Transition | Transmission 1: bluebirds, and rooms of bloody history

So, Bowie. Everyone’s got an opinion on the best songs, albums and eras. There are countless unauthorised tomes, a plethora of Best Ofs – not to mention live albums, which tend to fulfil a similar function – and Internet lists aplenty, so it’s not like there’s a shortage of learned opinions or official canon to give you a place to start.

But that, in its way, is part of the problem – the sheer scale of it all. Bowie is deep and dense. He started his musical career in the mid-1960s and kept going until 2016’s Blackstar (and rumour is there’s still more in the vault, although I must say posthumous releases don’t interest me: his last album seemed such a defining, deliberate capstone that anything else would pale in comparison). He went through more stylistic and genre changes in the space of a few years than most artists go through in their entire career – and not because of any inauthenticity or jumping onto bandwagons; rather, the opposite.

And, Bowie is varied, both in tone and quality. With a back catalogue so broad and rich, there’s going to be a bunch of stuff you are not interested in, or think is a bit rubbish. Most diehard Bowie fans would agree; only the truly tragic love all of his output. The ’70s are commonly seen as a high and the ’80s as a nadir, for example. But, what that common wisdom hides is the sheer diversity in those eras. The 1970s had Ziggy Stardust, yes, and the famous Berlin period, but few people are diehard fans of both. The 80s may have inflicted Tonight and Never Let Me Down on an unsuspecting world, but Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps) and Let’s Dance are benchmarks in Bowie’s critical acclaim and popularity. 

So, how to structure a retrospective for the uninitiated? The DNA of this project is 2014’s compilation Nothing has changed, where Bowie traced a chronology from newest to oldest tracks (on the 3CD version; on the 2CD release the chronology is flipped from oldest to newest). Cheekily, I’d wanted to call this Everything has changed and do something similar, but the title would be a misnomer; there is tremendous change in Bowie’s work, yes, but there’s also continuity. So, I’ve instead reappropriated a line from Station to Station‘s  ‘TVC15for my title. 

Other rules: each album, good or bad, gets at least 1 song. But, entries unique to compilations, soundtracks or less-than-official albums can be skipped (looking at you, Baal and Buddha of Suburbia). No Tin Machine (and not because it doesn’t fit, but because Bowie made it clear that TM was a band he played in, rather than a Bowie backing group by any other name). To make it a complement to the canon, no song on Nothing has changed will feature, meaning that I’ll be forced to find some deeper cuts than the typical greatest hits package (not that NHC was typical – quite the opposite – but you get my drift. Oh, and it too didn’t have Tin Machine, so that supports my previous rule). To mix up that compilation’s chronological exploration of Bowie’s back-catalogue, this playlist will count both backward, then forward again – everything begins and ends with 2016. Oh, and each song should work together as a story of our subject’s oeuvre, his art, with meaningful transitions rather than jarring tones. Easy, huh? 

Let’s kick it off. 

Track 1: Lazarus (2016) 

Lazarus is the last time we saw him move. The man who was making legendary  video clips for a decade before MTV, farewells us before disappearing into the darkness. It’s a detail that wasn’t meticulously planned, but rather improvised on set after one of the crew suggested it. Bowie wickedly agreed. Keep them guessing. Leave them, us, with mystery. 

 “Look up here, I’m in heaven,” he sings. “I’ve got scars that can’t be seen.” The moment of his death has been planned, prepared for. “I’ve got drama, can’t be stolen; everybody knows me now.”

The music is both new and familiar. The saxophone had long been one of Bowie’s favoured instruments but it’s been years since it has featured. His band is brand-new, their first and last appearance. The music is forbidding, then swells and whirls – “you know I’ll be free” he assures us. 

Lazarus is the third track from Blackstar, David Bowie’s final album. It shares its name with his only play, which opened in the weeks before his death. Michael C Hall sang it on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, which can beseen here.  The album version of the song is longer than the video clip above by two minutes, and superior for it, and can be heard here

Track 2: You Feel So Lonely You Could Die (2013)

No film clip for this one, but you can find it here. Chris O’Leary wrote about this soaring track in more detail, and more grace and panache, than I ever could here. It is the penultimate track on The Next Day, Bowie’s penultimate studio album. The album was hailed as a fine return to form by fans and critics, who had waited for literally a decade. (Well, perhaps not waited for an entire decade; while Bowie’s previous album had been released in 2003, he’d been active for a few years thereafter; it would take some time before the depth of his seeming self-exile from public life became apparent).

‘You Feel so Lonely…’ shares with ‘Lazarus’ Tony Visconti’s production, and there is some similarity in tone – it’s a step sideways, but distinctly the work of the same man. But, here, the lyrics are far less autobiographical. In our first track, Bowie says “everybody knows me now”; here, he discloses another’s secret. “And I’m gonna tell,” he sneers, thinking of his hated target, “Yes I’ve gotta tell, gotta tell the things you’ve said when you’re talking in the dark”. From a man that consciously approached his own death in 2016, in 2013 we have a man visualising the death of another; “I can see you as a corpse hanging from a beam. I can read you like a book. I can feel you falling. I hear you moaning in your room…”. It’s delightfully grim stuff, lifted up by stirring music and a chorus of singers. it reminds us early in this entirely hypothetical compilation that Bowie should not be typecast or underestimated.

Two songs in, we’ve contemplated bluebirds and rooms full of bloody history. Where we go next may surprise.

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