David Bowie Retrospective Series – Part 3: Rock and Roll Star

In preparation for The Next Day, David Bowie’s first album of newly-recorded material in ten years, I’ll be taking a retrospective look at each of the singer’s official studio albums ranging from 1967 to the upcoming release date of March 12, 2013.

Hunky Dory

After delving into the bleak material of The Man Who Sold the World, it might be natural to wonder what kind of tone would be in store for the next David Bowie release. The answer? Well, the record is called Hunky Dory… that should be a bit of a hint from the start.

1971’s Hunky Dory has become somewhat of a landmark in Bowie’s career with many fans that look upon it as the best album of the singer’s career. And as it is one of his most pop-oriented albums, perhaps it’s easy to see why this release has garnered such praise. But is it really Bowie’s best album?

Well, it does certainly start off strong. The album begins with the immediately recognizable “Changes,” a poignant pop song about artistic exploration which forecasts a path of reinvention that characterizes much of Bowie’s career. And appropriately, many of the songs that follow keep up the high standard set by the opening track. “Oh! You Pretty Things” is a fun piano-driven song that lyrically returns to some of the ideas relayed in “The Supermen.” “Let me make it plain, you gotta make way for the Homo Superior,” Bowie sings.

“Life on Mars” is perhaps the track that stands just a little bit above the rest of the tracks on the album. Starting off with nothing more than Bowie’s vocals set against piano accompaniment and building to orchestral climaxes, the song is one of the most powerful on Hunky Dory. While the lyrics are admittedly difficult to interpret, the exact meaning isn’t nearly as important as the grandiose imagery that it evokes. “Take a look at the law man beating up the wrong guy. Oh man, wonder if he’ll ever know, he’s in the best-selling show. Is there life on Mars?”

The rest of the album continues to incorporate an impressive variety of songs. “Kooks” is a silly, but sweet song written for Bowie’s newborn son; “Song to Bob Dylan,” “Andy Warhol,” and “Queen Bitch” all pay tribute to his influences of the time (“Queen Bitch” being a nod to Lou Reed and The Velvet Underground); while “Quicksand” and “The Bewlay Brothers” provide some of the more darkly provocative material for the album.

There really aren’t many negative things to point out about this album. “Fill Your Heart,” the only song not written by Bowie, is perhaps not as impactful as some others, but it still is well done, and it provides some lighthearted energy after a more brooding track like “Quicksand.”

Hunky Dory is indisputably a classic album in Bowie’s catalog. The album excels at remaining engaging from start to finish, and there are certainly some masterpieces to be found on this tracklist. I personally wouldn’t go as far as saying it’s Bowie’s greatest album, but it is most definitely among the best work of his career.

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Highlights: “Changes,” “Oh! You Pretty Things,” “Life on Mars?,” “Quicksand,” “Andy Warhol,” “Queen Bitch,” “The Bewlay Brothers”
A Very Bowie Moment:
Pretty much the whole “Life on Mars” song.
Best Edition:
Again, the Rykodisc edition might be the one to go with as it has a number of bonus tracks like a demo version of “Quicksand” and the non-album track “Bombers.”

The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars

If Hunky Dory suggested anything, it was that David Bowie was making his way to becoming a prolific singer-songwriter in the avenue rock and pop music. But with The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, it becomes abundantly obvious that he has arrived.

The 1972 album reveals Bowie tackling the first concept record of his career, and it pays off quite well.

The story follows the path of Ziggy Stardust, an otherworldly rock and roll icon who makes it his mission to bring hope to a world on the brink of apocalypse. Rising to messianic heights, Ziggy and his band, the Spiders from Mars, live a promiscuous and risky rock and roll lifestyle until Ziggy falls apart under the weight of his own ego.

Okay, the story sounds absurd when summarized, but that’s not nearly as important as how it plays out through the music.

Starting with the bleak portrait of a city on the brink of collapse, continuing to the shattering impact of Ziggy Stardust making his entrance in “Moonage Daydream,” and ending with the defeated cries of a “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide,” Ziggy Stardust stands as an immortal album from start to finish.

I realize that this is a very brief review of the Ziggy Stardust album, but that’s only because I went into much greater detail and fan boy-gushing in a previous blog entry. If you’d like to see my in-depth review of this record, click here.

My Rating: 5 out of 5
Highlights: …Every last track. Sorry, I can’t be objective about this one
A Very Bowie Moment:
“We can’t dance, we don’t talk much, we just ball and play, but then we move like tigers on Vaseline.” (…what?) – “Moonage Daydream”
Best Edition:
If you can get your mitts on a copy, I’d recommend the 2 disc 30th anniversary edition for the inclusion of tracks like a re-recording of “The Superman,” the Jacques Brel song “Amsterdam,” and the non-album tracks “Velvet Goldmine” and “John, I’m Only Dancing.”

Aladdin Sane

After reaching the heights of Ziggy Stardust, I imagine it would have been interesting to see the route David Bowie was going to take as a follow-up effort.

Aladdin Sane, released in 1973, could easily be seen as somewhat of a continuation of the Ziggy Stardust mythos, and indeed it seems like that might have been Bowie’s intention. He has since described the album’s concept as “Ziggy goes to America,” perhaps as a reaction to his experiences while touring the last album.

As such, this record isn’t as much of a conceptual piece as it is a collection of songs that expand upon the idea of the Ziggy Stardust character. Incidentally, this is what makes Aladdin Sane unique and what works against it at the same time.

There are certainly some classic songs incorporated in the album’s scope. “Watch That Man” begins the album with a rollicking party-like atmosphere before sinking into the melancholia of the stark title track which incorporates a very effective and sort of mystical piano accompaniment by Mike Garson. “Panic in Detroit” is an interesting depiction of riots and revolutionaries, and it stands as a simply intriguing guitar-based tune. “The Prettiest Star” is a nice glam-y reinterpretation of an earlier Bowie song from the Space Oddity era, and “Cracked Actor” is a hard-rocking song of sleaze that more explicitly evokes the images of rock excess hinted at during the previous Ziggy Stardust album.

Along with the straightforward R&B track “The Jean Genie,” “Drive-In Saturday” remains one of the more celebrated tracks on the album, and that’s with good reason. The song is delivered with an appealing kind of glam doo-wop style that makes its story (wherein a post apocalyptic race re-learns the idea of procreation by watching old porno movies) come off as oddly romantic.

If Aladdin Sane has one single track to stand out as its centerpiece, it would be the track “Time.” Certainly the most theatric song on the record, “Time” incorporates a sort of cabaret feel with an unmistakable glam rock slant. With Bowie’s outstanding vocal performance, Mick Ronson’s raucous guitar solo as an accent, and the quasi-sing-along that closes the song, this is a piece of work that stands out slightly above the rest in this collection.

Similar to Hunky Dory and, to a lesser extent, Ziggy Stardust before it, Aladdin Sane’s weakest moment lies in its cover song (which doesn’t bode well for the next album… but that’s another story). “Let’s Spend the Night Together” is Bowie’s somewhat smuttier rendition of the Rolling Stones’ classic single that seems like it might have been more effective as a fun live song rather than as an inclusion on a studio album.

All in all, Aladdin Sane is an enjoyably diverse collection of songs, but oddly, that is a quality that also works to its detriment. That is to say, although songs like the opening “Watch That Man” and the eerily romantic closing track “Lady Grinning Soul” are undoubtedly effective, the album as a whole feels somewhat disjointed.

Perhaps this record works best as a simple extension of Bowie’s exploration of the Ziggy Stardust character. There is some great material to be found here, certainly, but as a complete standalone album, it’s slightly less than fulfilling.

My Rating: 4 out of 5
“Watch That Man,” “Drive-In Saturday,” “Cracked Actor,” “Time,” “The Jean Genie,” “Lady Grinning Soul”
A Very Bowie Moment:
“He says he’s a beautician, sells you nutrition, And keeps all your dead hair for making up underwear” – “The Jean Genie”
Best Edition:
Like Ziggy Stardust, the best edition of Aladdin Sane is the 30th anniversary reissue. This release includes “All the Young Dudes,” the sax version of “John, I’m Only Dancing,” and a number of live recordings.

Stephen Wilger