David Bowie – “Heroes”


David Bowie“Heroes” RCA Victor PL 12522 (1977)

“Heroes” has remained one of David Bowie’s finest albums.  Part of his so-called “Berlin Trilogy”, it roughly follows the same format as the predecessor Low, with the first side devoted to art pop experiments and the second side (mostly) devoted to quasi-ambient instrumentals.  But where Low was a poppier version of German “krautrock”, with an emphasis on intensity of feeling, “Heroes” puts more emphasis on songs as such and adds just a bit more disco influence.  The music is strange in that it goes in the opposite direction of commercial trends of the day, drawing from left-field European rock and twisting carefree disco dance music with harsh industrial noise while still eschewing the sound of the burgeoning punk movement.  Bowie was continuing to chart his own path.  And, perhaps, that is part of what makes this elusive music so enduring.

The opening “Beauty and the Beast” is a great one.  While Bowie’s disaffected, contrarian and almost deadpan vocals are something of their own statement, the glimmering guitar and relentlessly bouncy beat fits comfortably in the disco era, even as the song’s icy, menacing edge is different from a typical disco dancefloor hit.  “Blackout” is another song with hints of disco rhythms.  Of course, the likes of “Golden Years” and “Stay” (from Station to Station) and “Fascination” (from Young Americans) had already ventured into disco territory in the prior two years.

“Joe the Lion” is kind of a tale of staggering, hazy, late-night club life, and the hangover.  Once again Bowie’s vocals are a kind of contrarian abstraction.  The song as a whole recalls Iggy Pop‘s minor hit album The Idiot (produced by Bowie), especially stuff like Iggy’s Stooges nostalgia song “Dum Dum Boys” and even the slower more minimalistic “Sister Midnight.”  Guitarist Robert Fripp of King Crimson is on the album on lead guitar, and adds distinctive character to songs like “Joe the Lion.”  The mostly instrumental “V-2 Schneider” (in reference to the Nazi V-2 Rocket, which inspired the plot of Thomas Pynchon‘s novel Gravity’s Rainbow), has similar textures to “Joe the Lion” with a more laid-back delivery.

The title track is a Bowie classic.  It is a romanticized mini-epic, complete with a kind of soaring and triumphant progression.  Producer Tony Visconti used a kind of latched gating effect, in which one microphone was inches from Bowie, another was 15-20 feet away, and a third was across the room.  As Bowie sang louder, the gates would trigger a more distant microphone and mute the others.  This allows Bowie to begin singing the song by quietly crooning, nearly at a whisper, then sing loudly, then practically shout, while the distance of the microphones scales back the intensity of his near-shouting to a slower crescendo.  The effect is something of an audio equivalent of the “dolly zoom” camera technique used in Alfred Hitchcock‘s film Vertigo.  Behind the vocals Robert Fripp  plays guitar with “tuned feedback” and Brian Eno contributed electronic effects.  The album was recorded in West Berlin, during the Cold War division of Germany.  The name of the song references the Neu! song “Heroes” (from Neu! ’75).  The song title is in ironic quotes, though the intended irony is somewhat difficult to detect in the music itself.  Yet the drumming is quite different from the “motorik” style of Neu!, more conventional, with the bass kick drum nearly inaudible in this instance.  The song’s lyrics, though, deserve some unpacking.  They describe a couple “standing by the wall”, alluding to the Berlin Wall that then divided the city.  While Western propaganda (still) repeats the fable of the wall going up to keep East Germans in, the reality was that the wall kept Western saboteurs out while also helping to limit a “brain drain” on educated Eastern workers to freeloading Western corporations.  Bowie performed the song in 1987 against the Wall as part of the “Concert for Berlin.”  That concert is often cited as prompting the wall be torn down (which it was in 1989).  Even the right-wing Federalist Society credited Bowie for his role.  Of course, the fall of the Berlin Wall allowed the Western Saboteurs (like Jeffrey Sachs) back into the East, with predictably catastrophic consequences.  Most former East Germans later said they preferred being behind the Soviet “Iron Curtain”, and, according to Der Spiegel, “20 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, 57 percent, or an absolute majority, of eastern Germans defend the former East Germany.”  So Bowie’s song should be viewed skeptically.  But no doubt it is one hell of a catchy tune and this is a spectacular recording.

The second half of the album turns to mostly instrumental songs with ambient qualities — just like Low and Neu! ’75.  These are still songs, though, and are much more compact than anything on Low or Neu! ’75.  “Moss Garden,” complete with Zen-like washes of sound and Bowie playing koto, is arguably the finest instrumental track on the entire Berlin Trilogy.  “Sense of Doubt” and “Neuköln” are both solid tunes too.

The album concludes with “The Secret Life of Arabia,” which has vocals and goes back to disco influences, albeit now with vague middle-eastern references.  This scales back the experimentation of the album, and ensures that pop songs remain the focus.

This album was Bowie’s least popular since his Ziggy Stardust breakthrough.  The title track has become one of his best-known songs, though at the time — like most of Bowie’s late-1970s singles — it wasn’t a hit.  While it lacks the sense of wonder and daring of Low, the taut, punchy rock songs of “Heroes” are still pretty great.  What this lacks (if anything) in terms of eye-opening creativity it makes up in determined consistency.

David Bowie – Santa Monica ’72

Santa Monica '72

David BowieSanta Monica ’72 MainMan GY002 (1994)

A few of the slow songs drag, but mostly this is a fine set from the peak of Bowie’s glam period.  Mick Ronson proves to be as much the star as Bowie himself.  It’s interesting to know these guys were performing “I’m Waiting for the Man,” and quite well actually.  For what it’s worth, this was recorded during the Ziggy Stardust tour, but only released over two decades later.

David Bowie – Scary Monsters… and Super Creeps

Scary Monsters... and Super Creeps

David BowieScary Monsters… and Super Creeps RCA BOW LP 2 / PL 13647 (1980)

In some ways, this is a transitional effort: the close of Bowie’s late 1970s style and the beginning of his forays into 80s pop.  The eclectic eccentricities of Lodger are held in check, focused around a more steady pop sensibility.  This is still quirky art rock, but it flows together as an album better.  Even if it lacks any individual song as good as “Modern Love” from Let’s Dance or “D.J.” from Lodger, there is not a bad tune anywhere.  It would take Bowie a long, long time to make an album this good again — and it could be argued he never did.

Bowie – Diamond Dogs

Diamond Dogs

BowieDiamond Dogs RCA APL1-0576 (1974)

After the glam hard rock of Aladdin Sane and the nostalgic (and poorly-received) Pin Ups, David Bowie returned, somewhat, to the theatrics of The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From MarsMick Ronson and The Spiders From Mars are gone, but Bowie’s own guitar playing is sturdy and effective, if more economical and scrappy.

“Rebel Rebel” is one of Bowie’s catchiest guitar riffs.  “Diamond Dogs” is another great one here, with its solid glam beat and gracefully dingy horns.  Of the tracks that aren’t on the radio or best-of collections, “Rock ‘n’ Roll with Me” is perhaps the best, and most instructive.  It (and the soulful “We Are the Dead”) points towards Bowie’s focus on his singing that would lead to the R&B rave-up title track to Young Americans and the excellent cabaret ballad “Wild Is the Wind” on Station to Station.

There is a concept of sorts behind this album, something about a dystopian future like in George Orwell‘s Nineteen Eighty-Four (Bowie was denied rights by the author’s estate to make a direct adaptation of the novel).  The concept helps the album, not in the direct structure of a cohesive overall story line, but in providing a kernel of inspiration that gets individual songs going.  There is more social commentary here than on perhaps any other Bowie album.

Really, Diamond Dogs is one of Bowie’s best.

David Bowie – ‘Hours…’


David Bowie‘Hours…’ Virgin CDV 2900 (1999)

Bowie’s career doggedly refuses to drift into total irrelevance.  ‘Hours…’, like so many other later efforts, features one pretty good song — “The Pretty Things Are Going to Hell” — amidst a lot of not bad but definitely boring, pro forma contemporary rock.  This is certainly a lot more consistent than Earthling, but that previous record came up with more than one pretty good song (even if those were balanced with some cringe-inducing moments).  Now Bowie had largely dropped the electronic industrial sound (except, ironically for the best song here, “The Pretty Things Are Going to Hell”).  His next effort, Heathen would improve on this album, again with one really good song (“Sunday”) but with filler that was much better and less boring.

David Bowie – Low


David BowieLow RCA Victor PL 12030 (1977)

CAN’s Tago Mago — half full-bore rock half ambient soundscapes — sketches the outlines of Low but this album sounds like no other. It represents is the beginning of Bowie’s “Berlin” period, the creative peak of his long and distinguished career. He made this album as a work of art. It is invigorating to hear someone not content to merely accept the confines of tradition, but try to work out new expression.

Even with its experimentation and avant-gardism, Low is always a pop record. David Bowie always had a flair for the dramatic. Here, his bold use of space and inverted compositions are a different kind of showiness. Bowie’s audacious attitude has purpose. He crafts Low like an artist burning inside.

Brian Eno is a major contributor to Low. He is the perfect foil for Bowie, and side two wouldn’t be the same without Eno’s presence. Even Iggy Pop appears for some backing vocals. Bowie was a major force in Iggy’s solo breakout The Idiot where he began honing the techniques employed here.

While there are some singles that came off the album, the full impact of Low comes on slowly. Deeply textured sounds present themselves with time. Bowie presents himself as an observer but one who’s objectivity has dissolved. His style is reflective of personal discovery. He becomes a part of his songs, and seemingly a part of a barren landscape.

“Be My Wife” is a dense number with pounding lines from the piano, electric washes of guitar and electronically process drum beats. There are few lyrics. An older Bowie comes to accept what he probably has known all along. The music lilts with his carefree pining but swells in gripping climaxes. The rhythm hesitates for each word. The jarring dynamics play into the compositions. They highlight but also mislead. There is simply too much to take in at once, so each time you listen there is another way to hear the songs.

Funky plastic soul (Neu!-beat really) from side one gives way to bleak anti-rock sound collages of side two. “Warszawa” is the centerpiece of the second side. Stark harmonies and unconventional melodies cast a sorrowful shadow on post WWII Europe. Bowie sings a few sounds, then stops as if he can’t go any further. It gets pretty intense. The music is still enjoyable, despite the grim realities lurking around every corner. Europe, of course, has a deeper connection to Euro-classical than anywhere else. Rock and roll is foreign. It makes sense than rock musicians in (of from) Europe have pulled the two together most spectacularly.

Bowie has been called a Warholian manipulator of surfaces. There is some truth to that, but Low could crush you under its weight. On a very basic level, Low maintains the essence of Bowie’s work in adapting broad concepts into his new music. His compositions use chunks much bigger than individual “notes.” Low, through Bowie’s own grammar, painted the perfect picture of a divided Europe. His determination is like a snowplow on some isolated mountain road. There is the risk of becoming stranded in unfamiliar territory but a greater purpose drives him forward. He has purpose, which makes his efforts so enduring.

Low is not just entertaining, it tells us something pure and unassailable about the bleak world from which it came — it evolved from Bowie’s role playing an alien who comes to Earth to save his home planet but gets lost in aimless hedonism in the Nicolas Roeg film The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976). Low is about a change of direction. That change isn’t inherently for the better.  Still, the album is the very embodiment of artistic renewal, and so it is both enlightening and inspiring.

David Bowie – EART HL I NG


David BowieEART HL I NG Arista 7432143077 2 (1997)

I’ve gone through many phases with this album, Earthling.  I rather liked it at first, but then later on it felt dated and I couldn’t stand it.  Giving it another go during a period of revisiting some Bowie recordings, it seems like one of his better late-career efforts.  It’s clear he’s trying, though sometimes he’s trying too hard to seem “with it”.  He jumped aboard the electronica bandwagon, deploying industrial drum ‘n bass, or whatever they were calling the microgenre that month.  The whole affair seems a bit uneven, and it’s hard to do anything with “The Last Thing You Should Do” and “Law (Earthlings on Fire)” but cringe.  Yet there are a fair number of high points, the highest being “I’m Afraid of Americans,” a song that can rub shoulders with any of Bowie’s best songs from any era.  Sure, I was probably right when I though this would sound a little dated, but Bowie seems to be legitimately enjoying making this music most of the time (even if “Looking for Satellites,” “Dead Man Walking” and “Seven Years in Tibet” reveal him to be getting lyrical inspiration from watching movies and satellite TV).  It shows most in his vocals, which have both an energy and nuance that he hadn’t mustered in while.  One last note:  isn’t it odd that Bowie’s better work has come during the periods when he’s been married?

David Bowie – The Buddha of Suburbia

The Buddha of Suburbia

David BowieThe Buddha of Suburbia Virgin 7243 8 40988 2 7 (1993)

Uneven and ultimately not very satisfying.  Part adult contemporary dad-rock, part down-tempo electronic, and part jazzy new age, Bowie isn’t taking many chances.  This soundtrack album has a few charms (a high level of craftsmanship in the production helps), and glides by amicably enough.  But hindsight makes this seem dated.

David Bowie – The Man Who $old the World

The Man Who Sold the World

David BowieThe Man Who $old the World Mercury SR 61325 (1970)

Bowie is still searching for his own sound, and he tries out a wide array of styles here.  He still has one foot in Donovan-like folk sounds (“All the Madmen,” “After All”).  But he also makes forays into Led Zeppelin style hard rock with a blues twinge (“Black Country Rock,” “She Shook Me Cold”).  There are even hints that Bowie could pull off rock opera like he did on Ziggy Stardust (“Running Gun Blues,” “Saviour Machine”).  But what makes this album notable is that it marks the arrival of Mick Ronson on guitar, who would prove the key to Bowie making it big.  Ronson fuels the proto-glam musings of “The Width of a Circle” and the title track with panache.  What separates this from most of what came later is that later on Bowie’s best individual songs had an almost hermetic perfection, with everything so finely tuned that not a single note sounds out of place.  Here things are pretty loose and jammy even.  If the songwriting wasn’t so tentative and uneven this could have really been something.  As it stands, it’s a decent but somewhat undeveloped affair.  Bowie fans will appreciate this most for what it does and doesn’t reveal about what came next.  This still may be the darkest record in his catalog.  Those unfamiliar with Bowie should start elsewhere.

David Bowie – Hunky Dory

Hunky Dory

David BowieHunky Dory RCA Victor SF 8244 (1971)

Hunky Dory is the album where Bowie started to really show some promise.  There are a lot of classic songs: “Changes,” “Oh! You Pretty Things,” “Life on Mars?,” “Queen Bitch.”  With “Eight Line Poem” (and even “The Bewlay Brothers”) he manages to channel The Velvet Underground‘s Loaded, but pushes the Velvets’ underground rock toward something a little more pop friendly.  However, Bowie keeps one foot firmly planted in routine British folk-rock for much of the middle part of the album and it becomes tiresome quickly.  Ziggy Stardust twisted the folk sensibilities a bit more, by adding rock opera to the mix.  In a more straightforward folk-rock setting he is underwhelming.  This is a very decent album, but don’t believe the claims it is Bowie’s best.