Tuesday, 25 June 2013

David Bowie is (part 19): 'A real life adventure worth more than pieces of gold'

In February 1980, David Bowie went to The Power Station studio in New York to begin work on another album. In many ways this would be another transitional album for Bowie, neither part of the ground-breaking, avant garde, experimental work of the Berlin albums, nor part of the later, more commercially successful pop-style albums. Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) was a fantastic balance of the original and the popular. It was also the last album to feature the band he had been with since Station to Station: Alomar/Davis/Murray. The core musicians were complemented by Chuck Hammer, Lou Reed's guitarist, Robert Fripp who had last played with Bowie on "Heroes", Roy Bittan on piano and Andy Clark on synthesiser. Pete Townshend from The Who also played on 'Because You're Young'.  This is an instrumental backing track that was completed but never used. It comes from a bootleg. It was either going to be a cover of 'I Feel Free', which Bowie eventually did on Black Tie... in 1993, or a remarkably similar song called 'Life After Marriage'. The most incredible thing about Scary Monsters... is that is hasn't dated. The song 'Ashes to Ashes', a follow-up to, or in his words a "ritualistic purification" of Bowie's 1969 'Space Oddity' about Major Tom, was released as a single complete with a striking video which has been cited by countless bands and filmakers as an influence. It undoubtedly helped to propel the single to number 1. The album also reached number 1 when it was released in September.


Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps)
All songs written by David Bowie, except where noted.

Side one 

  1. 'It's No Game (No. 1)' – 4:15
  2. 'Up the Hill Backwards' – 3:13
  3. 'Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps)' – 5:10
  4. 'Ashes to Ashes' – 4:23
  5. 'Fashion' – 4:46

Side two

  1. 'Teenage Wildlife' – 6:51
  2. 'Scream Like a Baby' – 3:35
  3. 'Kingdom Come' (Tom Verlaine) – 3:42
  4. 'Because You're Young' – 4:51
  5. 'It's No Game (No. 2)' – 4:22

Once David Bowie had finished recording Scary Monsters... he started work on a play which would take him to San Francisco, Denver, Chicago and New York. Bowie was to play the part of John Merrick in The Elephant Man. One of the actors Bowie would play opposite was Ken Ruta, of the American Conservatory Theatre, a very well-regarded actor. Ruta says of Bowie, "He was incredible. Right on the money... He was absolutely not a show-off.. He hadn't acted on a stage, so the acting technique wasn't completely in his control [but], thank god, he had such an imagination, so the integrity was there. There was a basic honesty. And the best gift, to me, of any great actors is that thing about listening. That doesn't happen all the time." With a few weeks of the run remaining Bowie received the terrible news that his friend, with whom he had recently been re-aquainted, John Lennon had been shot dead by Mark Chapman. Bowie missed a few nights but completed the run. Two years later Bowie would say it was "awful, just awful. A whole piece of my life seemed to have been taken away; a whole reason for being a singer and songwriter seemed to be removed from me. It was almost like a warning." Bowie appeared on a TV programme called 'Friday Night... Saturday Morning' in which he was interviewed by Tim Rice about his performance in the Elephant Man as well as discussing Scary Monsters.... There are also clips of him performing on stage as the Elephant Man. Part 1 is here and Part 2 is here.

After being chased by fans all over America during his time in the Elephant Man, David Bowie enjoyed the seclusion of his home in Switzerland during the first half of 1981 and spending time with his ten year old son, Zowie before he went to boarding school in September. His only musical venture during that summer was to collaborate with the Italian elctronic musician Giorgio Moroder on the theme tune for a film called 'Cat People'. 'Cat People (Putting Out Fires)' reached number 26 when it was released the following year. It was re-recorded for Bowie's next album and then largely forgotten about until it was used in Quentin Tarantino's film 'Inglorious Basterds' in 2009. Watch the video here.

Whilst David Bowie was at Mountain Studio in Switzerland to record 'Cat People (Putting Out Fire) he met Queen recording their album 'Hot Space'. He was asked to sing some backing vocals on a song (which he did but they weren't used) but ended up working on a different song, 'Feel Like'. Mercury and Bowie came up with a different title and different lyrics and Bowie then worked with drummer Roger Taylor on the music. Bowie provided most of the lyrics, the melody, the middle eight ("the terror of knowing what this world is all about") and even the distinctive bassline, which he hummed to John Deacon. Bowie then gave the song away to Queen which he was sure would be a hit, happy for them to take all the royalties in preference to giving any to his former manager, Tony Defries, whose contract with him wouldn't expire until October 1982. The song was 'Under Pressure'. It was released as a single in October and reached number 1 in Britain. Watch the video here.

In July 1981 David Bowie began rehearsing a television play for the BBC. It was an adaptation of Bertolt Brecht's first full-length play, 'Baal'. Alan Clarke of 'Scum' fame would direct, Louis Marks was the BBC producer and the writer was John Willett, the English-speaking world's foremost Brecht scholar and translator who had met Brecht in 1956. The three discussed Steven Berkoff and Barry Humpries (also known as Dame Edna Everage) for the lead role before settling on Bowie. He did need any persuading. At the early rehearsals they discussed the Brecht 'recitatif' singing style. "I think of it rather like plainsong", said Bowie. Willett was shocked, it made complete sense, but had never ocurred to him before. After that first discussion Willett turned to Marks and said, "he knows more about Germany as a whole - and Brecht in particular - than anyone we know!" During his cocaine phase, Bowie had spent hours in Berlin art galleries. Willett was impressed with the way Bowie made sense of the songs but also with his ability to take on the role of Baal immediately. He collaborated on the songs with Dominic Muldowney, a leading interpreter of Brecht's music. News that the reclusive Bowie was working on the play had reached the British press, creating headlines. Then they discovered the BBC had retitled the piece 'Bowie in Baal' and delayed its transmission until the following spring so they could cover it in the Radio Times. The play was shown on 2 March 1982 to mainly good press coverage.

Towards the end of his time working on the TV play 'Baal', David Bowie told Dominic Muldowney that he wanted to record an album of the music from the play in Berlin and asked him to oversee the arrangements. Muldowney jumped at the chance and the writer John Willett said he would come too. He told them that he wanted the record to serve as his last for RCA. Just a few weeks later Bowie, Muldowney, Willett and Tony Visconti met in Hansa studio 2 for Bowie's last recording there and his final goodbye to Berlin. Of the eight musicians assembled many were Brecht old-timers and one was 75 and had played in the first productions of Brecht's 'Threepenny Opera'. Bowie arrived late, which meant most of the backing tracks had already been completed. Bowie then laid down all his vocals in just three or four hours.

The lyrics to the songs were all translated by Ralph Manheim and John Willett. Dominic Muldowney provided all new musical settings, except for "The Drowned Girl", which was a setting by Kurt Weill done originally for Das Berliner Requiem. “Baal’s Hymn” is a combination of the vignettes spread throughout the play and establishes Baal’s amoral character. “Remembering Marie A” concerns Baal’s reminiscences of a past conquest, where he can remember a cloud drifting overhead but not the face of the girl he was with. “Ballad of the Adventurers” is Baal’s aggressive lament to the death of his mother. “The Drowned Girl” relates the suicide of one of Baal’s conquests – a video clip for this song was shot by David Mallet at the same time as the one for “Wild is the Wind”. “The Dirty Song” is a short number, with Baal humiliating his lover Sophie.

Muldowney said of Bowie's vocals: "The standout was 'The Drowned Girl', which is like an Ophelia song, where she dies in the river. He's singing about 'Her slow descent' below the water, right down in the bass baritone. Then halfway through he jumps up the octave. I play this song to composers at the Royal Opera House on courses. When he sings up to the word 'smoke' its got smoke all around it, it's cloudy. Then we get to the 'k' of smoke and you can see it again. It's an absolute tutorial in how to paint a text. The only other person I know can do that is Frank Sinatra". The 'Baal' EP was Bowie's last release for RCA. It reached number 29 when it was released in February 1982. Bowie would now wait out his contract with RCA.

Next time: vampires, war and dancing

Friday, 21 June 2013

David Bowie is (part 18): 'Sometimes I feel the need to move on'

In December 1977, David Bowie narrated Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf. It was released in May 1978. Bowie has since said that he did the project as a Christmas present for his then 7 year old son, Duncan Jones. The narration was then used for a Disney cartoon (see it here).

At the end of January 1978, David Bowie began filming Just A Gigolo, Bowie's second major film role. The film was set in Berlin and Bowie was excited to filming in many of his old haunts and, in particular, to meet Marlene Dietrich, in her first film appearance for 18 years. Unfortunately for him, all her parts were filmed separately in a studio set in Paris and Bowie had to act to a chair. The two parts were cut together later. The hostile reception the film received led Bowie to joke that it was "my 32 Elvis Presley movies rolled into one" (see a clip here).

The Isolar II 1978 World Tour, more commonly known as The Low / Heroes World Tour or The Stage Tour, was a worldwide concert tour by David Bowie. The tour opened on 29 March 1978 at the San Diego Sports Arena continuing through North America, Europe and Australia before reaching a conclusion at the Nippon Budokan in Japan on 12 December 1978. The tour comprised the usual central group of Alomar, Davis and Murray fortified with guitarist Adrian Belew from Frank Zappa's band, violinist Simon House, pianist Sean Mayes and keyboardist Roger Powell. The show would last an hour and a half beginning with 'Warzawa', combining tracks from Low and "Heroes" as well as Ziggy-era stuff and a Station to Station set. On 8 September Bowie released a live album from the Philadelphia shows called Stage. At that time Bowie was taking advantage of a short break in the tour to begin recording another album. Here is the Stage album. This show is from the later Japanese leg.

The third and final instalment of the Berlin trilogy or 'Triptych' as Bowie was now calling it was Lodger. Although not having the same epic grandeur of the previous two albums Lodger retained the same spirit of experimentation; it was quirky and highly original and inventive. Bowie also abandoned the idea of an instrumental side two. This change in style is partly because of the location. Mountain Studios in Montreux, Switzerland had much more comfortable and conventional surroundings than Hansa in Berlin.

Guitarist Carlos Alomar and violinist Simon House felt as though Brian Eno's creativity was beginning to dry up although some of the techniques employed by Eno, Bowie and Visconti helped the musicians to find something great within themselves. Guitarist Adrian Belew was asked to play a solo over a track he had never heard before. They refused to even tell him what key it was in. He was told, "Just play!" He had three chances and then they would move on to another song and do the same thing again. His solo on 'Boys Keep Swinging' is incredible yet he has no memory of playing it. Sometimes seen as one of Bowie's more underrated albums there is much to pique ones interest. On 'Boys Keep Swinging' the musicians changed instruments to give the track a rough edge; 'Yassassin' has a Turkish feel; and 'Red Money' used the same music as the song 'Sister Midnight' that Bowie had given to Iggy Pop for The Idiot. 'Boys Keep Swinging' is also notable because (in the words of co-producer Tony Visconti) it features the "exact same chord changes and structure, even the same key" as 'Fantastic Voyage', another song on the album. Tracks like 'D. J.' and 'Look Back In Anger' are among Bowie's best from the period. After the Isolar II Tour was over in December and a long break the album was finished off in Record Plant Studios in New York in March 1979 and released in May. Despite weak reviews, the album reached number 4 in Britain and number 20 in the US.
All lyrics written by David Bowie; all music composed by Bowie and Brian Eno, except where noted.

Side one

  1. 'Fantastic Voyage' – 2:55
  2. 'African Night Flight' – 2:54
  3. 'Move On' (Bowie) – 3:16
  4. 'Yassassin' (Bowie) – 4:10
  5. 'Red Sails' – 3:43

Side two

  1. 'D.J.' (Bowie, Eno, Carlos Alomar) – 3:59
  2. 'Look Back in Anger' – 3:08
  3. 'Boys Keep Swinging' – 3:17
  4. 'Repetition' (Bowie) – 2:59
  5. 'Red Money' (Bowie, Alomar) – 4:17

Next time: Fripp, Merrick and Baal

Thursday, 20 June 2013

David Bowie is (part 17): 'Wir sind dann helden, für einen tag'

After the first tour with Iggy Pop, David Bowie declined to join a second because, in his own words, "the drug use was unbelievable, and I knew it was killing me". However on 16 April 1977 he began producing another album for Iggy Pop, Lust For Life. Once again Bowie had some songs written which Pop added lyrics to, most of which he took just as Bowie had written with one notable exception. The song 'Success' Pop described as a "damn crooning thing". He stripped down the melody and made it his own. One song Bowie didn't write but did have a hand in, in a roundabout way, was 'The Passenger'. Bowie heard guitarist Ricky Gardiner playing around with some chords and urged Pop to use it to write another song which, of course, he did. When the album was released in August it reached number 28 in Britain, still Iggy Pop's most successful album here (Click to hear 'Lust For Life', 'The Passenger', 'Tonight', 'Success' and 'Neighbourhood Threat').

As with The Idiot so with Lust For Life, David Bowie used making an album with Iggy Pop as a way of developing ideas for his own next album. The heart of the 'Berlin Trilogy' the next album, "Heroes", was the only one entirely recorded in Berlin, during July and August. Co-producer Tony Visconti described Berlin at that time as both "a dream... and [a place] where everything said, "We shouldn't be making a record here"". The main Hansa studio was right by the Berlin Wall. Visconti says it was "really scary. We recorded 500 feet from barbed wire, and a tall tower where you could see gun turrets, with foreign soldiers looking at us with binoculars." This set the tone for the sessions.

They were joined by Alomar, Davis and Murray plus Brian Eno once more. The only song Bowie had worked out before reaching the studio was 'Sons of the Silent Age', an interesting track as Bowie employs a singing style from a much earlier time in his career, around 1967. 'V-2 Schneider' is a reference to German rockets from the time of the second world war and the founder of Bowie's favourite German electronic band Kraftwerk, namely Florian Schneider. Again Bowie employed the technique of writing the songs at almost the same time as recording them, in the case of the title track quite literally. Bowie had watched Pop improvising lyrics as he recorded them or finalising them at the last minute and he adopted the same technique on the song "Heroes". Visconti says, "He would scribble down a few notes on the top of the piano, then say, "OK, drop me in after 'Dolphins can swim'." And that way he wrote and sang "Heroes" simultaneously. At the end of half an hour we had a complete vocal." Of course the song also namechecks the Berlin Wall itself, the scene of a romantic moment. Bowie claimed to have seen two lovers share a kiss by the Wall. Later Tony Visconti claimed it was him and his girlfreind although she has since denied it. Strangely, the song that would become Bowie's best known and his fans' favourite only reached number 24 in Britain. The album, however, when it was released in October made number 3.

All lyrics written by David Bowie; all music composed by Bowie, except where noted.

Side one

  1. 'Beauty and the Beast' – 3:32
  2. 'Joe the Lion' – 3:05
  3. ''Heroes'' (Bowie, Brian Eno) – 6:07
  4. 'Sons of the Silent Age' – 3:15
  5. 'Blackout' – 3:50

Side two

  1. 'V-2 Schneider' – 3:10
  2. 'Sense of Doubt' – 3:57
  3. 'Moss Garden' (Bowie, Eno) – 5:03
  4. 'Neuköln' (Bowie, Eno) – 4:34
  5. 'The Secret Life of Arabia' (Bowie, Eno, Carlos Alomar) – 3:46

On 9 September 1977 David Bowie began promoting his new album and single with a TV appearance on the new show of his old rival and friend Marc Bolan, called 'Marc'. Bolan's new band was essentially Bowie's old one, namely Tony Newman and Herbie Flowers. When Bolan explained he wanted Bowie to join them for a jam at the end of the show Bowie told him he hadn't brought a guitar. Bolan handed him a vintage Fender Stratocaster and insisted he keep it. Bolan was apparently upset when it became clear that Bowie wanted to play the guitar part himself on the backing track that would accompany him on his performance of "Heroes" (see it here), understandable given it was the first time it had been performed on TV. Bowie showed the song to Newman and Flowers and they picked it up immediately. At the end of the show Bolan announced 'a new song' and they went into the jam (see it here). As Bowie began to sing Bolan attempted to stand on a monitor, missed it and fell off the stage. The camera zooms in on Bowie grinning and the credits roll. The recording of the show was already running very late and the cast of 'Coronation Street' were waiting to begin filming. The unionised crew refused to go into overtime and the show had to go out like that. It wouldn't have been so tragic but for the fact that by the time the show went out Bolan was dead. His girlfriend crashed the purple Mini GT he was in into a tree on the south side of Barnes common around 5am on 15 September. Bowie was devastated by Bolan's death and attended his funeral.

After keeping a low profile during the previous year (the cover of the album 'Low' is a visual pun as in the word 'Low' and a shot of Bowie in profile) Bowie was now doing lots to promote his new material. After his appearance on Marc, Bowie recorded a Christmas special with Bing Crosby. The small talk may have been scripted and appear fake but the politeness and friendliness was apparently genuine. Bowie appeared relaxed, clean-cut and healthy which was a reasonably honest portrait of him at this time. On his up-coming tour he did have one notorious 24-hour coke bender, but that aside Bowie was now living a much cleaner lifestyle. Here is his duet with Bing and here is his specially pre-recorded video of "Heroes" for the 1977 Bing Crosby Christmas Special.
Next time: Gigolos, voyages and a stage

Wednesday, 19 June 2013

David Bowie is (part 16): 'I've lived all over the world'

By the end of May 1976 David Bowie was back in the studio in the French chateau where he had recorded 'Pin Ups'. This time, however, he wasn't recording his own album but an album with Iggy Pop, The Idiot. The starting point was the song 'Sister Midnight' a song Bowie had written with Carlos Alomar and performed on his recent tour. Bowie also offered Iggy 'China Girl' and 'Nightclubbing' which Pop eagerly accepted. The rest of the album was written between them. For Bowie, as producer, it was an opportunity to experiment with tape loops, electronic instruments and European music, something he would develop further on his next album.

Bowie and Iggy Pop decided to move to Berlin to get off cocaine. They were, in a sense, in rehab. Bowie gave away many of his possessions, drastically reduced his entourage to two or three people and bought his own bread and milk. In August 1976 Tony Visconti arrived in Berlin. Hansa Studios on the Kurfurstendamm was to be the location of David Bowie's so-called 'Berlin Trilogy'. Studio 1 had been booked for Bowie to work on some music he had originally recorded for the soundtrack to the film 'The Man Who Fell To Earth'. This had been abandoned when the deal fell apart. Instead the studio was used to do some post-production on Iggy Pop's The Idiot. In early September Visconti, Bowie and his by now consistent band of Alomar, Murray and Davis met up once again in the chateau and were joined by piano player Roy Young and guitarist Ricky Gardiner and later by ex-Roxy Music, art-rock experimenter and synthesiser wizard Brian Eno.
The sessions were very experimental. Bowie had come only with a few riffs and ideas which were worked up by the band. After a brief visit by Angie Bowie and her boyfriend Roy Martin which ended in a fight between the two men, Bowie wrote 'Breaking Glass' with the lyrics, "I've been breaking glass in your room again... Don't look at the carpet I drew something awful on it". This referred back to Bowie's interest in Kaballah. 'Always Crashing in the Same Car' was a reference to his Mercedes which he crashed twice. Bowie had an idea for a song based on his experiences in Poland. Whilst he was in Paris for legal meetings with his former manager Michael Lippman, Eno pieced his part together. One day he heard Visconti's son Morgan playing the haunting notes A, B, C on the reception room piano and so Eno incorporated it as the main melody of what became 'Warzawa'. Bowie then added his wordless vocals based on a recording of a Balkan choir.
After the sessions came to end there were overdubs to be done. These were done at Hansa in Berlin, at the newly opened Studio 2 which was right next to the Berlin Wall. There they completed 'Subterraneans' and 'Weeping Wall'. The result was an album that, when it was released in January 1977, elicited little critical response and what response it did get was mostly mired in confusion. Some critics did like it but it would take a long time before it would be considered a great work of art. The album reached number two in Britain and the single, 'Sound And Vision', got to number three despite Bowie doing almost nothing to promote the album and refusing to tour with it. The album is, of course, Low.
All lyrics written by David Bowie; all music composed by David Bowie except where noted.
Side one

  1. 'Speed of Life' – 2:46
  2. 'Breaking Glass' (Bowie, Dennis Davis, George Murray) – 1:52
  3. 'What in the World' – 2:23
  4. 'Sound and Vision' – 3:05
  5. 'Always Crashing in the Same Car' – 3:33
  6. 'Be My Wife' – 2:58
  7. 'A New Career in a New Town' – 2:53

Side two
  1. 'Warszawa' (Bowie, Brian Eno) – 6:23
  2. 'Art Decade' – 3:46
  3. 'Weeping Wall' – 3:28
  4. 'Subterraneans' – 5:39

A second single, 'Be My Wife', failed to reach the Top 40 in Britain.

In March 1977 David Bowie decided to tour not with his own new album, Low, but with Iggy Pop's The Idiot. The first gig was in Aylesbury, the town where Ziggy made his debut. At first no one noticed Bowie but a few songs in someone spotted him playing an electric piano. The audience split in two, half the audience moved to catch a glimpse of Bowie, the rest stayed where they were and watched Iggy Pop. Former New York Doll Johnny Thunders, the Sex Pistols' Glen Matlock and the Damned's Brian James had stayed watching Iggy. Nevertheless many punks didn't mind admitting they had been inspired by Ziggy Stardust. During the tour Pop and Bowie were interviewed on the Dinah Shore programme in America. This illuminating interview is most remarkable for how relatively 'ordinary' the pair seem (Click to watch Interview 1, Interview 2, and a performance of 'Funtime'). The band playing with them included brothers Hunt and Tony Sales, who would later be half of Bowie’s band Tin Machine.

Next time: lust, walls and dolphins.

Friday, 14 June 2013

David Bowie is (part 15): 'Don't let me hear you say life's taking you nowhere'

In October 1975, at the height of his cocaine habit, David Bowie went into Cherokee Studios in LA, a 24-track recording studio, to record his tenth studio album Station to Station. With guitarists Carlos Alomar, Earl Slick, bassist George Murray and drummer Dennis Davis, Bowie produced an album that was the result of "experimentation - and don't worry about how long it takes", as Bowie put it. Bowie went into the studio with nothing written, a way in which he had never worked before but almost always would in future.

It turned out to be a transitional album in more ways than one. Musically, it develops the funk and soul music of Young Americans, while presenting a new direction towards synthesisers and motorik rhythms that was influenced by German electronic bands such as Kraftwerk and Neu!. These elements would be more fully explored on later albums. Station to Station was also a move away from America, which he had now cracked, towards Europe. Indeed it is an album that stands between the American and European traditions of music. The album’s lyrics reflected his preoccupations with Nietzsche, Aleister Crowley, mythology and religion, including Buddhism and Christianity. With the character from 'The Man Who Fell to Earth', Thomas Jerome Newton staying with him (the album cover is a still from the film), Bowie developed the character of the Thin White Duke. Impeccably dressed in white shirt, black trousers and waistcoat, he was a hollow man, "throwing darts in lovers' eyes", who sang songs of romance with an agonised intensity, yet felt nothing, "ice masquerading as fire".
Bowie had done what he would advise others to do, "do the contrary action - do something you're not used to. Let's not make it comfortable - let's make it uncomfortable". Bowie claims to remember almost nothing of the album's production, not even the studio, later admitting, "I know it was in LA because I've read it was". The singer was not the only one doing copious amounts of cocaine during the sessions. Carlos Alomar has said, "if there's a line of coke which is going to keep you awake till 8 a.m. so that you can do your guitar part, you do the line of coke... the coke use is driven by the inspiration." Like Bowie, Earl Slick had somewhat vague memories of the recording: "That album's a little fuzzy—for the obvious reasons! We were in the studio and it was nuts—a lot of hours, a lot of late nights." The first single 'Golden Years' was released in November 1975, two months before the album. It reached number eight in Britain and number ten in America. Station to Station was released in January 1976 and it reached number five in Britain and number three in America.

Station to Station
All songs written by David Bowie, except where noted.

Side one

  1. 'Station to Station' – 10:14
  2. 'Golden Years' – 4:00
  3. 'Word on a Wing' – 6:03

Side two

  1. 'TVC 15' – 5:33
  2. 'Stay' – 6:15
  3. 'Wild Is the Wind' (Ned Washington, Dimitri Tiomkin) – 6:02

In 1975, shortly before the release of the album, Bowie appeared as the Thin White Duke on an American chat show, Dinah Shore. As well as the interview and a bizarre karate lesson, Bowie performed a song from the album, 'Stay' as well as 'Five Years' from ...Ziggy Stardust...

You can watch the show by clicking on the following clips:
1. Performance of 'Stay'.
2. Interview with Dinah Shore
3. Interview with Dinah Shore and Henry Winkler (Fonzie from Happy Days)
4. Karate lesson
5. Performance of 'Five Years'

In January 1976, David Bowie  renewed his friendship with Iggy Pop before rehearsing for another tour. The 1976 'Station to Station' tour, also known as the 'Isolar Tour', began on 2 February 1976 with 39 arena shows across North America ending the first leg on 26 March where Bowie met Christopher Isherwood at an after-show party. The conversation inspired Bowie to base himself in Berlin rather than Switzerland as he had been planning. The second leg began in April and went across Europe. The dates in Britain were his first shows since Ziggy's farewell show. At one point Bowie and Iggy went on a train trip to Moscow where they met the KGB. The journey through Poland and particularly Warsaw had a profound effect on Bowie and the bleakness led him to write the haunting instrumental 'Warzawa' that would appear on his next album.

Click on each track to listen to it:
1. Station to Station
2. Suffragette City
3. Waiting For The Man
4. Word On A Wing
5. Stay
6. TVC15
7. Sister Midnight
8. Life On Mars / Five Years
9. Panic In Detroit
10. Fame / Changes
11. The Jean Genie
12. Queen Bitch / Rebel Rebel

Next time: Idiots, Berlin and Eno

Thursday, 13 June 2013

David Bowie is (part 14): 'One damn song that can make me break down and cry'

Between August and November 1974, David Bowie recorded the album that was to become Young Americans on breaks between the various legs of his tour. The first leg of David Bowie's 1974 US tour was known as the Diamond Dogs Tour. The second leg was known as the 'Philly Dogs' tour (i.e. the same show but with a soul vibe). The third and final leg was known as the 'Soul Tour' and was essentially the tour for Bowie's forthcoming album (although some of the Diamond Dogs songs remained in the set list). The backing singers would perform a short warm-up set on the 'Soul Tour' which was notable for its performance of Bowie's 'Memory of a Free Festival'. This particular show is the first time Bowie performed 'Footstompin'' live. It is audio only and it is from Radio City Music Hall in New York City on 28th October 1974.


Young Americans was recorded with Tony Visconti at Sigma Sound Studios in Philadelphia. To give the record the authentic soul quality Bowie wanted he brought in a then unknown young singer called Luther Vandross, Sly and the Family Stone drummer Andy Newmark and guitarist Carlos Alomar. Bowie would go on to work with Alomar for more than 30 years. Alomar recalled that when he first saw Bowie he was "the whitest man I've ever seen, translucent white".

By December 1974 Bowie had almost finished Young Americans. He called up John Lennon who he had met previously. He played him the record over and over again. Then, inexplicably, he told him he had decided to cover Lennon's 'Across the Universe'. No-one was more confused than Lennon himself who asked May Pang (his then-girlfriend) "why that song?" He invited Lennon to come to the studio who jumped at the chance. Carlos Alomar was playing a riff he had added to a cover of 'Footstompin'' they were performing live. Lennon, meanwhile, was playing some chords and singing some lines from Shirley & Company's disco song 'Shame, Shame, Shame'. Bowie misheard it as 'fame'. He went away and twenty minutes later he came back with the lyrics to the song we now know as 'Fame'. It was the making of the album, which was released in March 1975. The album got to number two in Britain and number nine in America. 'Fame', whilst getting to number seventeen in Britain, got to number one in America. Bowie himself described the album as "the squashed remains of ethnic music as it survives in the age of muzak rock, written and sung by a white limey".

Young Americans
All songs written by David Bowie except where noted.

Side one

  1. 'Young Americans' – 5:10
  2. 'Win' – 4:44
  3. 'Fascination' (Bowie, Luther Vandross) – 5:43
  4. 'Right' – 4:13

Side two

  1. 'Somebody Up There Likes Me' – 6:30
  2. 'Across the Universe' (John Lennon, Paul McCartney) – 4:30
  3. 'Can You Hear Me?' – 5:04
  4. 'Fame' (Bowie, Carlos Alomar, Lennon) – 4:12

Around February 1975 David Bowie began to realise that although he had left MainMan, his former management company, they would still retain the rights to the master copy of his recordings. Although John Lennon consoled him with stories of his own on-going attempts to get free of his former manager Allen Klein, David Bowie frequently became angry and later depressed. His cocaine habit was beginning to take an even heavier toll on his psyche than was apparent from his performances on 'Cracked Actor' and the Dick Cavett Show. As a result of an argument with Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page, a well-known fan of occultist Aleister Crowley, Bowie became obsessed with black magic, the Nazis search for the Holy Grail and the Spear of Destiny (the lance that reputedly pierced Christ's side) as well as Kabbalah and the Tree of Life. Bowie would spend days off his face on copious amounts of cocaine watching black and white films about the Nazis over and over again imagining he was gaining deep insights into the nature and meaning of life. As a result of his alien appearance and behaviour (particularly the scenes in the car from 'Cracked Actor') he was cast as the role of an alien in Nick Roeg's film adaptation of the book 'The Man Who Fell to Earth'. Bowie, who mostly refrained from indulging in drug-taking during the shoot, put in a stunning, almost universally critically-acclaimed performance, demonstrating an incredible ability for focus despite his state of mind. Watch it here.

Next time: Europe, electronica and religion

Wednesday, 12 June 2013

David Bowie is (part 13): 'Tens of thousands found me in demand'

Between October 1973 and February 1974 David Bowie began to record a new album with his old producer and friend Tony Visconti. Bowie had originally intended his next album to be a rock adaptation of George Orwell's 1984. He had even got as far as writing three songs for the project, '1984', 'Big Brother' and 'We Are The Dead'. When he approached Orwell's widow, Sonia, she refused permission on the grounds that she thought it sounded 'bizarre'.

Undeterred, Bowie came up with his own concept of a dystopian post-apocalyptic future world, known as Hunger City, complete with roller-skating gangs, violence and drugs. Bowie played a new character, Halloween Jack, a 'real cool cat'. At the time of its release Bowie described Diamond Dogs as "a very political album. My protest... more me than anything I've done previously". Diamond Dogs' raw guitar style and visions of urban chaos, scavenging children and nihilistic lovers ("We'll buy some drugs and watch old bands / And jump in the river holding hands") have been credited with anticipating the punk revolution that would take place in the following years. Bowie himself has described the Diamond Dogs, introduced in the title song, as
"all little Johnny Rottens and Sid Viciouses really. And, in my mind, there was no means of transport, so they were all rolling around on these roller-skates with huge wheels on them, and they squeaked because they hadn't been oiled properly. So there were these gangs of squeaking, roller-skating, vicious hoods, with Bowie knives and furs on, and they were all skinny because they hadn't eaten enough, and they all had funny-coloured hair. In a way it was a precursor to the punk thing."

Diamond Dogs was released at the end of April and it went to number one in Britain and to number five in the US.

Diamond Dogs
All songs written by David Bowie, except where noted.

Side one

  1. 'Future Legend' – 1:05
  2. 'Diamond Dogs' – 5:56
  3. 'Sweet Thing' – 3:39
  4. 'Candidate' – 2:40
  5. 'Sweet Thing (Reprise)' – 2:31
  6. 'Rebel Rebel' – 4:30

Side two

  1. 'Rock 'n' Roll with Me' (lyrics: Bowie; music: Bowie, Warren Peace) – 4:00
  2. 'We Are the Dead' – 4:58
  3. '1984' – 3:27
  4. 'Big Brother' – 3:21
  5. 'Chant of the Ever Circling Skeletal Family' – 2:00

On 1 April 1974 David Bowie arrived in New York. He intended to move there and to sort out his problems with manager Tony Defries. Almost immediately he contacted Michael Kamen, a British rocker with a coke habit and a band that included guitarist Earl Slick. Kamen was employed as his Musical Director. He also auditioned a young session musician called Carlos Alomar but Alomar wasn't prepared to take the big drop in wages MainMan was offering. In June Bowie began the Diamond Dogs tour. His fans were shocked to see the 'Ziggy' hair and outfits gone in favour of floppy blonde hair, double-breasted suits and braces.

The first leg of the (US) Diamond Dogs Tour had elaborate staging that Bowie had been toying with since 1971. The $400,000 set included a backdrop of thirty-foot skyscrapers representing 'Hunger City', his dystopian metropolitan setting, plus a motorised bridge, a remote-controlled mirrored module and a cherry-picker in which Bowie would descend singing 'Space Oddity' into a radio mic disguised as a telephone. Bowie was obssessively attempting to assimilate the then-current cutting-edge R&B/soul into his repetoire and despite the outrage and negative criticism of his peers, he achieved it with some considerable success, as can be heard on the album David Live which was recorded on 14 & 15 July 1974.

When the first leg of the tour was finished Bowie went to Sigma Sound in Philadelphia to record a session for his next album. This time he managed to get Carlos Alomar to join him. The result of this first session, which was a conscious effort to make a soul-orientated album, was another new direction. Around this time Bowie realised that he was not an equal partner in his management company MainMan, as he had naively assumed, but an employee! Shortly after the tour resumed, Bowie was introduced to a young BBC director called Alan Yentob who wanted to make a documentary about him in America. The result, Cracked Actor, depicted Bowie thin, paranoid and frequently 'out of his gourd', as Bowie would later put it, on cocaine. It is a fascinating document of a man who was lucky to survive this period in his life.

In October 1974 Bowie decided to ditch his expensive set in its entirety and play the shows with an even more blatant soul sound. In November he filmed for the Dick Cavett Show in New York. Again it demonstrates the effect of excessive amounts of cocaine, although his addiction was to get even worse.

Next time: Lennon, more cocaine and The Tree Of Life