Transition | Transmission 8: not a prophet or a stone-age man

22. Quicksand (1971)
  When we left off, so long ago, it was with the quiet nihilism of ‘After All’. I chose that song purposefully as it felt like a bridge between Bowie’s earliest recordings to his Gilded Age, the golden years of the early 1970s. The album that kicks off that most famous and distinctive eras of Bowie is Hunky Dory. Tracks like ‘Life on Mars?’, ‘Changes’ and ‘Oh! You Pretty Things’ populate Side One of this 1971 release – and, most Best Of compliations since then. 

‘Quicksand’ lurks here, at the end of Side One but apart from its peers. It has that graceful-butterfly-in-a-music-hall feel that much of Hunky Dory possesses, but there’s also a strong through-line from ‘After All’. In that earlier track, the narrator entreats us to “hold on to nothing, and he won’t let you down”, and “live ’til your rebirth and do what you will”. In ‘Quicksand’, the narrator has become “torn between the light and dark,” and ultimately is consumed by indecision, faithlessness and fear. He sings, “I’m sinking in the quicksand of my thought and I ain’t got the power anymore. Don’t believe in yourself, don’t deceive with belief; knowledge comes with death’s release.”

Our artist would write graceful ballads again, but ‘Quicksand’ drew a line between the old Bowie and the new. The nihilism of ‘Quicksand’ got buried, and something new emerged.

23. Soul Love (1972)
  This one was tough. Back at track #17, ‘Hang Into Yourself’, I said that deep cuts on an album like Ziggy Stardust are tough to find. Finding a second one, doubly so – and then of course, to find one that flows on from ‘Quicksand’… well, that’s a little tricky. My original choice was ‘Rock & Roll Suicide’, Stardust‘s closing track. That song is weirdly too close for me to write about; I can’t get enough distance to say anything particularly coherent about it. If you’d like to understand it more, try the excellent Pushing Ahead Of The Dame, where Chris O’Leary describes the song beginning “as a pastiche of Jacques Brel” before erupting into “a grandiose Judy Garland finale that feeds its audience’s narcissism at the expense of its performer’s.” In any case, my coherence aside, ‘Suicide’ simply isn’t a deep enough cut for what I’m aiming for here with this series. So, onto ‘Soul Love’

‘After All’ and ‘Quicksand’ gave us nihilism, regret and disappointment. ‘Soul Love’ has a murmur of that too, for sure. Love here can be a “stone love – she kneels before the grave / A brave son – who gave his life to save the slogans” – but it is also energised somehow, treated as something more complex and multi-faceted than the Bowie of earlier years may have considered. It’s also new love, where “a boy and girl are talking new words that only they can share in”; soul love of “the priest that tastes the word and told of love and how my God on high is all love”. It can be careless, idiotic and more besides. It’s a great, complicated track, shining more softly than the legendary bright lights of Ziggy the Leper Messiah – all stardust and  “wham, bam, thank you ma’am” – that exists in our collective memory. 

24. Lady Grinning Soul (1973)
  The close of an album and an era, ‘Lady Grinning Soul’ finishes off Aladdin Sane, and with it (Pin-Ups nothwithstanding) the glam zenith of Bowie. That period ran from, roughly, 1971 to 1973 (give or take some months either side). Such a brief period to transform lives, Bowie’s amongst them. If Bowie had ended here – dead of some inevitable overdose, faking his own death like Maxwell Demon, or simply fading away – we would be left with an outstanding catalogue of work, filled with verve, hope and promise. ‘Lady Grinning Soul’ hints at a Bowie that could have been. It’s piano, Latin guitars, exoticism and mystery, a Bond theme without a movie. More fey than glam, it acts as a curious coda to the Ziggy / Aladdin era. It adds rather than summing up, teasing us with elusive could-have-beens. I include it here as a counterpoint to the triumphalism and boldness of Ziggy tracks like ‘Soul Love’ and the nearly-featured ‘Rock & Roll Suicide’. This is a Bowie that defies expectation, even at the peak of success. ‘Soul’ pays only lip service to themes of death, depression, love and metamorphosis that have been present for many of the tracks featured to date. “She will be your living end,” he sings, but he is neither concerned nor afraid.  

Sebastian

Sebastian died last night. He was 14, an old man in cat years but still horribly too young. 

When I first met Sebastian and his brother, they were some of the biggest cats I’d ever seen. Everything about them, from their gigantic tails to their magnificent ruffs, was at a scale that you don’t normally see in domestic cats. Their fur was majestically thick and brown-black, although only Sebastian had a white tuft on his chest that stood out like a lightning bolt. He meowed like a banshee, always willing to share his opinion.  He was strong, thick-pawed, occasionally a bit of an idiot but unfailingly patient and tolerant. Sebastian lacked grace, it’s true, and ‘dignified’ probably isn’t a word that’d ever be used to describe him. He was a sprawlingly large cat; a long haired, thick-maned beast that’d stretch his way across a bed or couch so that others would struggle to find room. Except that he’d always make room for you, really; he’d love to be picked up and plonked back down again, rearranged to allow others in or to be squeezed tight. He never took offence at that. He loved nothing more than being held close, his nose buried in my wife’s long hair. He’d purr himself to sleep, blissed out until he drooled a little. He was the most accomodating cat I’ve ever met – I swear he was part rag doll, for the way he could be bundled up and shunted around. He was less a cat than a soft toy at times, and there was something almost unfeline about the quality of his loyalty and friendship. 

He had been thin for a little while, then had gone downhill fairly sharply over the past few months. Looking back at pictures, he hadn’t really looked himself since January. There was something Not Right that was slowly shrinking him. He’d been a big lad for many years, but had been overtaken by his tank of a diabetic brother. It seems they shared a collective weight between them – as his brother grew increasingly large, Sebastian started to disappear, little by little. Over the past month or two, prescription medicines were tried then changed in quick succession to narrow down what it was, and what could be treated – or, if it could be treated at all. His white patch got trimmed off during one of his many blood tests – with that defining little skunk-stripe gone, he seemed, subtly, a different cat. He sometimes seemed to ache when he walked, and more recently, he lost bowel control. It wasn’t like he’d ever been the best at personal hygiene, but this was a sign that things were going downhill faster than we realised. He got locked up in the laundry more often to stop him accidentally shitting on things, and we gave him time outside to lay in sunbeams, watch some birds and feel the breeze on his fur. We hoped that he was happy; he purred when we patted him, but we did that more rarely as it became harder to find a spot that hadn’t become too bony. From hovering around 6-7kg for much of his life – big for a cat – he was now approaching 3kg, then even below that. We stopped holding him for too long. He was a bundle of sticks that we were afraid to break.

We made the decision to put him down. The box was chosen, the Conversation had with our daughter. She was accepting rather than sad – even at four years of age, she knew he couldn’t last like this. She learned about the two injections – one to sleep, another to die – and words like ‘cremation’ entered her vocabulary. 

Saturday morning, it had been set for. It felt like a blessing for him, and yet also a betrayal. We had originally made the date for a week earlier, but hadn’t been brave enough to follow through. We brought him in for cuddles on the bed, for one last time. He purred, he stretched, he was delighted. For maybe twenty minutes he was the same cat that he remembered. Then, with purpose and intent, he leapt off the bed and strode to the back door, to be let out into the Autumn night. He never came back.

I found him the next morning, not far from home. He had walked a couple of houses away, laid down in a quiet spot, and chosen the moment for himself. I reached out and stroked his fur, wet from the night’s rain. He was still and cold but for a moment I weirdly hoped that, just maybe, some spark remained. That everything would be as it was again.  I wished he had instead died surrounded by those who had loved him; simultaneously, I was oddly proud that he’d chosen his own terms. Perhaps he had worried that we may delay again, that our courage would falter. Perhaps he’d seized the moment and been braver than us. Perhaps that one last moment on the bed had been all he needed, and he was saying goodbye to us rather than the other way around. Perhaps none of those things. Perhaps it doesn’t truly matter. 

If a pet isn’t yours, it’s easy to think of it as merely an animal. That’s lazy thinking, and ignores the specific, personal bonds that we as humans have with our furrier family members. I’m writing this on a bed with rasping feline snores coming from under the mattress, and a calico by my elbow. We have two other cats – fine, wonderful cats who will be grieved in turn when their day comes – but Ferris and Amelia are not Sebastian, just as he was not them. He was truly one of a kind, just as they are. 

Earlier this year, one of my Facebook friends went through something similar to this. He put up ‘The House Dog’s Grave’, a poem written by Robinson Jeffers for his departed bulldog, which I saved; it resonated then, and I knew I’d read it again soon with different eyes. It closes, “You were never masters, but friends. I was your friend. I loved you well, and was loved. Deep love endures to the end and far past the end. If this is my end, I am not lonely, I am not afraid. I am still yours.”

Farewell Sebastian, Sebastiano, Mister, Mr Meowy, Stinky-Butt, Basty. You’ll always be our friend, to the end and past the end. 

Transition | Transmission 7: dressing in thoughts from the sky

For those that recall my original rules in putting together this ‘Bowie deep cuts for beginners’ playlist, my concept had been to build something that’d count back from 2016 back to Bowie’s first album, before a 1960s pivot and a return back up the chronology to his final album. Now, after half a dozen entries, we’re steering into the curve. 

18. Queen Bitch (1971)
 Queen Bitch‘ is a concentrated burst of pop-rock elegance. Just as earlier entries saw Bowie taking on parts of The Rolling Stones’ and Marc Bolan’s sound, here we have Bowie channeling the Velvet Underground. Bursting onto the scene with a catchy, jagged riff, ‘Queen Bitch’ lands its delivery and knows not to over-stay its welcome. It’s one of our earlier pairings of Mick Ronson with Bowie: Ronson was Bowie’s key collaborator from ’70-’73, and his bold guitar work is synonymous with the sound of Bowie’s glam rock highs with The Spiders From Mars. ‘Queen Bitch’ effectively pairs and contrasts their styles; the acoustic guitar that opens the song is Bowie’s, with the electric riff that then mimics and rolls over it is Ronson’s. 

Far better writers than I have written on this song, and I lack the vocabulary to say why it’s so good, so I’ll just ask you to listen to it and enjoy. It’s not overblown or overdone – just a great, catchy, uncluttered number that shows a youthful songwriter learning his craft. 

For a while I had my follow-up to ‘Queen Bitch’ in this playlist as ‘The Prettiest Star’, a one-off single released in 1970 with a pre-T Rex Marc Bolan in guitar. But, having a non-album track wouldn’t sit well with the rules I’ve set up for transition | transmission. Which means we’re onto…

19. Sell Me A Coat (1967)
 And here, twenty songs in, is where we begin. Bowie’s first album is a time capsule of the late 1960s, seemingly disconnected and adrift from the singer and musician we have come to know. He’s only twenty years old here, young and inexperienced, pre-‘Space Oddity’ and without a hit to his name. It’s still unmistakably him – although the hair and glasses he wears in his videoclips may give you pause when choosing him from the lineup – but the lyricism and attention to craft that we’ve come to expect has yet to fully manifest. Sell Me A Coat‘ demonstrates the pop sensibilities seen in ‘Queen Bitch’ and plenty of other tracks we’ve discussed, but in a less sophisticated form. There’s a gulf between the music-hall queerness of Hunky Dory Bowie and the post-mod, folk-tinged yearnings of David Bowie Bowie. This is a Bowie who can sing of love and heartbreak – ‘Sell Me A Coat’ gives us “a winter’s day, a bitter snowflake on my face / My summer girl takes little backward steps away” – but there’s a feeling that Bowie doesn’t quite know himself yet. This might be the benefit of hindsight – we’ve had decades of later work to feast on, after all – but there is a sense of incompleteness here, at the beginning. 

20. Letter to Hermione (1969)
  Every artist needs some tragedy to hone their craft. ‘Sell Me A Coat’ showed a Bowie who hadn’t found that yet. ‘Letter to Hermione‘ is post-tragedy: a messy breakup (aren’t they all?) with his first true love, the delightfully named Hermione Farthingale, seems to be just the push he needed. ‘Letter’ is far more personal than anything we’ve heard before or since. Unlike what I’ve done previously, I want to give the full lyrics for this one to give you a picture for where Bowie was at;

The hand that wrote this letter sweeps the pillow clean
So rest your head and read a treasured dream
I care for no one else but you; I tear my soul to cease the pain
I think maybe you feel the same.
What can we do? I’m not quite sure what we’re supposed to do.
So I’ve been writing just for you.

They say your life is going very well. They say you sparkle like a different girl.
But something tells me that you hide.
When all the world is warm and tired, you cry a little in the dark;
Well, so do I.

I’m not quite sure what you’re supposed to say,
But I can see it’s not okay.

He makes you laugh, he brings you out in style.
He treats you well and makes you up real fine.
And when he’s strong, he’s strong for you.
And when you kiss it’s something new.
But did you ever call my name just by mistake?

I’m not quite sure what I’m supposed to do,
So I’ll just write some love to you.

This is not Bowie the sophisticate, not Bowie the glam seducer. This is a man in his early twenties, using his art to capture his heartbreak, and his heartbreak to drive his art forward. We’ll never see Bowie sharing his thoughts so clearly or rawly. ‘Lazarus’ is a song by someone who’s dying; ‘Letter’ is a song by someone who feels like he already has.

21. After All (1970)
  The Man Who Sold The World, first released in 1970, does not play well with other albums. It’s relative oddness is clear from the outset: an opener like ‘The Width of a Circle’, as much as I love its proto-Spinal Tap excess, seems un-Bowie like and out of step with what we’ve come to expect. The Man Who Sold The World certainly seems more collaborative than many of Bowie’s later works – certainly the influence of Visconti, Mick Ronson and others is strongly felt. But, it’s an album ultimately unsure of itself: Bowie’s had a hit with ‘Space Oddity’ in the spaces between entries, but has failed to capitalise on its success. His collaborators have changed, he’s reading more Crowley and toying with Buddhism, he’s just married and (even if he didn’t know it yet), he’s got a family on the way.

You can sense some similarities between ‘After All’ and Bowie’s earlier works, although the songwriting still lacks some sophistication and the pieces aren’t quite fitting together well. The major players – Visconti, Ronson –  have arrived, but they haven’t found the right balance in their working relationship with Bowie. 

‘After All’ is a subdued affair, to the point where it is almost whispered rather than sung. I’ve chosen it as I think it’s ennui carries on well from the naïve, undirected sadness of ‘Sell Me A Coat’ and the more personalised heartbreak of ‘Letter to Hermione’. This is the sound of a man who’s turned inward and away from others, making quiet observations on the inanity of humankind. People are, according to the song’s narrator, are small creatures, “taller children” to be tripped “gently” as “they don’t like to fall”. Singing with “impertinence”, our narrator suggests that we “hold on to nothing” to avoid being let down. This quiet nihilism is something we’ll touch on again shortly, but is in many ways as much of a dead-end in Bowie’s progression as an artist as his folk-tinged early years. 

Transition | Transmission 6: move like tigers in vaseline

Having skipped over several albums or even decades at a time earlier in this playlist, Bowie’s astounding output during the 1970s means that the next few tracks will come chronologically thick and fast. (Young Americans fans, your time will come when we track back through this period in a few weeks time.)

14. Rock ‘n’ Roll With Me (1974)

 Diamond Dogs is, to my tastes, Bowie’s finest album. It’s got bombastic rock, psychodrama, dystopian sci-fi and more than a hint of dirt under its fingernails. One of Bowie’s finest-ever song progressions is from the title track through to the tryptych of ‘Sweet Thing’, ‘Candidate’ and ‘Sweet Thing (Reprise)’, which is then followed up by ‘Rebel Rebel’. The first and last of those tracks are excluded due to their entry on Nothing has changed (neither is a deep cut, at any rate), while the middle three are excluded due to my ‘no more than two tracks per album’ rule. Choosing two parts of a triptych isn’t going to go well. 

Side Two of Diamond Dogs is a curious mixture of Orwellian rock opera and more traditional tracks. ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll With Me‘ falls into the latter category, but I’m the context of this playlist its lament is made into a promise. RnRWM was written during a transitional period for Bowie, away from the heady days of The Spiders From Mars and toward passion projects like Young Americans. In its original context, lines like “I always wanted new surroundings” show a Bowie moving past his glam rock days, tinged with regret that “when you rock ‘n’ roll with me / No one else I’d rather be”. With the timeline flipped, we have the opportunity to take a dive into a time when Bowie, as the song has it, “would take a foxy kind of stand / While tens of thousands found me in demand”.

15. Rosalyn (1973)

  Recorded at the end of the Ziggy Stardust era but before the Diamond Dogs experiment, Pin Ups is a vaguely regrettable cover album that is unlikely to be anyone’s favourite Bowie release. It’s almost all deep cuts, in a sense, but not much of it is particularly good. The best track on the album is a cover of The McCoys’ ‘Sorrow’, but it’s a staple of Best Of collections and I have to stick to the rules! So, onto a cover of a 1964 hit originally performed by The Pretty Things. ‘Rosalyn‘ is a few minutes of throwaway proto-garage rock, and it’s a window into a Bowie that could have been. While never a macho rocker, the gender-bent glam era contained sufficient room for Bowie to competently knock out snarling skirt-chasing numbers. There is a path untraveled by Bowie here: a Bowie that was content enough with his lot that he continued along the easier path rather than that travelled. ‘Rosalyn’, then, is a kick-out-the-jams pop curio – part of the journey, but not a destination. 

16. Watch That Man (1973)

  ‘Rosalyn’, and indeed much of Pin Ups, is a forgotten corner of Bowie’s grand decade. Not so much, this next one: ‘Watch That Man‘ is the opener for 1973’s Aladdin Sane, one of the most recognisable albums in the Bowie back-catalogue. Still, it seems to be that many people know that famous cover artwork or its loose theme (‘Ziggy Stardust in America’ – that is, a bluesier, more rock-tinged take on the Spiders from Mars) than the songs on the album itself. My initial choice for this slot was going to be ‘Cracked Actor’, in that it fits the decadent vibe of the era (not to mention a kick-arse harmonica), but ‘Watch That Man’ is more revelatory in the context of this playlist. It’s Bowie out-Stonesing the Rolling Stones, synthesising a collection of influences and making me better than the sum of their parts. And that, for me, is quintessential Bowie. 

17. Hang On To Yourself (1972)

  A little treasure from the phenomenonal The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders From Mars, an album as epic as its title, makes ‘Hang On To Yourself‘ is often overlooked for more well-known hits such as ‘Moonage Daydream’, ‘Sufragette City’, ‘Five Years’, ‘Ziggy Stardust’ or, of course, ‘Starman’. This is the Bowie album that looms above all others in the popular imagination, so finding a deep cut was always going to be difficult. What makes ‘Hang On To Yourself’ fit into the narrative being drafted here isn’t just the rock and roll angle we’ve built up over the last few songs, but also the Bowie-as-synthesiser aspect that was heard in ‘Watch That Man’. That’s because ‘Hang On…’ could be, for all intents and purposes, a T-Rex hit. Bowie and Marc Bolan were friends, peers and former collaborators, and the flow of inspiration was more Bolan to Bowie than the other way around. Like ‘Rosalyn’, this is a window to the Bowie that almost was, chasing a girl who is “a tongue twisting storm” and “funky-thigh collector” who “wants my honey not my money” and to “ball and play”. The past is, as they say, a different country. 

Transition | Transmission 5: my baby’s in there, someplace 

Time to take a quick breather and regroup. The intent of this project is to craft a playlist of David Bowie’s deeper cuts for beginners – an anti-‘best of’ anthology, a ‘great hits’ rather than ‘greatest hits’. We’re going backwards from 2016, reversing our way through to the late 1960s before pivoting and coming back to where it all ends. 

We’re now a handful of entries in, and covered two-and-a-half decades’ worth of music in that time. While the later sections of transition | transmission are constantly being tweaked, the track list is looking to be around 42 tracks in all, totalling three hours. And that is, as a reminder, only taking one or two tracks from each of Bowie’s studio albums, and skipping soundtracks and side projects. The man’s back catalogue is a force to be reckoned with. 

If I’m to take a quick breather, it’s about now; if I add another short (but important) song to this section, my back-of-the-envelope maths tells me that we’re up to an hour or so of music. That’s a baker’s dozen of songs in the first third of the playlist, and an excellent point for folk to compile their mixtape, download their iTunes tracks, pick through Spotify or otherwise obtain these songs and have a listen to them, back to back.

As a reminder, the songs to date are;

1. Lazarus (from Blackstar, 2016)

2. You Feel So Lonely You Could Die (The Next Day, 2013)

3. Fall Dog Bombs The Moon (Reality, 2003)

4. I’ve Been Waiting For You (Heathen, 2002)

5. Something in the Air (‘hours…‘, 1999)

6. Seven Years in Tibet (Earthling, 1997)

7. Dead Man Walking (Earthling)

8. No Control (1. Outside, 1995)

9. Miracle Goodnight (Black Tie White Noise, 1993)

10. Cat People (Putting Out Fire) (Let’s Dance, 1983)

11. It’s No Game (Part 1) (Scary Monsters, 1980)

12. Up The Hill Backwards (Scary Monsters)

13. TVC15 (Station to Station, 1976)

  Skipping right past the so-called Berlin trilogy, which I’ll cover in a few weeks, I couldn’t pull this deep cuts playlist together without featuring the song that gives this collection its name. TVC15 is a jaunty little number that is often swamped by the titans on this album – the epic title track, the brilliance of ‘Golden Years’ and the powerful ‘Wild is the Wind’. A brief tale of a man whose girlfriend is willingly swallowed by his “quadrophonic… hologramic… demonic” television, TVC15 is Bowie at his gonzo best. 

Transition | Transmission 4: don’t want to know the past, I want to know the real deal

We’re going to be hitting the accelerator here. Bowie afficianados would have noticed I’ve already jumped past his unreleased albums such as Toy (2001) and Leon (1995), and as per the previously outlined rules we’ll be missing soundtracks like The Buddha of Suburbia (1993).

So, having left last entry on ‘No Control’ from 1. Outside (1994), that means our next stop is…

9. Miracle Goodnight (1993)  

  
Well, this is a change of pace, isn’t it? ‘Miracle Goodnight’ was a strong single from a patchy album, which doesn’t nearly get the recognition it deserves. Bowie is – well, not young here, but certainly youthful. Energetic, balletic – smiling, even. This is a newly married Bowie, happily sharing that “I love you in my morning sun, I love you in my dreams; I live the sound of making love, the feeling of your skin. The corner of your eyes, I long forevermore.” 

Black Tie White Noise was once touted as a comeback album for Bowie; it reunited him with the legendary Nile Rodgers, and brought him back to a solo career after an extended sabbatical. In hindsight, however, it seems a weirdly forgotten moment, released against the tides of broader musical trends and not fitting into any easy continuity. It’s become a solitary artefact – not quite a coda to the excesses of the eighties, nor a precursor to the genre-hopping darkness to come. Large slabs of the album are underwhelming, but tracks like ‘Miracle Goodnight’ demonstrate a vitality that wouldn’t be heard again.

And it also means, for us, another break. The rules say no Tin Machine (1989, 1990), so that means we’re well and truly into the 1980s. But, spoiler alert, the ’80s weren’t that great for David Bowie. As such, I’ll only planning to  feature one track off both Never Let Me Down (1987) and Tonight (1984), and they’ll be covered on my way back through this decade later in the series. So, rewind a decade back to…

10. Cat People (Putting Out Fire) (1982, 1983)
  It seems perverse to skip Bowie’s beloved contributions to the Labyrinth soundtrack (1986) when I’m moving to a song that itself achieved fame in film. But, as well as featuring in Cat People (1981; released as a single from the soundtrack in ’82)  and, much later, Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds (2009), ‘Cat People‘ could be found on Bowie’s bestselling Let’s Dance (1983). It seems that everyone knows this album and its hits, and fans are often divided on whether the album’s stratospheric success represented a creative peak or trough. I like perhaps half of the album;  the songs you hear played most often – the title track, ‘Modern Love’ and his remake of ‘China Girl’ – are the album’s standouts and there is plenty of filler (not unusual for a Bowie album; for every unheard deep cut that I’m uncovering for you here, there is a so-so tune you’d be glad I skipped). ‘Cat People’ is not filler though; it’s bold, urgent and majestic. With my rule of avoiding tracks on Nothing has changed, it was a clear choice to me on which Let’s Dance-era track needed to be showcased.

11. It’s No Game (Part 1) (1980)

12. Up The Hill Backwards (1980)

Whereas the bulk of the 1980s were not kind to Bowie’s reputation as a songwriter, the year 1980 is, if not the highwater mark for Bowie, then certainly one of his most well-recognised creative peaks. Many albums that followers were lauded as being his greatest work since that year’s Scary Monsters. Scary Monsters was immensely popular and well-received, particularly because of its tracks that so often feature in best-of compilations; like Nothing has changed – ‘Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps)’, ‘Fashion’ and the superb ‘Ashes to Ashes’.  Like Let’s Dance before (after?) it, Scary Monsters‘ hits obscure its lesser-known songs. For transition | transmission, I’ve included the opening two tracks from this, one of the finest, most uncompromising Bowie releases. 

  ‘It’s No Game’ is a raucous and confronting spectacle of a song. Bowie’s voice is more ragged than we’ve heard up until this point, battling with both the band behind him (screaming “shut up!”) and Michi Hirota mirroring his lines in her native Japanese. Bowie sings that he is “bored from the event; I really don’t understand the situation,” but he seems anything except bored. In an album that looks backwards as much as it does to the future, we kick things off with Bowie pushing himself and his band further than they’ve gone before. 

The second track, ‘Up the Hill Backwards’, is melodic rather than chaotic. Like the previous song, the masterfully distorted guitar of Robert Fripp seems to fight against the lyrics and other instruments. Here though, Bowie’s voice is disconnected from the song, almost laid back as he encounters “the vacuum created by the arrival of freedom, and the possibilities it seems to offer”.

I didn’t think much of  ‘Up the Hill…’ when I first encountered it on Bowie’s Platinum Collection, but I think that’s because it works best as a very deliberate change of pace, needing the counterpoint of ‘It’s No Game’ to bring out its power and depth. There’s something about it that particularly resonates for this playlist, where we find ourselves venturing the wrong way into Bowie’s back-catalogue. 

Transition | Transmission 3: see how far a sinful man burns his tracks

When we left off, we were five albums in and found Bowie stepping back into the diverse, genre-spanning 1990s. Reading backwards as currently we are, we’ve moved from the guitar-driven, Visconti-produced noughties through to the eclectic (if patchy)  ‘Hours…’, and from there to…

6: Seven Years in Tibet (1997)  

 The Earthling era starts off with a bang. From the opening chords of ‘Seven Years in Tibet’, we know we’re in a different world than that presented in ‘Hours…’. At the time, this incarnation of Bowie was seen as a little tired and behind the time, chasing a trend rather than being out in front. But compared to the tracks we’ve heard to date, it seems like we have a Bowie here who’s full of vigour, willing to push himself and his sound into new territories. 

‘Seven Years in Tibet’ hasn’t been the first time we’ve heard Reeve Gabrels, Bowie’s guitarist and co-songwriter for much of the 1990s, but few of his collaborations with David Bowie showcase his experimental style better than Earthling. Gabrels doesn’t have the same name recognition as earlier collaborators like Ronson, Alomar or Slick, but he was critical in moving Bowie from the soulless, dead-end Eighties to a period of creativity and imagination. 

The song itself is lyrically sparse. Where ‘Something in the Air’ seemed painfully personal, ‘Seven Years…’ mixes the literal and elliptical. “Are you OK?,” asks an old woman, “you’ve been shot in the head and I’m holding your brains.” The subject drinks in the night sky and snow before the lyrics ascend into a mantra of repeated phrases; “I praise to you / Nothing ever goes away / I praise to you / Nothing ever goes”. While many of Earthling‘s tracks can feel slightly dated by quasi-Prodigy drum beats, ‘Seven Years…’ soars. 

7: Dead Man Walking (1997)   

 If you recall my rules, no album was going to get more than two songs dedicated to it – any more than that and this playlist would become even more of an epic than it’s shaping up to be. Earthling doesn’t play with other eras, so if I’m going to add a second track then now’s the time. 

‘Dead Man Walking’ was, like ‘Seven Years in Tibet’, a single released from Earthling. While it’d seem that neither song is therefore much of a deep cut, they did not make a huge impact so I feel safe in adding them to this collection. Where ‘Seven Years…’ chugs along and drowns the listener in distortion, ‘Dead Man Walking’ skips and trips. It’s filled with movement – an old soul, flitting past young men and recalling an earlier time “sliding naked and new like a bad tempered child”. But it’s not just about remembrance; it’s about having the wisdom to let go, to shed old selves and step into the future. As he sings;

“And I’m gone gone gone, now I’m older than movies
Let me dance away now I’m wiser than dreams
Let me fly fly fly while I’m touching tomorrow
And I know who’s there when silhouettes fall
And I’m gone like I’m dancing on angels
And I’m gone through a crack in the past
Like a dead man walking.”

As well as Reeve Gabrels’ influence, the song is lifted by Gail Ann Dorsey’s backing vocals (also heard on ‘Seven Years…’). Dorsey worked with Bowie as a bassist for almost twenty years and notably duetted on live performances of ‘Heroes’ and ‘Under Pressure’. Her voice is heard more on Earthling than other albums, so now’s the time to recognise her tremendous presence, stagecraft and musicianship.  

In addition to Gabrels and Dorsey, the song also features the avant-garde piano of Mike Garson. Excluding Tony Visconti, Garson was Bowie’s longest-serving collaborator. With a partnership spanning thirty years, we will become more familiar with his work in later entries. 

8: No Control (1995)  
  “Stay away from the future,” warns Bowie as this song opens, “Back away from the light. It’s all deranged – no control.” The narrator seeks to lock down some sense of meaning and understand their fate, to wrest some meaning out of the randomness of life. Only that will give them peace; “If I could control tomorrow’s haze the darkened shore wouldn’t bother me. If I can’t control the web we weave, my life will be lost in the fallen leaves”. 

‘No Control’ is perhaps the deepest of deep cuts, an overlooked number from the expansive 1. Outside, Bowie’s most committed concept album. As the title suggests, this album was intended to be the beginning of a broader cycle. This was always unlikely to occur – 1995 marked Bowie’s final collaboration with Brian Eno, who contributed to and produced the album – and now never will. 

1. Outside is a tremendous album which launched a new and thoroughly dark image for our subject. The invigoration of Bowie that we see here will only be clear as we delve further into the back catalogue; it is difficult to grasp how shockingly different his appearance on, say, The Late Show was in comparison with what had come before. Despite the critical praise and attention this new era brought Bowie, the album’s complexity and concept makes it unapproachable for many. As a result, much of 1. Outside is rarely delved into by casual listeners.

 ‘No Control’ never got released as a single, never got a remix with the Pet Shop Boys or get performed live with Nine Inch Nails, and failed to feature on any David Lynch soundtracks. It’s a complete mystery to most. There are plenty of songs from 1. Outside that are at least as good – the disdain of ‘We Prick You’, the plaintive unfurling of ‘The Voyeur of Utter Destruction (As Beauty)’ – but I love everything about this one.