When this series started I thought that it would be good to contribute, but the question was - who to do? There are so many artists that I love, but it would have to be someone I grew up with rather that some of my fave 60's artists who I got into retrospectively, or newer bands who do not yet have the body of work from which to make a worthwhile selection. That left just one obvious choice - the artist who I started following in 1972, whose 'Aladdin Sane' was the first 'grown-up' album that I bought, whose 1973 tour was my very first rock gig, and whose original RCA singles still have pride of place in my collection. Although I no longer buy every single thing he releases he still earns my respect for continuing to produce music nearly 40 years after first committing his songs to vinyl.
- Scary Monsters And Super Creeps
From Bowie's last truly great album comes this title track. With a memorable tune, and the guitarwork still very reminiscent of the work on 'Low', this was one of the catchiest songs on the album. Vocally he seems to be harking back to his Anthony Newley period of the late 60's, with dropped 'h's in some verses, but lyrically he is as puzzling as ever. Robert Fripp guests on guitar, and really makes his presence felt with his trademark 'hundred notes a second' solos.
- Memory Of A Free Festival (Parts 1 & 2)
This was one of Bowie's earliest singles, and while the A-side was basically an electric version of the song which appeared on the 'Space Oddity' album, the B-side was something else entirely. Carrying on the 'The sun machine is coming down and we're gonna have a party
' coda it then evolves into a lengthy 'Hey Jude' style fade out incorporating keyboard and guitar instrumentals. One of his first 'story songs' seemingly based on his own experiences rather that the caricatures of his Anthony Newley period, it was a template for a number of the songs on 'Space Oddity' which sounded like they really happened to people he knew. This was all to change in a couple of albums time when his fascination for science fiction came to the fore.
One of the first songs which alerted me to the talents of David Bowie was 'Changes'. Although I had heard 'Space Oddity' by then, I much preferred 'Changes', with its stuttering chorus and prominent piano. Surprisingly, this single never charted even though (or because?) Tony Blackburn made it his single of the week. I do recall hearing it on the radio a lot in the early 70's, but bizarre theories have surfaced that the reason for its lack of success might have been that the record company deliberately under-promoted it as they were looking ahead to his Ziggy phase rather than backward to his singer/songwriter period. Whatever, it was the song that drew my attention to this new talent, and remains a favourite.
- Watch That Man
As if to prove that he could rock with the best of them after 'Ziggy Stardust', Bowie opened his next album with the frenetic 'Watch That Man'. From Ronson's opening chords onwards, the song mixes the best of the Faces and the Stones swagger to give a song that either band would be proud of. Although this song was released as a single by Lulu, it never appeared in Bowie's singles discography, although it would have been the ideal follow-up to 'Rebel Rebel'.
- Red Money
'Lodger' was always something of a stop-gap album for me, coming as it did between the dual high points of 'Low' and '"Heroes"' and one of my favourite albums in 'Scary Monsters'. Although it delivered two hits in 'Boys Keep Swinging' and 'DJ', I always preferred the rhythmic tracks like 'Yassassin' and 'Red Money'. This rewrite of the Pop/Bowie track 'Sister Midnight' which appeared on Iggy Pop's 'Lust For Life' was one of Bowie's most overtly funky songs since 'Young Americans', and the stretched out chorus adds to the feel of a dancefloor classic in the making.
- Sound And Vision
From 'Low' - one of my favourite Bowie albums - comes this song. I could have picked almost any track from side one to represent the pop side of Bowie's electronic phase, but this one sums them all up, with its funky backing, choppy guitars and minimal lyrics, and it was a No. 3 hit single to boot. 'Be My Wife' followed it into the charts, but really any of these seven songs could have been a hit as they were all stylish excursions into the at-the-time unexplored regions of electro-pop. Soft Cell and Depeche Mode owe their whole careers to those songs.
Another one from 'Low', and this track sums up why Bowie is so revered by his fans. Who could have imagined that the man who gave us the concept album 'Ziggy Stardust', the hard rock of 'Aladdin Sane' and the Philly soul of 'Young Americans' could produce a side of music which was so unlike anything else he had done so far. While side one of 'Low' more or less singlehandedly kickstarted the electro-pop movement, side two was something else entirely. Just four tracks - nominally instrumentals as the vocals were wordless sounds - but all of them dense soundscapes evoking his feelings about the division of Berlin in the late 70's. Eno played a huge part in these tracks, bringing his ambient influence most to the fore on 'Warzawa', which he co-composed with Bowie. Another ground-breaking piece of music.
- The Width Of A Circle
From Bowie's darkest album, both lyrically and musically (and even spilling over to the sleeve of the UK issue), comes this stunning opening track. After the acoustic folk-ery of 'Space Oddity' this came as something of a shock when I first heard it, being one of the heaviest things he ever recorded. Taking up nearly half of the first side of the 'Man Who Sold The World' album, it introduces themes that would surface many more times on later songs, but not necessarily with such a heavy rock backing. Lyrically obscure, and featuring some great guitarwork from Mick Ronson, it is nevertheless a deeply disturbing song and the whole album still leaves me feeling vaguely uneasy after listening to it. ('All The Madmen' is just plain creepy, and many of the other songs deal with an apocalyptic end of the world, and yet oddly enough it also contains some of his lightest melodies).
- Up The Hill Backwards
'Scary Monsters' again, and this was a single release which just scraped in the charts at No. 32. More low-key than 'It's No Game' and 'Scary Monsters', it still features the spikey guitar that was all over the album. With its catchy and memorable chorus it was the obvious choice for a single, and I still don't know why it didn't get higher. Possible RCA cut their own throat on this one by milking Bowie's last album for them for singles, issuing no less than four during 1980/81, and as this was the last of them perhaps everyone had the album by then. Still a great song, though.
- Space Oddity
The song which really started it all. Although Bowie had been around in various guises from 1964 onwards, this was the song which announced that David Bowie 'the artist' had arrived upon the music scene, even though it took the rest of the world another two or three years to realise it. Inspired by the Moon landing of 1969, it is a classic Bowie story-song about an astronaut getting trapped in outer space, and combines both his gift for a memorable melody with an off the wall lyric which captures the imagination. Despite all that it stalled at No. 5, and it did not reach the top of the charts until its re-issue in 1975.
- Drive In Saturday
A classic single, lifted from the 'Aladdin Sane' album, but listening to it today you just cannot believe that it went top three. The state of the today's charts would mean that even a song of this class would sink like a stone if it came out tomorrow. The words are classic Bowie - futuristic science fiction/end of the world scenario, but the tune is fairly slight for a single, and yet it worked for me, and I went out and bought it on the day of release. Like so many of Bowie's songs it evokes a sense of unease when you hear it, as you imagine the world that the characters are inhabiting, but it showed that he was still moving forward in his songwriting, and gave a pre-taste of the lyrical themes of later albums like 'Diamond Dogs'.
- Rock 'n' Roll Suicide
From the classic 'Ziggy
' album comes this creepy ballad. Pulled from the album by RCA in 1974 as a follow-up to 'Rebel Rebel' it unsurprisingly flopped, limping into the charts at No. 22. Nevertheless it is a very powerful song, with an emotional vocal performance from Bowie. Although from the title you would expect this to be a downbeat song it ends up with the exhortation that 'You're not alone, just turn on with me', ending the song on a hopeful note.
- John, I'm Only Dancing
Unlike many other artists of the period, Bowie released the odd single during the 70's which never turned up on an album, and this is one of them. The original wins out every time over the 1975 plastic soul re-make, being a punky hard rock track with typically puzzling lyrics. There were apparently a number of different mixes made of this track, with a punchier version being recorded during the 'Aladdin Sane' sessions which replaced the original single version on later pressings (without RCA letting on to anyone). It made number 12 in the charts in 1972, and was one of Bowie's best out and out rock songs.
- Diamond Dogs
The lead track to the album of the same name is a tour-de-force of Bowie's lyrical and musical vision. 'Future Legend' introduces the song, with it's spoken word description of a world destroyed by some cataclysmic event over a guitar rendition of 'Bewitched, Bothered And Bewildered', before the song starts with the cry of 'This ain't rock and roll, this is genocide'. Musically it is straight-ahead rock, with Bowie doubling up on guitar and sax to produce a loping shuffle of a beat, bring to mind the Faces again. Lyrically it follows Bowie's interest in science fiction and postulates a situation where world order has broken down and dogs roam wild. Like 'Rock 'n' Roll Suicide' which preceded it as a single it only managed No. 21, but actually sounds better in the context of the album anyway.
- The Jean Genie
Despite nicking its main riff from The Animals/Yardbirds version of Bo Diddley's 'I'm A Man' this song will probably endure as one of Bowie's most remembered tracks. It was his third consecutive top ten hit - reaching No. 2 in 1972 - and established him as an artist who wasn't just a flash in the pan. Even this early in his career his lyrics were as impenetrable as ever - why does The Jean Genie 'love chimney stacks', and why does he 'keep all your dead hair for making up underwear'? Despite that it is still a cracker of a track some thirty years on.
What can I say? It's a classic song, one of his best vocals ever, and the only reason it is not at number one is overexposure. I have heard it so often on the radio, from my albums, and on TV, that it just has to lose some of the impact that it has when you hear it for the first time. If you too are over-familiar with the standard version then there is a great German language one to be found on the 'Rare' album, and lurking around on the Australian issue of the single is a French version as well. Considering its impact today, it is almost unbelievable that it only managed to scrape into the charts at No. 24. Still, it is a worthy top five entry, and probably the one song that Bowie will always be remembered for.
4. It's No Game (No. 1)
Another classic song from 'Scary Monsters'. This is done in two different versions on the album, but I prefer the hard edge of No. 1. Bowie literally screams the lyrics, while Carlos Alomar's angular guitar owes much to David Byrne's style with Talking Heads. The Japanese talking throughout the track also adds to the sense of unease, and the lyrics are printed in Japanese on the inner sleeve. This was a stunning song with which to open the album, as after 'Lodger' I was beginning to wonder if he had lost that certain something which kept him ahead of the game, but this album proved that he had done nothing of the sort. The song ends with Bowie screaming 'Shut Up!' in an attempt to stop Alomar's looped guitar figure, and as the tape suddenly squeals to a stop it leads straight into 'Up The Hill Backwards'.
- Life On Mars
A lovely little song from 'Hunky Dory, and yet another single which would be inconceivable today. It took RCA until 1973 to realise this song's potential as a single, but once released it quickly went top three. Surreal lyrics over a piano led verse and orchestral chorus make up one of Bowie's most memorable songs, with lyrical puns and non-sequiturs abounding throughout. One of the first songs of his that I learnt all the words to, which is not something that I tended to do as it was mostly inconsequential glam rock around at the time. I was surprised to find that I still knew them all when it was played on the radio only the other week, which must be a sign of this song's lasting impact on me.
- Five Years
For me this is the pivotal song on 'Ziggy Stardust'. Normally I don't listen to lyrics that much, preferring the music to speak to me, but this song had such great words that you can't help taking them in. 'Pushing thru the market square, so many people sighing/News had just come over, we had five years left to cry in/News guy wept when he told us, earth was really dying/Cried so much his face was wet, then I knew he was not lying'. It still sends a chill down my spine when I hear the utter desolation that Bowie managed to deliver in those four lines. This was probably the first time that I really listened to the words of an album, as up to that time my musical tastes had mostly been glam rock singles or teen bands. For me this was when I realised that Bowie was a major songwriting talent.
- Station To Station
Although this may seem a strange choice as my all-time favourite Bowie song, it has been the one that I can come back to again and again without ever tiring of it, which also accounts for the absence of songs like 'Rebel Rebel' and 'Fame' from this list. Good as those songs are, I have heard them so many times over the years that it is now the more obscure tracks which I find that I am playing, but this one transcends that by being played just as much as those singles and yet still sounding as fresh as ever. The loping rhythm, the seemingly meaningless but enigmatic words, the funky guitar of Carlos Alomar, even the train noises at the beginning of the track all come together to produce a whole that is so much more than the sum of its parts. And as with 'Width Of A Circle' there seems to be two or three songs in here vying to come to the surface, so the slow first part is bridged by a change of tempo before the track winds down with some left-over 'Young Americans' funk and Alomar's searing guitar on the 'It's too late' coda. It starts with the classic line 'The return of the thin white duke, throwing darts in lover's eyes', which became his nickname for the next few years for journalists too lazy to think up their own. The rest of the lyrics are the usual Bowie stream of consciousness or William Burrough's influenced cut-up style, but even though he is generally regarded as a poet first and foremost, this track is one of his best purely musical efforts. Although it lasts for over nine minutes it always seems to go by in a flash, and makes me want to hear it again straight away, which for me that is the sign of a truly great song.