.
Well, maybe not. When we were younger, Papa Kenn also worked with me as a DJ at our local college station. All day long we would lose our minds in geekery from comics to video games, but it was music that was the connective tissue of our friendship. It formed the soundtrack of our conversations and our growth as human beings. In short, it was everywhere, and it was essential.
That’s how I feel about music and what I bring to this conversation. I’m not interested in whether music is “good” or “bad” because those are different for every person, and frankly they’re boring arguments to have. I can’t tell you whether a song is worthy of your life and time because each song is worthy in its own way.
But what I do want to offer is a place for people to begin talking about music, and an educational eye towards it. Music surrounds us every day, but not in the way that you think. There are fewer “new” songs being played on the radio than ever before, and unless you are dedicated to actively seeking out music news or updates online, the traditional ways of learning about music new and old are being outmoded. Now, more than ever, if you truly love music it is important to find a way to learn more about what is coming out and what has existed before.
Podcasts are one way of doing this. Another way is long, (hopefully) well-executed articles about music’s history.
This monthly column seeks to address that. Every month I want to provide a look at four albums that I consider more than worthy of your time and ears. These albums provide a variety of functions, but often I think this column should be something that educates, entertains, and introduces ideas that you can agree with or disagree with at your leisure. It’s not going to be something that comes from a mountaintop and educates with you what you should know. Instead, it’s a conversation piece.
It won’t be music that you like all the time. It may not even be new music that you like…
….unless it’s David Bowie, who I want to introduce this column with.
Bowie’s a great artist to sum up these points because he was considered a musical chameleon, changing musical styles to fit both his conceptual personalities and the evolving popular tastes. If you don’t like one style of David Bowie, there’s another style that you may enjoy. Today I’d like to offer introductions to four of those styles in my album selections, and I do believe there’s something for everybody in each of them.
With a new album in the works (fittingly titled The Next Day) and a brand new single to celebrate his return (titled “Where Are They Now?” and found on his website here), Bowie’s coming back in a big way. If you’d like to start figuring out why this matters, these four albums offer gateways into Bowie’s sound and vision.
Album #1: Cabaret, Rock Music, and the Beginning Point
Hunky Dory (1971)
I had a difficult time deciding which one would be best for Bowie beginners. While Album #2 is typically where curious (sometimes confused) listeners would start, Hunky Dory is its own interesting concoction. A mix of French cabaret songs, piano-driven pop, gentle folk pop and driving rock, Hunky Dory is a mélange of styles. It shouldn’t work. It works beautifully.
You can eat at the breakfast club while listening to “Changes” and its jaunty beat mixed with plinking piano chords. You can imagine reaching the climax of an Edith Piaf number during the soaring “Life on Mars?” You can see Bowie reaching out to his audience with sympathy in “Oh! You Pretty Things” as they undergo the changes he mentioned earlier, which reflects his artistic reinvention as fey folk singer made rock legend. Even his acoustic numbers bite hard, from “Quicksand” to “Andy Warhol,” yet no song sounds alike. It’s a vicious mix of songs from a restless soul.
But rock fans, don’t think that you’re left out. “Queen Bitch” kicks in with two bars of acoustic guitar before Mick Ronson’s electric axe melts your face. The chords are great, and the lyrics are absolutely rude. The song – while ripping off Eddie Cochran’s “Three Steps to Heaven” and also paying tribute to The Velvet Underground – is nonetheless its own beast, and a progenitor for glam rock. Tight drums, bouncing bass melody line, and Bowie’s unmistakable vocal style all set the tone for the revolution he’d unleash on the next album.
“The Bewlay Brothers” is a weary track, a tired victory lap as Bowie talks rubbish into the microphone. Fans have yearned to understand the meaning of its lyrics as the song winds down the cycle. No matter, Bowie and company had already done what they’d set out to do. By the next album, they’d be ready to take on the world.
Album #2: Pure Glam Rock Majesty
The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1972)
This is the place where you rock fans will want to start, particularly if you are a teenager or if you’re new to Bowie. This album literally changed the face of rock and roll music, and I can’t emphasize just how important it was to millions of people across the world.
The title captures the narrative thrust of this concept album, which focuses on Bowie’s titular rock and roll alter ego. With the world set to end in five years, humanity is thrown into a frenzied panic. Ziggy is the human manifestation of an alien being who is attempting to present humanity with a message of hope. Ziggy Stardust is the definitive rock star as imagined within the glam rock lens of Seventies Bowie. He’s sexually voracious and consumes copious amounts of substances, but he’s also a being of higher intelligence that says that humanity can thrive by taking on his messages of peace and love. Yet it doesn’t matter as he is destroyed by the twin pillars of excess and fan expectations, a sign that humanity wasn’t ready for his brand of salvation.
And you know what? If that looks stupid to you, it doesn’t matter because the album rocks. Songs like “Moonage Daydream,” Bowie’s cover of “It Ain’t Easy,” and “Soul Love” hit hard, while “Starman” is a glam rock paean to its audience and asking for understanding masquerading as the catchiest pop song you’ll hear. “Five Years” brings the apocalypse as a prologue musical number, the end as the beginning.
Also, very few albums save their best trio of songs for the end. “Ziggy Stardust,” “Suffragette City,” and “Rock and Roll Suicide” makes the end of Side 2 absolutely brilliant. Alternately bouncy pop and driving rock make you bop till you drop at any age, and these three hit the eardrums with a pleasure akin to first inserting a Q-tip. When the breakdown in “Suffragette City” ends with Bowie’s mission statement of the evening (“Wham, bam, thank you ma’am!”), it doesn’t matter how old you are. You got it.
The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars is all about feeling alive, regardless of time left on this planet. It’s a timeless piece that sounds good played consecutively or unearthed from your collection every couple of years. Albums don’t get much better than this.
Album #3: You Got the Soul
Station to Station (1976)
So, a huge tonal shift for Bowie. No longer content with conquering audiences of the rock world, Bowie’s deepening drug habits and search for new sonics led him to this, the dismantling of his glam rock persona made complete with this release. Station to Station also marks the beginning of his time as “The Thin White Duke,” a persona that alienated many of his core fans because he based it on mythologies and an extraterrestrial character from his film The Man Who Fell to Earth. FYI, during the tour for this album, Bowie was quoted as saying that “Britain could benefit from a Fascist leader,” which led to the incident in London when he emerged from an open-top Mercedes convertible and allegedly gave a Nazi salute to the crowd. So…drugs, kids!
Therefore, if you’ve ever wanted to hear what a person taking a ridiculous amount of cocaine sounds like, this is the album for you! Each song is dedicated to a groove, focused on a bass-driven funk sound that also brings in lilting pop melodies akin to ABBA. The title track is a dramatic and lengthy exploration of the psychic terror of hard drugs, with two songs combined into one furious beat. If that’s not enough, the droning “Golden Years” is there to remind you of the best days of your lives while you place enough white powder up your nose to supply the annual GDP for a Latin American country.
But there are tears around the edges. Like Lou Reed’s inestimable Coney Island Baby, Station to Station contains its share of ballads and texts about the artist’s detachment from the world. “Word on a Wing” and “Wild is the Wind” both hearken back to the soul that Bowie wanted to make at the time, but simply couldn’t achieve. So he synthesized his emotions brilliantly through his German and Krautrock influences, which would give way to his creative period commonly referred to as the “Berlin” era.
Also, I can’t really be objective about this album. It has my favorite Bowie song of all time on it. “TVC 15” is brilliant from start to finish, and dedicated to a druggy groove that is impossibly brilliant. The piano, guitar, and drums seem to evoke a driving pop song from Hunky Dory, but there’s something unavoidably detached and disturbed about Bowie’s vocals. This should push the listener away, but it instead drives the song home brilliantly. By the time the chorus kicks in with a bouncing piano line and choppy chords WITHIN THE SAME MEASURE, the listener is hooked.
Not bad for a song that was inspired by a drugged-up Iggy Pop having a hallucination that the television was eating his girlfriend. Not bad at all. Seems like bad things happening to a person can sometimes produce the best art. Station to Station is Exhibit A for this possibility.
Album #4: Screw Art, Let’s Dance
Let’s Dance (1983)
At this point, Bowie had done it all. He didn’t need to accomplish anything else to win the respect of the rock world and the critical sector he’d converted. So instead he ditched longtime producer Tony Visconti and turned to Chic leader Nile Rodgers to create the most poppy, hook-filled album of his career.
This may turn some of you off, but Bowie’s album is required listening for people curious about reinvention. The Eighties was all about the search for “the big sound,” and groups like U2 and Run D.M.C. achieved their success largely because of their quest to find it. Bowie, ever the chameleon, looked for a sound that was “original party-funk cum big bass drum sound greater than the sum of its influences.”
Well, he got it. Say what you will about how it’s aged, but “Let’s Dance” sounds huge. A big, throw-your-arms-around-the-world anthem to love and music. Same with “Modern Love” and “China Girl,” huge singles in their own right. And that’s the whole album in general, a search for this big sound. Bowie achieved success at an astronomical level with this record, and the only thing it cost him was the respect of the audience he’d cultivated for years. Nevertheless, in order to see all sides of Bowie, you have to listen to this one as well with full ears.
And that’s what I’ve got for you this month! Next month I’ll explore four more albums that band together with a distinct theme, sound or vision. Until then, enjoy exploring David Bowie throughout his musical apex!