David Bowie: a subjective overview, part 3

David Bowie’s sudden right turn from freak-flag Stonesy rock to blue-eyed Philly soul remains, 35 years later, one of the more startling transitions in pop-music history. This transition is most notable on Changesonebowie, where the LP suddenly goes from “Rebel Rebel” to “Young Americans,” and if you’re not prepared it can snap your head around like a spring-loaded head-snapping machine. The transition is so complete and uncompromised, it’s hard to believe it’s even the same artist — until the distinctive voice comes in, which somehow doesn’t make the transition any easier to digest. Rather the opposite — if the Bowie of Diamond Dogs was the “real Bowie,” then this bouffanted smoothie with the gold bracelets and the smoldering cigarette must be some kind of put-on, right? Because if it’s not, what could this music possibly mean? And yet the music on Young Americans seems, if anything, more authentic and accomplished than the half-parody rock of the Ziggy Stardust era. Then, was Ziggy the real put-on? But then who was the long-haired prog-folk freak in the dress from the first three albums?

The obvious answer to all this, of course, is that there is no “real” David Bowie. He is, on some level, a dilletante and a magpie, he seemingly has no particular musical affiliation of his own. The development from Space Oddity to Diamond Dogs feels gradual and accumulative, each album building steadily on what came before, but then, suddenly, Young Americans seizes, with great authority and conviction, a whole other genre altogether, with nothing brought forward from the past. And then, on top of everything, it was a huge hit, bringing Bowie an entirely new audience. By all rights, it should have been a bold experiment or a failured detour, but instead it took a cult star and put him in the center of the mainstream.

The soul influence on Young Americans is obvious and pervasive, but almost as important is the influence of the young Bruce Springsteen. Bowie recorded both “Growin’ Up” and “It’s Hard to be aSaint in the City” and the panoramic, complex lyrics of “Young Americans” shows his influences — the first verse, with its doomed, working-class lovers making out in the car under the bridge is practically parody. What makes it impressive is not that it’s imitation but that it’s so well-executed, as though it were a long-lost early Springsteen song, performed by, say, Teddy Pendergrass. And if you were to remove the ridiculous, over-emphatic cover of John Lennon’s “Across the Universe” (honestly, if there was ever a song ill-suited to the soul-man shout-out treatment, it’s “Across the Universe”) and substituted Bowie’s version of Springsteen’s “Saint,” Young Americans would be instantly improved and have a lot more cohesion. (His version of “Growin’ Up” is another story.)

The other startling thing about Young Americans is the sudden improvement of Bowie’s songwriting skills. Of the eight songs on the album, fully half of them are well-made, with nary a clunker or doff line among them. This, oddly, presents a different problem: Bowie, on Young Americans, has digested his source material so thoroughly that some of the songs feel more like genre exercises than personal statements, songs anyone could have written. It shows great dedication to form but leaves little room for expression. They’re all enjoyable, but only “Fame” bursts through with a distinctive point of view. (There are two other songs of this stripe, “It’s Gonna Be Me” and “Who Can I Be Now?” that are just as good, if not better, but weren’t on the original LP for some reason, although either could have replaced the dreaded “Across the Universe.”) After “Young Americans,” the best, most startling song is “Somebody Up There Likes Me,” where Bowie takes one of his oldest motifs, the shape-shifting Nietzschean overman, and, somehow, manages to put him into the context of a sweet soul croon.

Station to Station is to Young Americans as Aladdin Sane is to Ziggy Stardust. The material is weaker, the production more ambitious, drama again substitutes for content and focus is again a problem. The title track sounds impressive, with its multiple sections and widescreen production, its vague-yet-serious-sounding lyrics. It, like the line says, drives like a demon from station to station, but I’m telling you, I’ve been listening to this song for 30 years now and I can’t tell what the hell he’s going on about.

I’ve been reading the Wikipedia article on Station to Station, which notes that the frosty, insincere nature of the singing is apparently due to the “character” of the Thin White Duke that Bowie was “playing” through the recording of the record, who apparently is not a very nice man. Well, it’s nice to know that this is supposed to be a “character,” but that doesn’t help me enjoy the record more. There are six songs on the LP, six, all of which are quite long, as though that were some kind of guarantee of seriousness, one of which is ten minutes long, or one-fourth of the total running time. One is a cover, three others are impersonal genre exercises not unlike the ones on Young Americans, well structured and but sung with more detachment and a kind of melodrama that leaves me cold. The most baffling of these is “Word on a Wing,” which Bowie (or the character he’s playing) would have us believe that he is a passionately devout Christian. I remain unconvinced.

That leaves “TVC 15,” which is, of course, a delight — weird, personal and idiosyncratic, with a beat and arrangement that kind of comes out of nowhere and sounds like nothing else on the record. I’m not sure exactly what happens in the song, I think it’s about a man who falls in love with TV set, then loses his girlfriend inside it. It’s not “Penny Lane,” but it comes closerto my idea of what good Bowie is.



17 Responses to “David Bowie: a subjective overview, part 3”
  1. Anonymous says:

    Interesting as always, although I don’t feel your committed behind this Bowie in the same way your last postings are, but then how could it be otherwise.
    I had seen Bowie perform in an arena around that first phase of his “philly/soul” sound, early enough to have been expecting someone/thing totally else, and he didn’t seem able to know what to do with scale – it’s hard to shift from powering an arena with rockist sounds to horns with black back-up singers and the rest it. It sort of…didn’t really captivate the way it does in production. The “Thin White Duke” had a vestige of the “strange” edge expected of Bowie at least, what with his coked-out Hitler ramblings that NME picked up on and so on… the “soul” direction got him the ability to cross-over into such gigs as, well, singing “Stay” on the Dinah Shore Show. (It’s over on YouTube of course).

    I’m surprised about the iggy-tv background story, I had always read that the TVC-15 was a song in honor of one of his then-studio machines, back then TVC was also “tape volume cache”, and that made some sense as, in essence, judging from cover of “station-to-station”, he was focusing on the soundproof of studio rooms, needed to block out the “real” world in order to recreate the soundtrack for it.

    Name finding still.

  2. mcbrennan says:

    I say it’s hip to be alive…

    I’ve always wanted to meet Bowie, have a coherent conversation with him, for the very reason you state so clearly: who the hell is this guy, anyway? What did he even want? Did he just want to be famous, tried aping everyone he could think of until something worked? Is his identity really that shattered, or am I being played? One thing I like about Bowie is when he’s done with a thing, he’s done. Mod poser, music hall, man-dress, cabaret, space alien, apparently unironic albino Nazi soul brother, Berlin heroin casualty, jaded old-at-32 Commedia dell’arte rock god, shiny blond MTV capitalist–he knew when to get in and he knew when to get out. Well, until about 1987. And even then I think he knew when to get out, he just didn’t know where to go. His instincts were right on the Tin Machine thing–stripped down, back to basics, Sales brothers, etc. It just didn’t quite…yes. Somebody should have given him a copy of Surfer Rosa. But I digress.

    I love the soul stuff (“Who Can I Be Now” is arguably the best cut on Young Americans, except it isn’t on the album, and perhaps because it’s too sincere–Bowie was obviously struggling with the titular question at the time)…I agree “Across The Universe” is awful, but John Lennon came to the studio to play on it–and there’s no way Bowie, clamoring all his life for that kind of imprimatur, could not put it on the record no matter how much it stinks. “Fame” is a great record but like John Lennon’s “Imagine” it always struck me as kind of hilarious–damn you, fame! sings the man on the television.

    I like Station To Station too. No, it’s not as good. That cat is high on that record, but what it lacks in coherence it makes up for in atmosphere and attitude. After googling the lyrics I think I was better off not knowing, because it’s clearly some kind of epic coke-fueled borderline-Aryan fantasia. But I love the ballads. I never noticed the lack of sincerity because if I started paying attention to lack of sincerity when David Bowie was singing it’d be impossible to listen to him anymore. One of my favorite later Bowie songs is his cover of “I Know It’s Gonna Happen Someday”, a Morrissey song that Moz allegedly wrote as a Bowie homage. I’m sure you know this–Bowie does a huge, reverb-soaked performance sort of snarkily attempting to “sing like Bowie“, and I know it was intended as a joke but it’s the best thing on that album. Well, except maybe You’ve Been Around. But again, I’m off on a tangent. An incoherent tangent. Like Station To Station. Only with less drugs and more Hostess Ho-Hos.

    I guess what I should say is “I also like David Bowie” and save everyone some time.

    • Todd says:

      Re: I say it’s hip to be alive…

      I was sitting here the other day with Bowie on shuffle on iTunes and “I Know it’s Gonna Happen Someday” came on, and I sat there for three minutes thinking “Oh, who wrote this? This isn’t Bowie, who is it? Is it Brel? Is it Weill? Who is it?” Then I went and checked and just about smacked myself on the forehead.

      Always had good taste, Mr. Bowie.

    • Anonymous says:

      Surfer Rosa

      And yet oddly, Bowie was such a supporter of the Pixies, why didn’t he pursue the kind of inside-out homage to Bowie that Frank Black’s lyrics and Pixie’s sound offered – when it was timely, rather than some years ago.

      • Todd says:

        Re: Surfer Rosa

        I would argue that there’s a little Pixies in Tin Machine, along with Sonic Youth and Glenn Branca and about ten yards of R-n-B-based hard rock wanking.

        • lupa says:

          Re: Surfer Rosa

          mmm Sonic Youth. Occasional songs of theirs remind me of Low.

        • mcbrennan says:

          Re: Surfer Rosa

          Yeah, I agree, but I think he missed the point. Or maybe he missed the point that in my infinite wisdom I wish he would have taken, which was brevity and clarity. Two things Branca and Sonic Youth do not universally embrace, come to think of it. I guess I was hoping for something more like “Bone Machine” out of Tin Machine, especially with the Lust For Life rhythm section on board. Bowie’s years-late cover of “Cactus” drags, it’s pendulous and overproduced and, like most of his later-career missteps, unbelievably frustrating. Somebody get that man some heroin.

          I kid. And I’m getting way ahead of your narrative. Sorry.

  3. I really like Station to Station. It’s always just clicked with me and I enjoy it and the six songs work for me, despite how fake and silly they get. It’s been my favourite Bowie record overall from the period. But I suddenly realize I’ve never listened to Young Americans, so I guess I should go ahead and do that now.

  4. jbacardi says:

    As you can see at left, I found a userpic that perfectly represents two of the three reasons I read your LJ. Now if Publick and Hammer could just work a Spielberg reference into an episode featuring the Sovereign of the Guild of Calamitous Intent, and someone did a screencap of it, then I’d have the perfect Todd Alcott LJ Experience icon!

    Anyway, I think what exactly Bowie wanted is hard to say…but as someone who seemed to be inspired by a number of different things, from films and music to painting, theatre and dance, I’d just say he was trying to creatively express this multitude of things the best way he knew how- plus I’m sure the narcissist in him enjoyed the attention the music biz gave him.

    “Bowie Blacks Out!” was CREEM magazine’s headline when covering the latest phase in DB’s career, which probably isn’t all that PC but amused me greatly (as CREEM did so often). Of course, his Soul move didn’t really come as such a surprise to anyone who endured David Live, the wan and terribly recorded successor to Diamond Dogs, and a document of his first attempts to get all Marvin and Curtis on the Ziggy kids. Also, a small part of this was Bowie’s noticing that Marc Bolan had begun working soul and gospel influences in his music via 1973’s Tanx, and ironically enough, his mostly awful 1974 release, the Ziggy Stardust-imitating Zinc Alloy and the Hidden Riders of Tomorrow. So to people who paid attention, it wasn’t quite such a shock, but it was perhaps, in how committed he seemed to be to the style. Me, once I got acclimated, I liked the ones you cite as well as the laid-back crooning of “Right” and “Win”- the latter containing the head-scratching line (at least to me): “…life lies dumb on its heroes”. Huh-wha? Americans, I think, has aged very well.

    Station, not so much, although I think it remains listenable. To me, it sounds like DB is casting around for a way to return to rockish music (still his comfort zone), but retain the soul music flourish and feel, hence the funky chickenscratch riffs and mellotron strings of “Stay”, and the accelerated beat of the last part of the title cut…and let’s not forget “Golden Years”, a nicely done funk workout that he performed on Soul Train. It’s a transitional work, and ultimately he decided to get off the coke and move more in the chilly electronic exerimantal stuff after hooking up with Eno.

    By the way, since I was so dismissive of David Live, I will say that Visconti got the chance to remaster and resequence it a couple of years ago, and the difference is startling. It sounds unbelievably better, and is a MUCH better listen now than it was in 1974…

    • Todd says:

      Yeah, it’s funny, I never bought David Live on LP because I had heard it was so bad, and then I bought the recent remaster and thought “Why, this isn’t bad at all, why do people hate this record so much?”

      • mcbrennan says:

        RCA was a notoriously miserly label for a major. I don’t have to tell you this–you’re an Elvis fan. You understand. Anyway, my understanding is that David Live was so hastily recorded that the band didn’t even know it was happening until the night of the recording, and they almost went on strike because they weren’t being paid reasonable live-album wages. And the technical side was so badly mangled that large portions of the backing tracks all had to be re-recorded. I haven’t heard it in years, I have the Rykodisc CD version somewhere but have not heard the Visconti remaster yet. I should attend to that.

        Also, is it just me? Does the cover of Stage not look like Mr. Bowie is performing the concert on the Death Star? Somewhere near the tractor beam controls.

  5. craigjclark says:

    I actually love Station to Station and listen to it a lot more than Young Americans. This is largely on the basis of the title track and “TVC 15,” but I’m also quite fond of “Golden Years,” which was played on classic rock radio all the time when I still listened to classic rock radio. And I’m not so quick to dismiss “Stay,” either, so I guess it just fires on more cylinders for me than it does for you.

  6. I’m much more of a Station to Station fan than one of Young Americans, but there you go.

    TVC is based on an incident when Iggy and Bowie were in a hotel in LA at one of their lowest nadirs — going psychotic (I’ll have to check my Iggy Pop biography to find out exactly on what), Iggy began to hallucinate that his girlfriend was being eaten by the television.

    It was pretty much around this time that David decided to get the hell out of Los Angeles.

    • Todd says:

      “TVC is based on an incident when Iggy and Bowie were in a hotel in LA at one of their lowest nadirs — going psychotic (I’ll have to check my Iggy Pop biography to find out exactly on what), Iggy began to hallucinate that his girlfriend was being eaten by the television.”

      Well then, why didn’t you say so, now it makes perfect sense.

  7. yetra says:

    Thank you so much for this thread. Bowie was my first musical obsession, as a young girl of 12-13, back in 1986. Well, after Sgt. Pepper’s and the soundtracks to Grease and the Sound of Music. And a youthful passionate affair with Duran Duran when I was 10, where I now see that my intense lust for Nick Rhodes was just paving the way for Bowie to enter and take over my life. I had the glam lust gene at an early age.

    In that year or so of hardcore obsession, I managed to purchase 27 bowie related tapes or albums. Bowie narrating Peter and the Wolf? You bet. Random german recordings. Aw yeah. Laughing Gnome, I ate it up. And the films! Of course, like nearly all young women of a certain age, I watched certain scenes from Labyrinth over and over and over. But I soon moved on to the harder stuff. i.e. The Hunger. A movie that I saw at least 20 times in a 1-2 year period. I devoured a trashy “bio” about his life, complete with details on his wife walking in on him in bed with Mick Jagger, etc…

    And then, in 1987, Never Let Me Down came out, and it was suddenly over. While I still theoretically loved Bowie, I never bought another album, and lost track of my huge collection. Musically, I expanded out to Bauhaus and The Cure and The Smiths and The Dead Kennedies, later The Pixies, and never really looked back.

    But my passion, while buried, still runs deep. I was completely blown away by Velvet Goldmine, as I suspect only someone who was intimately familiar with Bowie history, and who lost interest in his late 80s incarnation. I swooned in The Life Aquatic to the beauty of Seu Jorge’s covers. And I’ve recently been diving back into Hunky Dory (which I’ve been listening to while reading your subjective overviews). And oh, how happy I was to see him portray Andy Warhol in Basquiat, giving me flashbacks to his Andy Warhol song. And Bowie as Nikola Tesla? Or doing an stint on Extras? The man still has a hold on my heart, even if I did miss out on the last 20 years of his musical output.

    Sorry to babble on, but just had to share my Bowie experience, and my joy at reading your take.

    One thing that has only just started coming out in the comments on this post, is the influence that drug use surely had on his writing skills. It’s not too surprising that his earlier work was incredibly enjoyable, yet ridiculous upon scrutiny of the actual *words*, whereas some of his later “better” written songs lack that certain something, or too much influence from the wrong drugs. That, and of course, age, and falling in with the right or wrong crowds 🙂