By Anuradha Santhanam
Last year (2013 is ‘last year’ now!), this genius released his latest album.
Musician. Singer, songwriter, guitarist, saxophonist, a brilliant, brilliant actor, sex object, teen-and-adult idol and Goblin King extraordinaire, David Bowie, is 67 today. Fifty years since the man has been making music and it only gets better.
Although most non-Bowie listeners will know him by ‘Ground Control to Major Tom‘ (which is actually Space Oddity, thank you very much!) his debut album was the eponymous David Bowie, released in 1967. For those who have heard a lot of Bowie’s later stuff – Space Oddity, Ziggy Stardust, Life on Mars (the usual suspects), David Bowie will sound rather unfamiliar. Less surrealist and folksy than the more mature, extraterrestrial Bowie-image that has come to be legend, a number of songs on the album are very 60s and represent London [London Boy, Maid of Bond Street . Love You Till Tuesday is wonderfully candyflossy, youthful, and in all honesty, downright adorable. A simple melody from a lover to the one he loves, about how smitten he is. The simplicity of the melody and the lyrics make you fall in love with them. (And Bowie.)
While David Bowie might seem unlike Ziggy, Aladdin Sane, the Thin White Duke, or even the David Bowie of today, it was not as detached as it seems. A special Bowie skill, one that one sees in very few musicians today, is the ability to paint extremely vivid, almost tangible pictures with palpable emotions, telling entire stories in song (or in Bowie’s case, extend characters through them, even).
This is evident in Come and Buy my Toys, which has simple lyrics, some beautiful folk fingerpicking in the background. Seemingly innocuous, innocent lyrics paint deeper, darker, sadder pictures than those that are apparent. Maid of Bond Street brings to life glitzy 60s London, an actress on the train from Paddington to Oxford Circus and the emptiness of her life, of life itself.
Macabre images that one would see in later Bowie work (certain songs on Hunky Dory, a fair number on Aladdin Sane) began cropping up early on – a prime example is Please Mr. Gravedigger, just pure vocals and sound effects – the rain in the background. While nothing like it melodically, the lyrics are reminiscent of the Beatles’ iconic Eleanor Rigby, released a year prior.
We Are Hungry Men steps into extremely dark realms, all the while beneath a melodic exterior that seems quick, rhythmic, and perhaps incongruous with its lyrics that allude to cannibalism and explicitly refer to infanticide and slaughter. He talks of a messiah, a persona that will crop up in his later music as well, along with the idea and nature of being detached from humanity, an observer from up above – whether an alien or an astronaut, an otherworldly being, or just a Starman, waiting in the sky.
The world, humanity, otherworldly beings talking about humanity: this album had pretty much everything you could ask for. Some amazing work on Five Years and Rock n’ Roll Suicide, which are by far the most acoustic tracks on the album.
Bowie had always been very androgynous (and the subject of various rumours that seemed to indicate that he rolled with some LSE-going Stones), and his Ziggy persona served to magnify this. He was a pioneer of androgyny in the public eye, even – and Lady Stardust, on the album, illustrates exactly that.
A year later, 1973, came Aladdin Sane, Bowie’s next persona and album. The boy/man with the lightning scar, about 20 years before J.K Rowling and Harry Potter. The piano on the title track is exquisite – the entire album, though it encompasses several different genres, has an absolutely beautiful flow. Something to whet every genre-related appetite. John, I’m Only Dancing and Panic in Detroit are quicker rock, as is Bowie’s cover of the Stones’ Let’s Spend the Night Together. Cracked Actor is hard rock, drug-fuelled, sex-crazed and the epitome of what the older generation considered ‘rock n’ roll’, perhaps. In sort of what may be a descending-order arrangement of the album, you have those faster, more traditionally ‘rock’ tracks, then Cracked Actor, followed by The Prettiest Star (a romantic, breathy rock waltz).
Drive-In Saturday is sex. Sex in a song. A must listen.
Lady Grinning Soul is rather James Bond ballad-esque. If it were to be compared to one specific one, possibly Shirley Bassey’s rendition of Goldfinger, in the vibe that it gives off. The piano work on Lady Grinning Soul (and the title track of this album) is pristine. [both of those Mick Ronson.]
Post Aladdin Sane came Diamond Dogs, Young Americans, and then Station to Station, which brought out Bowie’s newest persona: the Thin White Duke (throwing darts in lovers’ eyes).
Dressed as a pierrot straight out of Pagliacci, he would appear on Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps), which would yield the bouncing (yet rather dark), space-like, surreal Ashes to Ashes, which carried on the persona of Major Tom that had been created with Space Oddity; he was now strung out in heavens high, hitting an all time low. (Major Tom, that is.)
The era post this was largely experimental. Ashes to Ashes- and really ,a lot of Scary Monsters, had been heading a more electronic route, which he pursued, solo and with his band, Tin Machine, from whom he eventually separated.
Bowie then went on hiatus for a while. A long, long while, until it was announced, a year ago to the day, that he would be releasing new material (and the mice in their million hordes cried out in joy).
The Next Day is another one of those albums that you simply cannot pick a favourite track off. Genius, all around. It is a thing of beauty, of awe and wonder, that for 50 years (and counting), David Bowie has managed to keep the essence of what keeps him going bottled up, untouched, and puts out beautiful, original music each time. Prodigious intelligence doesn’t hurt, either.
The title track and The Stars (Are Out Tonight) are two of the most iconic videos off the album- the former featuring Gary Oldman and Marion Cotillard alongside Bowie, and the latter his friend and another androgynous powerhouse of talent, Ms. Tilda Swinton.
I’d like to go into detail about how brilliant an actor the man is, but no words would do him justice and I have perhaps written too much anyway. All I will say is this: Go watch The Prestige if you have not already seen it. David Bowie aside, it is an incredible film (as it should be, it is a Nolan production). The cast is absolutely stellar and still, somehow, none outperforms the other. You will also never see a more convincing Tesla on screen.
Another recommendation is The Man who Fell to Earth. Now a cult classic, it was panned when it first came out. Something about the storyline fits its lead perfectly. If you like science fiction, this film is definitely for you.
Last but not the least, a film I love, one that 80s and 90s children have grown up with, Labyrinth.
Happy Birthday, David Bowie. Here’s to 67 years of absolute brilliance.
I’d like to come and meet you, but I think you’ve blown my mind.
Play on, Ziggy.