David Bowie Retrospective Series – Part 4: Just a Hint of Mayhem

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.

Pin Ups

pinupsHunky Dory, Ziggy Stardust, and Aladdin Sane – Not all of these albums are perfect, but considering the material that was presented on each of these releases, David Bowie had achieved a pretty strong track record at this point in time. And that’s what makes the next album a bit confusing.

Pin Ups is an album released in 1973 – a few months after the infamous onstage retirement of the Ziggy Stardust character at London’s Hammersmith Odeon. But despite Ziggy supposedly being put to rest, that eyebrow-less face and red mullet does look vaguely familiar doesn’t it? And apart from former drummer Mick Woodmansey being replaced by new recruit Aynsley Dunbar, the Spiders from Mars are back here as well.

However, while Bowie’s look and backing band are quite similar, the songs on Pin Ups certainly aren’t cut from the same cloth as Aladdin Sane or Ziggy Stardust. On a few of Bowie’s previous albums (and continuing on to most of his albums still to come), he has chosen to include cover versions of songs, and in keeping with this spirit of reinterpretation, Pin Ups is a release that focuses solely on this kind of material.

As an album of cover songs, Pin Ups has a unique place in Bowie’s discography. But, for what it is, the album does have some things working in its favor. The instrumentation is done quite well, and Bowie’s vocal delivery is rather impressive. His voice actually fits in with these 60s-era songs nicely, and the choice of songs on the tracklist provides a nice range of moods for the singer to travel through.

Songs like The Pretty Things’ “Rosalyn” and The Easybeats’ “Friday on my Mind” stand as simple, fun rock and roll songs, Pink Floyd’s “See Emily Play” serves as a more trippy and experimental track, and The Merseys’ “Sorrow,” perhaps the one standout track on the album, provides a nice opportunity for Bowie to show off some of his crooning prowess.

Pin Ups is a fun album, but by that same token, it’s not much more than a fun album. It’s interesting that Bowie chose to release an album like this considering that on his three previous albums, it could arguably be said that his ventures into cover songs have normally been less effective than his original material. But, the songs here are often enjoyable, and they are certainly well made. The problem with this album is that it’s simply more forgettable when compared to the rest of Bowie’s pieces of work.

If you’re looking for a classic album or an expansion of the Ziggy Stardust mythos, Pin Ups probably isn’t quite what you’re looking for. But, similar to the Early On album, if you’re a huge Bowie fan or just a fan of 60s era rock music, it’s worth checking out.

My Rating: 3 out of 5
Highlights: “Rosalyn,” “See Emily Play,” “Friday on my Mind,” “Sorrow”
Best Edition: Any one will do. Normally I would recommend the Rykodisc version, but the extra tracks included there are also on the 30th anniversary set for Diamond Dogs and Ziggy Stardust.


Diamond Dogs

Pin Ups was a lighthearted party record, sure. But when the sounds of an anguished scream ring out and a spoken narration sets the scene for the dystopian Diamond Dogs, it’s clear that this record didn’t stay on the course of its predecessor.

Interestingly, Bowie’s 1974 release was made on a slightly smaller scale than it was originally intended. After the sessions for the Pin Ups album, Bowie had reportedly intended to write a theatric musical production of George Orwell’s famous novel, 1984. It was after Orwell’s widow denied Bowie the writes to the book that the project was scrapped and work on the album that would become Diamond Dogs began. As such, much of the material on Diamond Dogs does, intentionally or not, capture some of the foreboding mood of Orwell’s masterpiece.

Like Pin Ups before it, much of this album is informed by the ever-present shadow cast by Ziggy Stardust, and this is prominently displayed with the record’s provocative cover image.

And while most of the songs do have a distinctive glam rock edge to them, they are certainly delivered with a grittier and more primitive sound, and that is due to one of the qualities that makes Diamond Dogs most unique: Mick Ronson and The Spiders from Mars are nowhere to be found on this recording, and Bowie has taken the role of the main guitarist as well as the lead singer. Rather than being a mark against the album, Bowie’s less polished guitar sound lends itself nicely to the album’s overall tone.

Diamond Dogs is a concept album, but not in a way that introduces an identifiable storyline. Rather, the album is conceptual in that it creates a portrait of Bowie’s imagined post-apocalyptic metropolis, Hunger City. We are introduced to this setting by Bowie’s character in the album, Halloween Jack, a very Ziggy-esque persona and a “real cool cat” who really only appears by name in the title track.

But conceptual or not, the true test of any album is its music, and Diamond Dogs excels on this level. After the spoken introduction of “Future Legend,” Bowie commences the Rolling Stones-influenced title track with the declaration “This ain’t rock and roll. This is genocide!” “Diamond Dogs” leads quickly to what is this album’s centerpiece, the song suite of “Sweet Thing”/ “Candidate” / “Sweet Thing (Reprise),” a cryptic portrayal of doomed and reckless love affair in Hunger City. “I guess we could cruise down one more time, With you by my side, it should be fine, We’ll buy some drugs and watch a band, Then jump in a river holding hands,” Bowie sings.

The mood is lifted with the album’s most well-known glam anthem, “Rebel Rebel” and continues on to what would come to be a single off of his later David Live album, “Rock and Roll with Me.” Both of these tracks seemingly have little to do with the overarching concept of the record, but in that way, they work to lift the mood of the album before heading into some of its bleaker material.

The remainder of the album is where the Orwellian influence is felt most prominently. The creeping eeriness of “We are the Dead,” the “Shaft”-like wah riffing of “1984,” and the oddly anthemic “Big Brother” are clearly ruminants of Bowie’s ill-fated production of 1984, but interestingly, this material fits in perfectly at the end of this record’s portrayal of Hunger City.

It’s interesting to see that since its release, Diamond Dogs hasn’t gained the best critical reception. I’ve personally always found this be strange since I have always considered the album to be among Bowie’s best work.
I suppose the backlash could be due to the album’s bleak tone. This record often gets compared to The Man Who Sold the World as being one of the singer’s darkest efforts, and, to be fair, it wouldn’t be an inaccurate assessment. But I would argue that its bleak qualities are what make Diamond Dogs a particular fascinating experience. Admittedly, it isn’t a perfect album. The tone may arguably be confused with the lighter tone of “Rebel Rebel” and “Rock and Roll with Me,” for instance. But aside from these faults, Diamond Dogs still stands along with Bowie’s most ambitious and haunting pieces of work.

For newcomers to David Bowie’s music, I wouldn’t recommend Diamond Dogs as a starting point. But if you’ve gotten into Ziggy Stardust and Hunky Dory and you’re interested in finding a hidden gem in the songwriter’s catalog, seek out a copy of this record.

My Rating:
4.5 out of 5
Highlights: Sorry folks, this is another one I can’t pick apart enough to recommend some tracks over others. This is a record where you should shut your phone off, and listen to it all the way through.
A Very Bowie Moment: You can’t get much more Bowie than “Rebel Rebel.” Oh, and “Bruh, bruh, bruh, bruh, bruh, bruh, bruh, bruh…” – “Chant of the Ever Circling Skeletal Family” (You’ll get it if you listen to the album, trust me)
Best Edition: Like Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane, the best version of Diamond Dogs is the 30th anniversary edition which includes the single version of “Rebel Rebel” as well as the non-album “Dodo” and an alternate version of “Candidate.”

Stephen Wilger