Tag: mixtape

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. 

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everything must converge

Here we are, everyone. To cap off my series of posts on Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, what better way than a third and final mixtape?

More so than my last couple of efforts, I faced some difficulties finding the right mix of songs and that sense of flow that any good mixtape should have. The problem wasn’t the inclusion of a few Grinderman tracks (as I originally suspected), but rather the diversity between the Bad Seeds albums covered during this period. The Boatman’s Call is sparse and intimate, Abattoir Blues bubbles with gospel-infused rock, and No More Shall We Part is laden with a mix of piano and strings that isn’t found on its neighbours. So, some of my favourite tracks got sacrificed for the overall continuity of the playlist.

At the same time, relistening to many of the tracks made me appreciate this most recent phase in Cave’s development a little more than may have been represented by my previous entry. I think the crucial difference is that I believe many of the songs are excellent, but the albums are patchy. Cave hasn’t, to my ears, quite got the flow right; the balance between ballads and louder numbers is off, and there are slightly more skippable tracks than on earlier releases.

To stay in keeping with the era represented here, I’m sure you’ll find an iTunes playlist or burned disc more appropriate as a cassette tape. For what it’s worth, this mix is about forty minutes per ‘side’.

Side One:
Wonderful Life
Still in Love
Brompton Oratory
Love Letter
Chain of Flowers
Breathless
Jesus of the Moon
Black Hair
Darker with the Day

Side Two:
Get Ready For Love
No Pussy Blues
Honey Bee (Let’s Fly to Mars)
Worm Tamer
I Feel So Good
Lie Down Here (& Be My Girl)
There She Goes My Beautiful World
Palaces of Montezuma
O Children

(in order: Nocturama/Nocturama/Boatman’s Call/No More Shall We Part/No Pussy Blues b-side/Lyre of Orpheus/Dig Lazarus Dig/Boatman’s Call/No More Shall We Part, and Abattoir Blues/Grinderman/Grinderman/Grinderman 2/B-Sides & Rarities #3/Dig Lazarus Dig/Abattoir Blues/Grinderman 2/Lyre of Orpheus)

Thanks all for reading. Next week, something different!

songs of love and hate

Sorry all, no substantial mid-week update this time around. I’d like to say it’s my new job, with the 10+ hour days that it brings, but it probably has as much to do with purchasing 30 Rock Season 5 on DVD and watching almost the entire thing in a couple of sittings. Mea culpa.

To tide you all over, here’s my latest Bad Seeds mixtape. I’ve shown a little less discipline this time, and you’ll need a 90 minute tape this time around (we’re over forty minutes a side here). The songs are from albums I’ve discussed over the last couple of weeks and give moderately equal billing to ’90 to ’96’s releases. Side 1 is a broad cross-section of the Cave’s output over that half-decade and generally gives the softer side of things. The reverse provides lust, violence and jagged vitriol: change sides depending on your mood. 

Side 1:
The Ship Song
Loom of the Land
Straight to You
The Weeping Song
Nobody’s Baby Now
I Let Love In
Henry Lee
Lucy

Side 2:
Do You Love Me?
The Hammer Song
Brother, My Cup Is Empty
Loverman
The Ballad of Robert Moore & Betty Coltrane
Lovely Creature
Cocks ‘n’ Asses
Staggerlee
Jack the Ripper

For those who weren’t paying close attention last week, ‘The Ballad…’ was first released on Where The Wild Roses Grow, but you’re better off tracking it down on B-Sides and Rarities. ‘Cocks ‘n’ Asses’, b-side to The Weeping Song single, is on the same compilation.

Mixtape!

Some of you who’ve been following this blog over the last few weeks may now want to look into the Bad Seeds’ back catalogue a little more. So, here’s my suggested mixtape for the Bad Seeds’ 80s output. Now, there’s a fine art to making a mixtape – I’d encourage you to go and read or watch Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity for pointers – but in essence this is just a couple of tracks from each album that I think are pretty representative choices. Plus, it adds up to just under half an hour per side, so you can chuck it onto a sixty-minute tape with a little bit of room to spare. Oh yeah, old school!

Side 1:
Sad Waters
In The Ghetto
Long Black Veil
The Carny
Tupelo

Side 2:
City of Refuge
Black Crow King
The Singer
Helpless*
From Her to Eternity
The Mercy Seat

(* first released on a Neil Young tribute collection from ’89, but more easily found on the thoroughly excellent Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ ‘B-Sides and Rarities’)