Tag: playlist

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.