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. 

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