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.