From Guardian Music
David Bowie died two years ago today, but his songs remain endlessly open to interpretation.
On 11 August 1974, two days after Richard Nixon stood down in disgrace as president of the United States, David Bowie recorded Young Americans at Sigma Sound in Philadelphia. The band included Carlos Alomar, his guitarist for the next 30 years, and a pre-fame Luther Vandross, who created the vocal arrangements. A complete stylistic break from glam rock, Bowie self-deprecatingly called his new sound “plastic soul” – even in 1974 he was wise to the risks of what would now be called cultural appropriation.
Young Americans is a fractured portrait of a post-Vietnam, post-Nixon America riven by paranoia, disillusionment and confusion. The song’s protagonists are consummating their teenage lust in a car behind a bridge at the outset of the first verse, and hating each other in suburbia by the end of the second. After an ominously calm mid-section, the song then plunges into a kind of auto-critique, a yelping Bowie racing through images of black culture being ripped off and repackaged (“Not a myth left from the ghetto”) before immortally requesting “Ain’t there one damn song that can make me break down and cry?”
Yet despite being the focus of so much angst, Bowie’s love for America – the America of Aretha, Elvis and doo-wop – shines indelibly. The lazy drum fill, finger down the piano and sidling saxophone riff which kick off Young Americans immediately make it irresistible, and in the chorus backing vocalists, Vandross, Ava Cherry and Robin Clark, shield Bowie’s fear and paranoia with the glorious sound of their voices. This intoxicating combination can be seen, as well as heard, in the famous performance from the Dick Cavett show above, where Bowie performs in a brown suit with spiky shoulder pads and nicotine-stain orange hair, while Vandross and a beaming gang of singers sashay in their Sunday best. As a portrait of an Englishman’s love-hate relationship with the beauty and horror of the USA, Young Americans is subversive, but America itself took it to its heart – it was Bowie’s first top 40 hit there, and the follow-up, Fame, got to No 1.
I was living in New York when David Bowie died, adoring the city (Bowie’s own adopted home) and the nation at large, but like so many people, profoundly disquieted by the rise of Trump and the social and racial inequality which seemed more blatant than ever. Reeling from the news of his death on that January morning, I got the subway at 14th Street to work downtown, and when Young Americans came on to my headphones somewhere between West Fourth and Spring I could no longer fight the tears. It seemed unbelievable that the author of songs which had seen almost like a manual for living had gone. But even in this situation Bowie seemed to have an answer, in the triumphant “Aaaaaallll right!” of those singers, recorded so many years ago, but still offering reassurance and a wary hope in a world of confusion and fear. Chosen by Alex Needham
Lady Stardust feels like an anomaly on The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. It’s a solitary moment of relative calm, a gorgeous, understated piano ballad amid songs powered by Mick Ronson’s crunching guitar and decorated with dramatic orchestrations. Its lyrics are devoid of apocalyptic visions, mysterious visitations from aliens or lurid depictions of the pressures of fame – the stuff that people tend to think of when they think of Ziggy. On an album filled with fantasies of varying shades of darkness, it’s oddly prosaic and familiar, a song about going to a gig, albeit a certain kind of gig: overhyped, ultra-hip, with a crowd there to be seen rather than listen – “femmes fatales emerged from shadows to watch this creature fair, boys stood up on their chairs to make their point of view” – who can’t work out the appropriate reaction to what’s happening on stage. Allow yourself to be carried along with it? Stare blankly? Laugh at it, thus indicating you’ve seen through the fuss and hysteria?
But there’s something else happening in Lady Stardust as well. We don’t properly meet the song’s narrator until the end of the second verse, when he mentions his own reaction to the show: “I smiled sadly, for a love I could not obey.” That line and his closing “how I sighed, when they asked if I knew his name” deliver a whole other story in a handful of words, an older man, looking wistfully at his ex-lover on stage, trying to cover up his despondency with brittle, condescending, camp asides (“he was awfully nice, really quite paradise”). Bowie wasn’t really known as an author of realistic character studies, but that’s what Lady Stardust is – writing that is concise, affecting and as beautiful as the tune it’s set to. Chosen by Alexis Petridis
Station to Station
Described by journalist Lindsay Zoladz as a “freewheeling homage to Kraftwerk, kabbalah, Crowley, and Christ”, Station to Station is a manifestation of an artist who was coming apart of the seams. His cocaine consumption, diet of peppers and milk, distain for sleep and interest in the occult were all at their most out of control in 1975. He famously said that the period contained “the darkest days of my life”. Yet out of that came what is, for many, his most compelling album and song.
Carlos Alomar told Rolling Stone that despite the drugs and darkness, when it came to recording Bowie always managed to pull it together. “If it was fuelled by coke or by whatever, David was always able to manage the decision-making,” he said. “He would write something, express something – ‘Get to work, and let’s make the doughnuts.’” On Station to Station, that meant a song split into two distinct sections. The first an elongated, chugging part that introduced the controversial Thin White Duke character Bowie embodied, who as well as “throwing darts in lovers’ eyes” was also “bending sound, dredging the ocean, lost in my circle”.
The second is the polar opposite and is introduced by an almost comical drum fill that acts like the jump cut in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Gone is the haze and darkness and now the joyous brazenly uplifting second segment comes in that – as well as references to Buddhist scripture – also features a hat tip to his own drug consumption (“it’s not the side-effects of the cocaine”). To write a song that ambitious and esoteric, and to not only pull it off but make it pop at the same time is why he was such an incredible artist. Chosen by Lanre Bakare
Strangers Where We Meet
It’s hard to imagine, given the deification of his latter years that was further amplified by his death, but in the 1990s Bowie was struggling for relevance and audience. A co-headline tour with Nine Inch Nails saw hundreds of the latter’s fans leaving early every night; for the 1997 Earthling tour he played relatively dinky venues such as Nottingham Rock City and Birmingham’s Que Club. The canonical view of his work in this period is that he merely jumped the bandwagon of industrial and drum’n’bass, before a return to form with 2002’s Heathen, but there is plenty of bold, underrated material.
The blistering I’m Afraid of Americans and Hallo Spaceboy would rightfully end up in the setlist for his final world tour, while Strangers Where We Meet is for me one of Bowie’s best and most romantic songs. Ignore the overproduced, inappropriately jaunty Buddha of Suburbia version and head for the later one on 1995’s Outside. Underpinned by the same combination of driving bassline and wafting top notes as Heroes – and in the same key – Bowie essays a poetic vision of a long-term relationship. The couple are initially uncommunicative strangers, but by the song’s end the ruins of their relationship become the foundations to rebuild it.
“Steely resolve is falling from me / My poor soul, poor bruised passivity / All your regrets ran roughshod over me,” Bowie sings with audible relief: in fighting, however difficult it may be, the couple create a fire to warm their life together once more. This chorus melody is absolutely magnificent: robust yet ragged, marching onward with heavy steps as if home through a gale, it perfectly evokes the hard-won happiness of lasting love. Chosen by Ben Beaumont-Thomas
Up the Hill Backwards
There is something essentially unknowable about a David Bowie song: a nucleus of ambiguity, cloaked in mystery but with infinite connections. Up the Hill Backwards, from 1980’s Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) is Bowie at his most thrillingly, frustratingly opaque: it’s a puzzle you can’t solve, a magic eye picture, whose meaning moves briefly into focus before dissolving again into a mass of dazzling abstraction.
Recorded in the aftermath of his experimental Berlin period – and high-profile split from wife Angie – Up the Hill Backwards initially seems to be a rumination on the brutality of divorce and the vacant freedom left in its wake, with Bowie resorting to self-soothing aphorisms in the way the bereft tend to. Life, he observes is much like blindly marching up a hill backwards, but “it will be alright”.
And yet, many of the lines that seem to be about Bowie’s breakup are lifted from Hans Richter’s book Dada: Art and Anti-Art. Lyrics stress the arbitrary nature of life itself (“it’s got nothing to do with you, if you can grasp it”), while the chorus’s apparently soothing kicker soon flips into something eerily unconvincing. Are the song’s twitching, obscure time signature and haywire riffs (courtesy of King Crimson’s Robert Fripp) awkwardly jubilant? Or is it a whirlwind of grey chaos, swirling about a bored and characterless Bowie, whose vocal is frequently enveloped by a serotonin-depleted chorus of voices (the same chorus who, strangely, prompt gleeful singalongs with the titular refrain).
Up the Hill Backwards is not just an exquisite example of Bowie’s ability to fuse avant-garde dissonance and irresistible melody, it’s also an illustration of the great gift of pop music: its elasticity of meaning, its ability to change direction from one day to the next. It’s also what keeps it alive. Once you get a straight answer out of a pop song it dies – with Up the Hill Backwards there’s definitely no danger of that. Chosen by Rachel Aroesti
Boys Keep Swinging
It’s conventional wisdom that 1979’s Lodger was the runt of the Berlin Trilogylitter – Jon Savage concluded his review for Melody Maker by asking” “Will the eighties really be this boring?” Producer Tony Visconti blames it on the mix. Last summer, he told me that a critic had called it thin and muddy. “That’s pretty bad, to be both thin and muddy! And that’s what always nagged me and David about it.”
Certainly, Visconti’s remix of the album for last year’s A New Career in a New Town gave Lodger new life. But, at heart, how bad can an album be that includes Boys Keep Swinging? The lead single from Lodger was the result of Brian Eno’s “oblique strategies”, after he drew a card suggesting the musicians change instruments, which gave the song its rickety feel. Bowie’s longtime guitarist Carlos Alomar told me that they sounded like “17-year-olds who are just trying to keep it together in the garage. For a punk band it was the perfect methodology.”
Boys Keep Swinging, above all, sounds like fun, as if Bowie were trying to record a version of “Heroes” without the portentousness and grandeur – and as if he were trying to remember the David Jones of the mid-1960s and the things he got up to. The influences aren’t represented by echoes so much as recreations: the inexorable, steamrollering musical arrangement comes from the Velvet Underground (I’m Waiting for the Man might be the single most cited song in the Bowie catalogue); the playful, ambivalent lyric – nodding towards bisexuality but never claiming it (“When you’re a boy / Other boys check you out / You get a girl”) – is precisely the kind of thing Ray Davies might have written. Boys Keep Swinging does something much of Bowie’s work doesn’t: it makes me smile. It sounds like music made for the joy of making music, so often the best kind. Chosen by Michael Hann
Written and demoed for the Ziggy Stardust sessions in 1971, Shadow Man was a song to which Bowie returned three decades later, recording it for the unreleased Toy in 2001. It ended up slipping out on a bonus disc that accompanied Heathen the following year and later appeared on a deluxe version of the compilation Nothing Has Changed. It’s one of the quietly sparkling gems from that crepuscular era of Bowie’s discography usually considered to stretch from at least 1987’s Never Let Me Down right through to the heart attack in 2004 that took him fully out of the public eye for a decade.
Bowie sings it beautifully, and while the Jungian hangups of the lyrics and the somewhat telegraphed punchline – “But the shadow man is really you” – are of a part with a younger man’s worldview, it’s also a song that characterises the ambiguity that marked out his legend: who ever knew the real starman?
It doesn’t identify with a classic Bowie look or even character: Toy was supposed to be an album of old material and a handful of new tunes, and Bowie called Heathen “a collection of songs … verses and choruses and la-di-dah and I’ll see you at the end”. Of everything from that period, Shadow Man is closest to his cover of Nat King Cole’s preternaturally strange Nature Boy for the soundtrack to Moulin Rouge. But it speaks to that sense of the man as someone always with you, but who eluded definition – and of that liminal position he occupies in the collective imagination of so many these two years after his death. Chosen by Caspar Llewellyn Smith
The Bewlay Brothers
My first girlfriend, Carol, got me into Bowie: if I was going to be her boyfriend, I would have to appreciate his entire catalogue. The final track on Hunky Dory got me straight away.
As Bowie songs go, The Bewlay Brothers is minimal – acoustic guitar and voice, with Mick Ronson’s sublime electric guitar embellishments – but the lyrics seem simultaneously semi-incomprehensible and laden with meaning. “And my brother lays upon the rocks / He could be dead, he could be not, he could be you / He’s chameleon, comedian, Corinthian and caricature / Shooting up pie in the sky / Bewlay brothers.”
Bowie didn’t perform The Bewlay Brothers live until 2004, and four years later he finally shed some light. Bewlay had been the name of a pipe he was using around the time of recording, and “possibly” smoking something in it had sparked “an emotional invasion”: a torrent of words. Using “Bewlay” instead of “Bowie” meant the song “wasn’t just about brotherhood”, but in fact a “palimpsest” in which there are “layers of ghosts”.
Clear as mud, then, but the beauty of Bowie’s songs is that the listener can project their own fantasies and ascribe their own meanings. For me, it’s a song about the intersections of opposing worlds – fantasy and reality, melancholy and euphoria, sanity and madness – and the ease with which we can flit between them. Oh, and of course, it’s one of his most beautiful tunes. Thank you, Carol. Chosen by Dave Simpson
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