David Bowie: a subjective overview, part 1


I am not a musicologist. I am a dramatist, and I am therefore prejudiced toward structure. My form is the screenplay, which means, you know, doubly so. This means, in terms of pop-music appreciation, I tend to appreciate the “well-made song.”

(One day, I will do an entire post on Avril Lavigne’s “Sk8ter Boi”.)

My prejudice toward structure sometimes puts David Bowie, the songwriter, at a disadvantage in my view. Restless, omnivorous and ironic: these are all excellent qualities for a songwriter to have, especially if one is arriving in the wake of Sgt Pepper, Highway 61 and Beggar’s Banquet. Excellent qualities to have, if one has the talent to back them up. Which, when I’m being critical, Bowie sometimes does not. Even in the recordings of his I enjoy the most, I’m often hard-pressed to overlook some embarrassing lyrical gaffe or overly-ambitious effect.

When talentis lacking, pop music often succeeds with attitude as a substitute. The young David Bowie is an acceptably talented songwriter, but he positively explodes with attitude. He’s punk, folk, cabaret and metal all at once, an alienated continental post-hippie hippie spaceman in a dress — territory, it is safe to say, staked out by few young songwriters of his era indeed. Bowie, like Dylan before him, made a refusal to be categorized a rallying cry. On these early albums, that impulse results in an electric eclectiscm; later, he would put that same impulse at the very center of his work.

If I were a musicologist, there would much work to do in order to address this work in its proper musical light, to place it within its history and time and to cite its influences on later artists’ work. But, as I say, I am not, and so I’m stuck with only my memories, the recordings and the way they hit me these days.

All that said, these first three albums, considering they were made by a young artist who hadn’t really figured out what he wanted to do yet, are pretty good, and fun to listen to, even in spite of (or because of) their structural shortcomings.

Space Oddity presents many of Bowie’s dominant personae of the time: there is the alienated spaceman of the title song, the Nietzschean supermen of “Cygnet Committee,” the sensitive poet of “Letter to Hermione,” the Dylanesque punk of “Unwashed and Somewhat Slightly Dazed,” the optimistic hippie of “Wild-eyed Boy from Freecloud,” “Memory of a Free Festival” and “An Occasional Dream,” the foursquare popist of “Janine” and the smug social critic of “God Knows I’m Good.” I find myself strangely fond of this album: Bowie’s songwriting is nothing if not ambitious, if sometimes overly so; he did not come to waste my time. The dense, trippy, overwrought narrative of the ridiculous “Cygnet Commitee” holds a special place in my heart, and even the silly “Wild-eyed Boy from Freecloud” and “Memory of a Free Festival” make me smile with their wide-eyed, pie-eyed beliefs. “Unwashed and Somewhat Slightly Dazed” is probably my favorite, in spite of lines like “I’m a phallus in pigtails and there’s blood on my nose” and the a-little-too-Dylanesque “I’ve got eyes in my backside that see electric tomatoes.” “Well-made song” candidates here are “Space Oddity” and “Janine,” both of which are catchy, personal and specific, although “Janine” over-reaches by cramming the word “collocate” into its pop-song structure.

The Man Who Sold the World I find I enjoy somewhat less. The “post-hippie hippie” prog-rock aspect of the young Bowie gets a little too much of the spotlight for my comfort here; I find “The Width of a Circle,” “Saviour Machine” and “The Supermen” pretty silly, and the pervasive references to Nietzsche, Lovecraft and Crowley seem pretentious, embarrassing and over-reaching. The “well-made song” is almost absent here, the lyrics built to stand on their own are anonymous and derivative when they are not dense and impenetrable.

Hunky Dory, on the other hand, sounds better and better as the years go by. Little apology is needed to enjoy most of the songs here. They are solid, personal and idiosyncratic. Bowie seizes a dynamic, unique point of view on Hunky Dory and doesn’t let go. A slight lyric like “Eight Line Poem” somehow is charming instead of irritating, dense, mystical pieces like “The Bewlay Brothers” and “Quicksand” are intriguing instead of overbearing. The tribute songs “Andy Warhol” and “Song for Bob Dylan,” as jejune as they are, radiate enthusiasm instead of pretense.

(And let it be said that David Bowie hasnever been an artist to deny his influences. There is an openly fannish aspect to his work; he openly name-checks influences better-known than himself, and rigorously promotes the careers the lesser-known, Lou Reed and Iggy Pop to name two. I’ve never read an account of David Bowie stealing someone’s idea and not giving credit — a pretty good record for a restless, magpie chameleon.)

There are a record five “well-made songs” on Hunky Dory: “Changes,” “Oh! You Pretty Things,” “Kooks,” “Life on Mars?” and “Queen Bitch.” These are songs that are both easily universal and resolutely personal — they could not have come from anyone other than David Bowie, yet they define and refine his concerns into accessible, easily-digested forms. The dour, pretentious “The Supermen” from Man is re-born as the bouncy, irresistable “Oh! You Pretty Things.” “Changes” is a clear, concise statement of purpose, almost an anthem. “Life on Mars?” is Dylanesque in the best way, making universal observations in a grounded, specific vocabulary.


22 Responses to “David Bowie: a subjective overview, part 1”
  1. eronanke says:

    “Life on Mars” is my second favorite Bowie song, and, reportedly, is one of his favorites too.

  2. What about his

    self-titled album with “The Laughing Gnome”?

  3. curt_holman says:

    Turn to face the strange

    If memory serves me right, rock critic Lester Bangs once said that David Bowie wrote the shittiest song lyrics this side of Bernie Taupin. I’m not saying I agree with it, but that line made me a lot more aware of Bowie’s lyrical missteps than I’d been before.

    Have you seen Velvet Goldmine? It features an enigmatic Bowie-esque rock star and his influence on his fans — with Ewan McGregor as, apparently, the Iggy Pop character.

    Most early Bowie I know from the ‘Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars’ and ‘ChangesOneBowie’ albums, so occasionally I’ll make happy “discoveries,” often through Wes Anderson films, it seems, like this one:


  4. jbacardi says:

    re: Man Who Sold the World, as a Bolan fan, I enjoyed “Black Country Rock”‘s Tyrannosaurus Rex piss-take; so much of Bowie’s early music was shaped by the rivalry he had with his friend, who rose to stardom before he did, but who crested and fell just as Bowie was ascending. As a Mick Ronson fan, much of World entertains me from the viewpoint of a guitar aficionado- his clever attempts to synthesize the British Blues boom sound (Peter Green, Eric Clapton, especially Jeff Beck) of ’69-’71 with Bowie’s earnest Bolan/Donovan-inspired lyrical concepts worked very well for me. I agree with you otherwise, but I think I just have always had a higher tolerance for pretension than most…

    • Todd says:

      As a screenwriter, I look at Mick Ronson as “production values.” The Man Who Sold the World is like a movie that has a bad script but is loaded with production values.

  5. charlequin says:

    “Life on Mars?” is one of the songs I’d play someone who wanted me to sum up Bowie’s career in as few steps as possible. The melding of the explicit teenage viewpoint to the larger-than-life theatricality, with a swerve into broad quality-of-life politics — it’s all in there.

  6. autodidactic says:

    I’ve been meaning to ask you: what did you think of Velvet Goldmine?

  7. mcbrennan says:

    Hunky Dory was his first for RCA–and really for me, the starting point of the Bowie I came to know and love. Space Oddity, The Man Who Sold The World, even the very odd David Bowie all have a few good tracks among several failed experiments, but I can say the same of Tin Machine or Black Tie White Noise. No, really, I can. Anyway, yes, Hunky Dory is a complete album worth of cohesive, tuneful, catchy, often excellent songs, and it is–along with Scary Monsters–the Bowie album I play the most and “identify with” the most.

    I enjoy Bowie’s failures, though, and I enjoy his pretensions and homages and his flat-out copying work off somebody else’s paper, which he does relentlessly. And more often than not, he manages to improve upon the original–certainly Bowie’s version of Anthony Newley or Marc Bolan (who I adore) has a layer of depth and self-awareness that the originals lacked. (I’m not so much a fan of Bowie’s seemingly endless Velvet Underground impressions, mostly because he seems to enjoy aping what I consider to be their worst songs.) In some ways I think Bowie’s a fitting muse for Venture Bros, actually, because at his best he does exactly what Jackson and Doc do–he takes some seemingly-derivative piece of source material, bends it until it reveals its seams and colors and component parts, comments on what he sees, comments on himself commenting on it, throws in references to a dozen seemingly disconnected things that imbue it with more possible meanings, and then leaves it to the audience to figure it out–because he’s already on to the next thing. When it works, it’s amazing, and even when it doesn’t quite gel, it’s still a fascinating thing to sift through.

    Very glad you’re doing this…you should really give the self-titled album a listen sometime. It has numerous “novelty” pieces but it also has some enjoyably melancholic songs and some lyrics and themes that, I think, really shine a light on his first few albums “proper”.

    • mcbrennan says:

      Oh, also: anecdote–

      When I got married I had a friend of mine assemble a couple of CDs of happy just-married type music to be played at the reception, and one of the main songs on the list was “Kooks”. But my friend was an idiot, and the old RCA Hunky Dory CD I gave him to work from was mis-tracked, so instead of “Kooks”, I celebrated the beginning of my marriage to the cheery sounds of “Quicksand”.

      Bowie tried to warn me.

    • Todd says:

      And, like the characters in The Venture Bros, Bowie lives a sadly diminished life in the shadow of someone else — in this case, his former self. Er, selves.

  8. craigjclark says:

    Hunky Dory is actually the earliest Bowie album I own — although for the longest time that honor went to Ziggy Stardust, which seemed like such a natural starting point that I never really considered getting his older records. Then I heard “Life on Mars?” somewhere (probably in a movie, but I couldn’t tell you which one) and realized that I had to add it my collection. I’m just happy I was able to find a copy of the Rykodisc release. The subsequent remasters may sound better, but I’m cuckoo for bonus tracks.