I really meant to get around to this sooner! Listening wise I’m already well into part 3, but I’ve been busy so I haven’t had a chance to update here. We’re hitting the real meat of Bowie’s career here, the topsy-turvy years of his glam phase-backslide-into-rock-and-drugs era. There’s some heaters in this collection, and some genuine blind spots in my listening history. Onto Aladdin Sane!
ALADDIN SANE (1973)
Ugh, this is a fantastic album but it’s impossible to look at without context. The point of this series is to watch how an artist transforms over time while also judging all of their albums individually, but there’s no way to listen to Sane as anything but a continuation of Stardust. And it’s a lesser one at that. This was Bowie’s first album as a megastar, written on tour, and it shows – the songs are punchier and slicker, but clearly recorded and mixed hastily and lacking in the substance that made Stardust such a classic.
There’s a deep irony here, in that the songs on Sane individually hit harder and more concisely than those on Stardust, and they come even closer to defining the glam rock sound. And yet, the whole doesn’t match the parts. This is a solid and fun rock album, but the first album in Bowie’s career that’s felt mandatory. Not directionless, not uninspired, but still mandatory. The songs are easy, empty and rushed. This is apparent immediately on the opener “Watch That Man” – a great, boisterous rock song, but one filled with repetitive, shallow lyrics. The album that follows is mostly that, punchy rock songs with tired lyrics and rushed production. It’s even more paradoxical – or possibly not – that the album’s best song is “Time,” a patient ballad with a committed vocal performance. It feels like a sign of the Bowie to come a few years later. The closer, “Lady Grinning Soul,” is an equally great, manic ballad that shows this album would’ve been better with more devotion and patience.
This album was inspired by both America and the Rolling Stones, with Bowie going so far as to include a cover of “Let’s Spend the Night Together.” It feels like DEVO’s cover of “Satisfaction,” in that it takes a signature Stones song and dilutes everything that made it a classic to turn it into a different entity altogether. Unlike the DEVO cover, I wouldn’t go back and listen to the Bowie one again, but it is decent. Anyways, that Stones influence is palpable here, with a bunch of flashy, rough blues-rock songs. I was surprised looking at the track list to see that the album only produced one Bowie classic – “The Jean Genie” – but after listening I understand why. What should have been a landmark album instead feels like a placeholder. On it’s own, it’s a fine record, but it’s Bowie treading water and I don’t think it would’ve made him a star if he wasn’t already. A couple of these songs really do slap, though.
Favorite non-hit track: “Time”
This one will be quick – if Bowie didn’t spend a whole lot of time on it, why should I? Pinups is a contract-filling covers album, made up of mostly classic rock tracks that influenced Bowie. It’s not bad, really, just a mostly unnecessary listen.
What is curious though, is that this is one of the only albums where we actually get to see the Spiders of Mars in action! Bowie makes an effort to glam up some of these songs, including the great opening one-two punch of “Rosalyn” and “Here Comes the Night.” The songs are mostly older classic rock – Yardbirds, Who, Them, Kinks – which feels antithetical to the Stardust character. Bowie spends some songs ‘updating’ them for a glam era and some doing straight covers, which is very confounding. It can’t help but feel pointless. He tries to outweird Pink Floyd on their “See Emily Play” – and fails. He slows down The Who’s “I Can’t Explain” to make it his own and, well, it’s a lot worse. The beauty of that song is the rocking energy within the crisp, clean instruments and production, not the lyrics or anything.
I actually think I like the tracks where Bowie plays it safe more, although those are even more pointless. His cover of “Sorrow” is genuinely great. He tries another Who track in “Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere” and plays it so close he actually sounds like Roger Daltrey. And, as much as this album is nothing more than contract fulfillment recorded on the road, it is still important in context to the Spiders of Mars and end of the glam era. It’s an era associated with Bowie – yet one he was not active in for very long and with limited successes.
Favorite non-hit track: Uh, N/A?
DIAMOND DOGS (1974)
This record is a mess, but not without some real highlights. It’s clear at this point that Bowie isn’t the solidified superstar I was under the impression he was in 1974; this album has too many directions and characters, loose half-inspired threads and competing influences. It’s very good, but it’s a couple different albums at once. I think it works best when it tries to work within glam but shed the Ziggy Stardust elements. The Spiders From Mars were gone, and the fact that Ziggy makes appearances here just feels somewhat stale. It feels like a step forward, a step laterally and a step back all at once.
The general conceit for this album, an apocalyptic one, works well. It’s a darker direction for the generally poppy sound of Bowie. The fact that he wanted to center it around 1984 but couldn’t get full permission from the Orwell estate is unfortunate and unintentionally funny, especially as the back-to-back tracks “1984” and “Big Brother” come off more like a weird obsession than an album concept. But, the theme really does set groundwork for glam and punk; it’s easy to forget how instrumental Bowie was in the latter. The album is at its best when Bowie is loose and loud. The title track is a fun, bombastic mess. “Sweet Things” rocks, and the song’s reprise leading right into “Rebel, Rebel” is an equally rambunctious sound. Meanwhile, more conventional tunes like “Rock N Roll With Me” are just disappointing. They sound plastic and empty, years behind the time.
This is ultimately a crucial record in the Bowie catalog, as it sees him move away from the glam sound, just as he was really perfecting the lyrical aesthetics. The album’s raw and rowdy elements really are fantastic, and directly inspirational to a forthcoming generation of loud bands. It’s the end of Ziggy Stardust and the end of this period of Bowie’s career. If this one had just been more cohesive than it would be an all-timer. But, it’s a still great listen and one that stamped Bowie as a legend.
Favorite non-hit track: “Diamond Dogs”
YOUNG AMERICANS (1975)
I’ll never understand when artists don’t put effort into an album cover. The covers of these 70’s Bowie records could not be more indicative of the music underneath. Diamond Dogs has the classic, loud painting of a half-dog-half-Bowie creature. Young Americans? Just a simple photo of Bowie smoking. With the glam era and the Ziggy Stardusted off his shoulders, Bowie is free to embrace an American soul sound. It’s a direction that’s been hinted at already, with some incongruous tracks on other albums that may have worked better here. It’s a pleasant, if forgettable listen.
This is clearly an album that Bowie wanted to make. With the power of hindsight, it’s a wild move to shed yourself of the zeitgeist-founding, sultry and disorderly persona in favor of porno music. But, Bowie has always had soul elements, and he’s finally devoting full time to their exploration. Young Americans is ultimately the most digestible Bowie record yet.
Most of these tracks are pretty similar and not wholly different than other soul songs. “Right,” “Somebody Up There Likes Me” and “Can Your Hear Me” are the most effective ones, especially due to the inclusion of backing vocalists. Bowie’s voice maybe isn’t the best on this record, and strong arguments can be made that everything sounds thin. It’s not a classic soul record, and if you removed Bowie’s obvious personal desire to record it, it’d probably a failure for the genre. There is also the bizarre inclusion to include a cover of “Across the Universe” – with Lennon! It’s not a good cover, it’s straight up bad, it doesn’t fit on the record, and it follows in the heels of a full covers album. The album’s fascination with the Beatles – Lennon also co-wrote “Fame” and there’s the shoutout on the title track – feels divorced from the American soul influences. It’s yet another Bowie record where competing influences cannot interact peacefully. But, that was not nearly enough to detract me from pleasantly enjoying this one.
Favorite non-hit track: “Right”
STATION TO STATION (1976)
This I know for a fact was not a first-time listen; my dad had this one on CD growing up and I used to stare dumbfounded at what a ten-minute song could be. This is the result of Bowie in the throes of a cocaine addiction, one so bad that he’d later admit he has no recollection of even recording this album. That’s especially remarkable given how strong it and patient it is.
Americans gave Bowie some freedom to do what he wanted on his next album, and the result is a collection of fewer, longer tracks that incorporate a mix of everything Bowie had done up to that point. It’s a pretty genius album, and easily his most layered and textured so far. Gone are the direct lyrics in favor of dense poetry, gone are the simple guitar or synth rhythms in favor of complex, multi-instrument tracks with healthier runtimes.
The A side is certainly better – all three tracks shine. The title track is one of the most ambitious songs in the Bowie catalog (matched only by “Blackstar” 40 years later), with a 10+ minute runtime and patient, complex rhythms. “Golden Years” was the hit, and for good reason – it’s the catchiest track on the release. “Word On A Wing” is also a pure standout. Side B is less memorable, though it does include the infamous “TVC15,” with Bowie at his most nonsensical.
It’s fantastic, just a brilliant album even if it’s not the easiest one to listen to. Up next: The Berlin trilogy and the pop downfall!
Favorite non-hit track: “Word On A Wing”
Thanks for reading! I hope at least one person has as much fun reading these as I do writing them. Feel free to check out the first installment in the Bowie series!
By Andrew McNally