The New Rolling Stone Album Guide
Is David Bowie’s “Young Americans” the greatest song ever? It could be. Over grand, lurching piano glam, Bowie testifies like a deranged soul crooner about the new breed of young Americans coming to save the world. They’re the pretty things who drive their mamas and papas insane, the chosen people sent by the gods of rock to bring action and adventure and romance and sex sex sex back to a dead-end society. Bowie was only 27 at the time, but he sounds much older, a slinky vagabond rooting for the hot tramps and glitter kids of the future. He sounds old and English, almost like a vampire, but he’s saved by the young Americans. All night he wants the young Americans: He wants to do us, he wants to be us, he wants what we want. For the five minutes of the song, all anyone could ever want is to be or to do a young American. David Bowie’s whole world, and everything great about rock & roll, is in this tune.
Rock & roll had pretensions long before it had a David Bowie, but Bowie invented whole new levels of theatrical posing, stylistic diddling, and sexual provocation, doing for pretensions what Jimi Hendrix did for electric guitars. The erstwhile David Jones had begun in the late Sixties wasting his ambitions on costumes that didn’t quite fit: mod, folk music, mime. He was clunky as a mod (the results have been recycled as David Bowie, Love You Till Tuesday, Images, Early On), and wispy as a folkie (Space Oddity), but he began to rock on The Man Who Sold the World, more bluesily than he ever would again, teaming up with guitarist Mick Ronson and producer Tony Visconti for heavy visions such as “Width of a Circle.”
And then one day David visited New York, where a friend turned him on to the Velvet Underground’s “Sweet Jane.” The result: Hunky Dory, Bowie’s first classic, an album of Nico-style cafe ballads about queen bitches falling in love with pretty things. On Hunky Dory, the David in Miss Jones finally got loose, reveling in pansexual lust, visionary gossip, glam flamboyance, and you’re-soaking-in-it decadence. Brilliant tunes, too—Barbra Streisand covered the best song here (“Life on Mars?”), while Dinosaur Jr covered the second best (“Quicksand”), and that pretty much sums up the bizarro impact of Hunky Dory. The bubbleglam rocker “Queen Bitch” pays tribute to Lou Reed while giving David a chance to look swishy in his bipperty-bopperty hat.
Hunky Dory made Bowie the star he has remained ever since. But Ziggy Stardust remains the most famous of all glam records, turning up Ronson’s boogie guitar for a concept album about an androgynous rock star from outer space. Bowie took it all too far, and he couldn’t even play guitar, but he works his fey vibrato in “Suffragette City,” “Starman,” and “Moonage Daydream,” while “Five Years” is one of the all-time great album openers, with doomy drums and a chanting choir to announce the end of the world and the dawn of the new Bowie era. The Rykodisc reissue adds the key rarities “Velvet Goldmine” and “Sweet Head,” which has the credo “Before there was rock, you only had God.”
Aladdin Sane cranks up the hard, slick, sensationalistic energy of Ziggy, minus the draggy bits, for a sequel that sounds even better than the original, driven by the guitar swagger of “Watch That Man” and the swoony postapocalyptic love song “Drive-In Saturday.” Pin Ups was a set of Sixties Swinging London covers with Twiggy on the cover; the one great moment is the Yardbirds'”Shapes of Things,” where Bowie becomes an unlikely ecologist, whimpering “Please don’t destroy the lands/Don’t make them desert sands” even though he doesn’t sound biodegradable. Diamond Dogs announced the end of the world (again?) with a certain boy-who-cried-wolf quality, despite “Rebel Rebel” and the title song, which celebrates “the year of the scavenger, the season of the bitch.” Bowie boasts he has never listened to David Live, and good for him; the Ziggy film soundtrack is a waste. The real live document of the Ziggy period is the little-screened BBC documentary Cracked Actor, which has to be seen to believed, especially when Bowie sings the title tune while jamming his tongue into a human skull like a glam Hamlet.
Bowie switched gears for the surprisingly warm R&B homage Young Americans, which he described as “plastic soul.” Cut in Philadelphia with background vocals from a young Luther Vandross, it’s short on tunes aside from the title song. But it was the warm-up for Station to Station, the album where Bowie dyed his hair blond, proclaimed himself the Thin White Duke, and made the most intense music of his life. “TVC15,” “Golden Years,” and “Stay” combine heavy guitar grooves and shiny vinyl funk beats, plus nutzoid lyrics (“Light is so vague when it brings someone new/This time tomorrow I’ll know what to do”). It all explodes in the heart-pounding 10-minute onslaught of the title song, inspired by the Catholic devotion of the Stations of the Cross and apparently quite generous helpings of drugs. Station to Station is a space-rock masterpiece, even if Bowie admits he can barely remember making it.
Low, released the week Bowie turned thirty, marked a new beginning. After burying himself in white powder in Los Angeles, he fled to Berlin for some personal detox and began his famous “Berlin trilogy.” Side one of Low consists of seven synth-pop fragments; side two consists of four brooding electronic instrumentals. Bowie sings about spiritual death and rebirth, from the electric blue loneliness of “Sound and Vision” to the doomed erotic obsession of “Always Crashing in the Same Car.” Thanks to producer Tony Visconti, keyboardist Brian Eno, and the fuzzed-out guitars of Ricky Gardner and Carlos Alomar, it’s the music of an overstimulated mind in an exhausted body, as rock’s prettiest sex vampire sashays through some serious emotional wreckage.
Heroes expands the formula with guitarist Robert Fripp, a thicker, fuller sound, a more prominent role for Eno, and the killer title hymn. The finale of the Berlin trilogy, Lodger is that rarest of rock & roll artifacts: an underrated Bowie album. Not even the artiste himself has ever made grand claims for this one, but it rocks as hard as Station to Station or Aladdin Sane, with razor-sharp musical corners and new layers of wit and generosity in the songwriting, especially “Boys Keep Swinging,” “D.J.,” and “Fantastic Voyage.” Lodger guitar hero Adrian Belew also appears on Stage, a surprisingly decent live album that perversely turns Side Two of Low into arena fodder.
Scary Monsters turns up the Fripp guitar for a sleek, chilly-chic set, not as bold as Lodger but excellent nonetheless, especially the terrifying “Space Oddity” update “Ashes to Ashes” and the anthemic “Young Americans” update “Teenage Wildlife,” which proved beyond any doubt that when Bowie decided not to sing, he could out-not-sing any nonsinger in rock & roll. By now, Bowie’s pop clout was bigger than ever, as entire genres sprouted from phases of his past, including goth, punk, techno pop, and the New Romantic poseurs. Bowie cashed in with Let’s Dance, a slight but pleasant pop record with a few big MTV hits, including the touching rocker “Modern Love.”
At the time, Bowie fans debated whether Let’s Dance was a stylistic triumph, a pop sellout, or just a table-setter for future glories. But it’s safe to say nobody suspected it would go down as Bowie’s last stand. Still only 36, the most iconic and influential active artist in rock, Bowie seemed to lose his touch overnight, wheezing unpleasantly through the rest of the decade. Tonight was an expensive quickie padded with lame covers, while Never Let Me Down made things even worse with originals. But the noose he chose to hang himself with was guitar sidekick Reeves Gabrels, who ruined everything left to ruin in Bowie’s music. Gabrels collaborated with Bowie in the misbegotten Tin Machine project, producing three albums of dreary art-metal wankeroo. Black Tie White Noise had a witty cover of Morrissey’s “I Know It’s Gonna Happen Someday,” the sound of Bowie imitating one of the all-time great Bowie imitators. The Buddha of Suburbia was soundtrack filler. Outside was a poor reunion with Eno.
Barely anyone noticed, but there were signs of life on Mars in Earthling and Hours, which offered strong songs (“Looking for Satellites,” “Seven,” “Thursday’s Child”) damn near ruined by Gabrels’ cheesy guitar glop. Both these albums are full of great Bowie tunes begging for a half-decent band to cover them; they explore the great subterranean theme of his later years, which is marriage. Heathen and Reality were redeemed by Gabrels’ exit and a lighter songwriting touch as well as funny covers of Neil Young, the Pixies, and the Legendary Stardust Cowboy. Seven years after Reality—his longest studio layoff ever—it seems these four albums may be his last word for a while. But as such, they’re a totally worthy testament, delivering not just style and flash (what people expect from Bowie) but erotic devotion and emotional commitment (what they don’t). His love-man phase remains the most underrated area of his career. So far.
Bowie’s hits collections are as much fun as his proper albums, because his genius for the grand statement and the big splash meant that he didn’t skimp when it came to dreaming up hit singles. The 1976 Changesonebowie is the original crash course for the ravers. The 1990 Changesbowie combines Changesonebowie and Changestwobowie for a one-disc whammy, although there are too many shortened single edits and it’s hard to forgive that “Fame ’90” remix. The double-disc Singles runs too far into the Eighties and Nineties; Sound and Vision is a mostly redundant three-disc box; Bowie at the Beeb collects early BBC live material, including Lou Reed and Chuck Berry covers. The two separately available Essential volumes are both eccentric, but present worthy rarities such as Bowie’s original version of “All the Young Dudes.” Live Santa Monica ’72 is the sound of Bowie coming face to face with the California kids who made him a leper messiah, his wildest and warmest live album by a mile.
2006’s The Platinum Collection is a solid three-disc best-of that expands on Changesbowie, but hot tramps in search of a handy introduction should use the older compilation as a map and then start playing around. Despite his image as an alien Major Tom figure, what endures most in Bowie’s music is the lust for life you can hear in “Young Americans,” “Fantastic Voyage,” “Teenage Wildlife,” “Five Years,” and so many more. His music will always sound great as long as the world still has kooks, cracked actors, glitter babes, and young folk going through that difficult phase. Mother Nature clearly didn’t intend David Bowie to become a singer, but his whole career proves that sometimes it’s nice to fool Mother Nature, because she’s a kook like us.