David Bowie: a subjective overview part 2

Pop music albums don’t get much better than Ziggy Stardust. The hippie leanings of Bowie’s previous three albums vanish completely, his mystic pretensions have been fully digested and formed into nuggets of pure pop gold. The sound is crunchy, compelling and immediate, the songs are short, punchy, direct, concise, catchy and irresistible.hitcounter Lyrical gaffes are kept to a minimum, and there is much to delight in. Cliches are avoided or inverted, the sense of drama is thrilling and palpable.

Ziggy Stardust is, of course, a “concept album.” What this means, what this has ever meant, is still vague to me. Theoretically, there is a “plot” somewhere in Ziggy, having to do with the world ending and a pop star who is also an alien savior overlord. That sounds like enough concept to fill an album, yet even with its short running time (the whole world-ending thing seems to have pushed Bowie to cut the fat from his songs), Ziggy takes time for detours like “It Ain’t Easy,” “Soul Love” and “Suffragette City.” (And, I think, even “Star” and “Lady Stardust,” two songs about performers who don’t seem to be central to the “story” presented.)

As a song cycle, it is both over-ambitious and too thin. The “plot,” such as it is, stalls out for long periods before lurching forward in the space of a few lines here and there, when it does not back-track and repeat itself. There’s a reason why it has not been turned into a Broadway show.

So Ziggy Stardust should not be compared to Mahagonny-Songspiel. Rather, it should be compared to its rough contemporaries Sgt Pepper, Tommy and Animals, all of which it compares to very well indeed. Plot is sparse, but drama is abundant. Ziggy Stardust oozes with drama.

There is not a dud song here. “Five Years” sets the scene beautifully — what could be more arresting than the quiet, understated opening, wherein it is revealed, in a dry, matter-of-fact tone, that the world is about to end? The narrator starts the song cold and dispassionate, almost journalistic, before getting caught up in the emotion of the situation, taking us along with him.

“Moonage Daydream” introduces the title character with the unforgettable lines “I’m an alligator, I’m a mama-papa coming for you, I’m a space invader, I’ll be a rock-n-rollin’ bitch for you.” To which, all I can say is “hey — sign me up.” “Starman” continues the Nietzschean-overman motif, a motif that shows up so often in Bowie’s work that I’m inclined to think that he really believes in this stuff. Conviction leaps out of the speakers on Ziggy Stardust, whether it is half-baked, jejune or just plain silly. Bowie plays with masks and identity here a lot, and will continue to do so for the remainder of his career, but it doesn’t get much more direct and passionate than the “Gimme your hands!” of “Rock-n-roll Suicide.”

Aladdin Sane feels rushed and thin in comparison, almost a step backwards. The songs are generally weaker, and many pretensions return shored up with the production values of extravagant arrangement. Focus is a major problem, radically different song forms sit uncomfortably next to each other. Drama turns to grandiloquence and self-importance, and there are even signs of padding — apparently, Bowie decided the world wasn’t going to end quite yet after all. In the lyrical gaffe department, it doesn’t get much sillier, or more pretentious, than “Time, he flexes like a whore, falls wanking to the floor.” This is, to put it mildly, crap — unless, of course, Bowie is referring to the magazine, in which case, you know, right on.

Pin Ups, Bowie’s album of British Invasion covers, is, generally speaking, a delight, although only a 27-year-old alien savior overman with one eye on the apocalyptic clock would feel nostalgia for songs released a mere six years previous.

I have a soft spot in my heart (or is it my head?) for Diamond Dogs, even though it is sillier and more pretentious than Aladdin Sane and conceptually weaker than Ziggy Stardust.  Plotlines and characters are introduced and dropped, folded into other songs or ignored.  Somehow its incoherence and ambition, the way it juxtaposes the intimate with the societal, the personal with the political, are intriguing instead of off-putting.  “This ain’t rock-n-roll, this is genocide!” is certainly a startling rallying cry, and there is a weird, private love story winding its way through the songs that I find compelling in its incompleteness.  There are few, if any, “well-made songs” here, only the jagged wreckage of half-formed notions, but that wreckage I find still compelling 34 years later.

And let me step aside for a moment here and talk about cover art.  The four album-cover designs pictured above are all pretty flawless, except for the type on Aladdin Sane and Pin Ups.  Bowie had already done the no-title-on-the cover thing for Hunky Dory, why did he (or, more likely, the label), think they needed it for these LPs?  The fonts do no one any favors, and the design elements just kind of hang there looking embarrassed, marring the images instead of enhancing them.  You’ve got that face, in that make-up, why would a record company think they also needed to remind the buyer whose record this is with clumsy type?

I found this at my local used CD store yesterday for $6.99.  I haven’t had a chance to fully digest it, but let me start off by saying that it’s nowhere near as bad as I feared.  “The Laughing Gnome” isn’t even on it, and neither is “London Bye Ta-ta,” which speaks well of any album.


8 Responses to “David Bowie: a subjective overview part 2”
  1. robjmiller says:

    In my opinion, Bowie really peaks in 71-72 with the recordings of Hunky Dory and Ziggy Stardust. His British pop sensibilities mixed with the obviously heavy Velvet Underground influence truly stands out as some of the best rock the early 70’s had to offer (only really outshined by Pink Floyd’s Meddle and Dark Side, and arguably Mahavishnu Orchestra’s The Inner Mounting Flame).

  2. jbacardi says:

    Diamond Dogs is a grower, no doubt. I was immediately taken by the title track when I first heard it back in 1975, and “Rebel Rebel” was good, but nothing else grabbed me until a couple of years later when I kept getting “Rock and Roll With Me” stuck in my head, and led me to play it once in a while when I was in a Bowie mood and Heroes wouldn’t satisfy.

    It’s such a patchwork album though, that I wish Ronson could have been on board for it, if nothing else but to spice up the “production values”…

    And obviously I like Aladdin Sane a lot more than you seem to. Again, I guess I’m just a production values kinda guy!

  3. edo_fanatic says:


    Back to Bowie again I see? Have you read Watchmen? They’re creating a movie you know? You should check it out if you haven’t. seriously. You’d like it.

  4. mr_noy says:

    I’ve got a soft spot in my heart for Aladdin Sane even though I generally agree with you about its flaws. I’ll grant you that “Time” is such an over the top piece of cabaret schtick that it feels like Bowie is lampooning Weill/Brecht show tunes more than he is emulating them. Still, tunes like “Watch that Man”, “Panic in Detroit” and “Cracked Actor” rock harder than much of Bowie’s material before or since and there’s a raw, almost garage band sound that Bowie rarely captured in the studio. I also think that “Lady Grinning Soul” (especially if he had titled it “Your Living End”) is the best Bond song never to appear in a Bond film.

    Bowie’s attempts at creating song cycles strung together, no matter how tenuously, has always been spotty at best. Ziggy Startdust never quite gels as a narrative and despite it’s brilliance Diamond Dogs is a really weak and confused attempt to dramatize Orwell’s 1984. I know that Orwell’s widow refused to grant permission to Bowie so he ended up changing the concept but he could have made the record less muddled by, you know, dropping all the 1984 references. That being said, I’m still startled at Bowie’s audacity on the song “1984”. Who else would craft a song about Orwell’s masterpiece by lifting the string section of “Papa Was a Rolling Stone” and crooning pretentiously dire lyrics over a funk beat?

    I’m still fond of 1. Outside, probably because it was the first “new Bowie” album I ever owned. There’s another concept album that never quite got off the ground despite having a few interesting ideas. I believe that was supposed to be a multi-album story but he never past 1. which is probably for the best even though I’ll never know if the Art Crime Division ever found Baby Grace Blue’s killer or whether Leonard and the Minotaur are one and the same. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on Bowie. I’m glad to know that I’m not the only one who both loves and is embarrassed by his work. Most of his albums, even the recent ones, contain just enough interesting material that I haven’t been able to write him off altogether.

    “My set is so amazing it even smells like a street.” I forgot to comment on your use of quote for the jump. I think “Sweet Thing”/”Candidate”/”Sweet Thing (Reprise)” is one of Bowie’s finest hours. I’ve got a whole visual story playing in my head every time I hear that section of the album and I’ll be damned if I now what the song or the images I see are about. Chalk it up to the power of music I guess.

  5. charlequin says:

    Aladdin Sane really is a weaker album than Ziggy by a huge margin, though I have to put in plugs for both “Panic In Detroit” (“Looked a lot like Che Guevara / Drove a diesel van” is such a concise character portrait) and “Drive-In Saturday.” Then you have that bizarre cover of “Let’s Spend the Night Together” near the end.

    I’m looking forward to what you have to say about the Berlin albums. You hold that Lodger is the best of them, right?

  6. craigjclark says:

    Pin-Ups is the only one from this period that I’ve never been compelled to purchase, but that’s because it’s a rare covers album that doesn’t underwhelm me. I also held off on Aladdin Sane long enough that I had to settle for the 1999 EMI/Virgin remaster, but at least I didn’t miss out on any bonus tracks.

  7. Anonymous says:

    “Time, he flexes like a whore, falls wanking to the floor.” This is, to put it mildly, crap — unless, of course, Bowie is referring to the magazine, in which case, you know, right on.

    Seeing that song in the live concert film, I’m thinking maybe from “Cracked Actor”, one recalls while not a “classic”, he was writing for a specific output, Brecht/Weill channeled but for the kinds of live-stage persona he wanted in between his rocker-numbers and so on, and this was more just to vamp, the opening cabaret number he needed, where he could dramatically light a cigarette and all that embellishment, and that performed live at least as seen on film, really did the job – certainly if one sees the reactions of his droogy-freaky fans of the moment. Broadway tunes don’t stand lyrical scrutiny either, but can be amazing. He’s a showman.

    I think of “Alladin Sane” as a way out of Ziggy (see the film, “Cracked Actor”) while it solidifies his fanbase of that moment.. both sonically and in what passes for the sensation of some kind of mini-plots of his songs, I don’t think one should stare too hard to analyze, they feel ordered and produced to structure the sensation-based world of Bowie and his listeners, to offer a cohesive listening place – “Watch that Man”, “Panic in Detroit”, “Drive in Saturday”, and so on. It is infused with glam but more twisted than radio-fare. Radio production values of that time really rule – just listen to Mott “all the young dudes” and compare to how “Pin-Ups” or “Alladin Sane” sound. It wasn’t the same world, although the author of the song was the same.

    The production mix focuses on synthesis of voices along with his voice, as opposed to the almost airless solo voice and sharp details of instruments heard in the world of Ziggy. There is more an opening to a sense of sing-along “us” with “him”, a group dynamic. His various voices (sneer, gravitas, out and out rocker) need a lighter touch behind them to work, and overall it felt cohesive by way of a subtler, while certainly more “odd” sonic template which is pretty complex for radio-friendly album of that time period.

    As for “Pin-Ups” – oddly enough I just re-listened to it and found the productions now SO thin, especially on the Kinks cover “where have all the good times gone”. The chords are almost a non-entity in the idea of the song, and lacking any power in the mix, the drums hardly distinct as well, I suppose because the accent is back on his voice, which now has no weight or timbre really for the “reading” of what the song implies. It’s…irony, distance to the Davie’s perhaps-irony, and so on… too much really, and not enough. Ambivalence.

    Then all of the album is like proto-Cars, straightening out songs till they are just on the verge of becoming machines, only here not like Ocaseks powered-up with FM-ready bass-heavy and new wave tempo, but still keeping glammed up, a bit slow feeling while keeping it lighter to support his less resonant voice timbre and phrasing.

    I would add that the one contributing newness-factor of Bowie during this period was his approach to playing saxophone, which would go on to influence later bands.

    The tv-special he did with some of those numbers, as well singing “I got you babe” (I guess with Marianne Faithfull if I recall) and so on, not only confirms it’s a glam-homage, now shifted even to TV-cabaret, but it’s him clearing up one act, to move onto celebrity-icon and other experiments. So it makes a kind of interesting transitional album to understand where he was at and where he is going, which is pretty good for a covers-album.

    Diamond Dogs, to me, has a couple of numbers, but overall I just recall thinking, “what, that haircut again?” and there was alot of fast forwarding between songs on the cassette.

    Mr. I SDHAN