David Bowie – [Album]

Sunday, 06 December 2009

As much as common wisdom might dictate that the best way for a pop star to rejuvenate his or her career is by re-inventing or recasting themselves in a different light or with a different focus, such traditions still don't explain David Bowie. Since first appearing in 1967, the list of characters that the singer has developed for the stage and struck gold with is both lengthy and celebrated (Ziggy Stardust, The Man Who Fell To Earth and The Thin White Duke are just a few) but, perhaps even more responsible for the singer's enduring appeal has been the willful obscurantism that has been the singer's practice since the beginning of his career; the character changes have kept listeners guessing of course, but also with the changes in personal opinion and stance (maybe he's bi, maybe he's not, maybe he wishes he never mentioned it) and, even more obviously, the chameleonic nature of the singer's catalogue have proven to be key. For example, this year marks the fortieth anniversary or Space Oddity's release – that's on the books and there's no getting around it – but in those forty years, the album itself has been torn apart and rebuilt so often that it is difficult to tell what exactly one is listening to or what the original plan for the album might have been.

Nothing about Space Oddity has proven to be permanent. In forty years, for example, the album has been released under these names: Space Oddity, David Bowie (self-titled), Man Of Words/Man Of Music. It has been legally licensed for release on five different record labels, it has featured four different variations on album artwork, the track list has been changed (“(Don't Sit Down)” has been omitted from the album's run-time at least sort of consistently since the album's first re-release in 1972, but lots of different things have been added), the production has been re-thought and the music has been re-mastered; it seems like every time the album appears as a new release on store shelves again, something really is new and a little different about Space Oddity – somehow, somewhere. Even now on this fortieth anniversary volume, things are different; “(Don't Sit Down)” remains absent (which will certainly provoke purists to complain that it isn't a definitive release) and, as was the case on the original 1969 UK release, the album's title appears nowhere on the cover. Further and quizzically, a sticker with the song titles, label information and other handy tidbits covers the artwork on the back of the album. The set does include a second disc of rarities, demo versions, performances captured at the BBC and tracks that have gone previously unreleased until now, but there's no way to really gauge what the original plan, direction or design of Space Oddity was envisioned to be anymore – well, no more than there has ever been.

Sometimes not knowing is as much fun as being perfectly informed though, and that is (presumably) the angle that this new edition of Space Oddity takes. It offers pristine representations of music that would, for years after its original release, be regarded as formative for Bowie. Fans will revel even in that because, frankly, it is that good.

In the case of Space Oddity, the remastering really does make a tremendous difference and that's apparent from the opening title track. The song absolutely comes alive through a good set of headphones as, with hard-panned vocal parts, the song genuinely does sound like a conversation conducted between two sources rather than just a single singer reading through a vignette alone. As well, the new master opens up a whole other expanse for the instruments to traverse at will and sets the stage for everything at comes next; in the realm of epics, “Space Oddity” has always been regarded as a big one in rock but, here, nothing is left to the imagination; it simply is epic and replete with aesthetic delicacy.

That sprawl gets reigned in and refined after the song fades out, and Bowie begins to populate the space with supporting characters as well as build the structures he'd employ regularly for the next few years. There's a spidery and fey care taken with “Letter To Hermione” contrasted against the more rough, ready and working class “Unwashed And Somewhat Slightly Dazed” that basically covers much of the terrain that the singer would cover for years to come but there's a common thread between both extremes that binds them as the work of one singer, unmistakably: in every case, Bowie carefully clips his phrasing and sharply enunciates, thus letting listeners know that this is the work of a fashion district denizen – no matter how scruffily he tries to present himself. It's a striking balance stricken here between poor and rich (check out the harpsichord gentility and the heavy-handed acoustic guitar in “Cygnet Committee”) and, while Bowie would ride similar aesthetics for the duration of his career with varying levels of success, on Space Oddity it's still new and, as clean and polished as it sounds, unpolished; the stray sparks of chaos still fly from every edge in the album.

As the record progresses though, Bowie proves himself to be a quick study and, by “Janine,” “An Occasional Dream” and teh densely orchestrated “Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud,” each song is getting more meticulously cut and tightly wound around the singer until, as lean as it is, “God knows I'm Good” presses into listeners with arpeggiated acoustic guitars like an imposing wall of sound. In that way, Space Oddity presents itself as a curiously infectious and heart-warming blend of sweetly romantic love and introspective alienation that doesn't have a repelling or jolting moment to it; listeners are invited in to view these colorless, transparent tapestries at their leisure, but are invited to touch nothing for fear that they may break. While the approaches would later change a dozen times, the emotional drive is set forth on Space Oddity first and, no matter what turns would later occur on future releases, it would be the guiding principle forever after; it's the hook that has always caught listeners, and probably always will.

The second disc in this set reveals just how much work it took to get these songs into their timeless shapes. The demo of “Space Oddity” that opens disc two shows how little Bowie began with – an acoustic guitar, saxophone and a Stylophone keyboard – but just how great his ambitions were. On that demo, listeners learn that even the unusual ascending bridge between the first and second verses of the song was carefully written and plotted in advance for the final product. The same is true of the treatment of the acoustic guitars in “An Occasional Dream” and the mix for “Memory Of A Free Festival”; as the demos and out-takes illustrate, Bowie had a very precise vision for how he wished to present this record, and had no desire to fudge the edges or settle for “just okay.”

So is this re-issue of Space Oddity worth the sticker price over the edition that was released ten years ago? That depends upon what a listener is looking for. There's no doubt that dogged fans will clamor for the demos on disc two and the re-mastered versions of songs including “Space Oddity,” “An Occasional Dream” and “God Knows I'm Good” are definitely worth a listen but, still, calling even this  version of the album 'definitive' would be difficult because those that know are aware of the difference. Some will say that the additional music is reason enough and will be more than enough for any fan, new or old. There will be the vocal minority that will whine, but this 40th Anniversary Edition is certainly a mark of achievement and offers some background into the making of it. God knows it's good – and more than satisfying.



Official David Bowie Youtube Channel


David Bowie – “Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud” (Rare B-side version) – Space Oddity 40th Anniversary Special Edition.


David Bowie's Space Oddity 40th Anniversary Special Edition is out now. Buy it here on Amazon .


David Bowie – [Album]

Saturday, 28 June 2008

This is the album which made me a committed David Bowie fan. 

I bought my first copy, a bootleg, in a little record store in Mexico City in the summer of 1974. I was exploring the city, and stumbled into this record store with a box of bootlegs on the counter. As this was the first time I had encountered bootleg records, I had to buy one. I selected the Bowie because I had just seen him two months before.

That was the Diamond Dogs tour. While I walked out of the concert declaring it the best concert I had ever seen, that was mostly because of the elaborate stage show. Musically it had actually been a bit of a disappointment. That tour was in the middle of one of Bowie's musical transformations, the point when the chameleon is a sick brownish-green. Specifically, Bowie was halfway between the hard guitar rock of the Spiders from Mars, and what he called "plastic soul," the disco of Young Americans.

I was a fan of Bowie guitar rock, and was disappointed that I didn't get more of it in the show. In fact, I didn't get much at all. Not only was the music much funkier than my taste, the emphasis was on the show, not on the music—the musicians were hidden behind screens for much of the concert.

But the Santa Monica bootleg gave me a record of the show I wished I had seen, the one where the guitars were fully unleashed. When Bowie released his first live album that fall, from the '74 tour, I didn't even bother to buy it. I already had the live Bowie I wanted.

The Santa Monica show remained available only as a bootleg for the next 20 years. It was given official release in 1994, and then disappeared again. Now it has been rereleased by Virgin/EMI, in both CD and vinyl editions.

It is perhaps not surprising that this album, brilliant as it is, has mostly languished in bootleg obscurity. David Bowie is a perfectionist, and this album is not perfect. But that's part of its charm. Unlike Bowie's other live albums (1974's David Live and 1978's Stage), it actually sounds like it was recorded live.

David Bowie has always been about control. And Santa Monica '72 is out of control. This is the sound of Bowie and his band (The Spiders from Mars: Mick Ronson, Trevor Bolder, Woody Woodsmansey and Mike Garson) cutting loose and playing rock'n'roll. It has the attendant highlights—wild guitar solos, peak energy and tension throughout—and low points—the band gets downright sloppy at points, and Bowie even forgets some of the lyrics. But the high points far outweigh the low.

The show kicks off with the explosive assault of "Hang On To Yourself," with Mick Ronson showering the audience with guitar shrapnel. The follow-up punch is an equally powerful "Ziggy Stardust." Bowie is not kidding around here.

Then Bowie pulls back—a little—toning down the frenzy, if not the power, on quiet(er) versions of "Changes" and "Supermen," and then a tasteful version of "Life on Mars?" with Ronson's guitar now calmed down, sweet and graceful on the solos. A similarly restrained yet potent version of "Five Years" follows.

Out comes a seat and an acoustic guitar (you can hear Bowie instructing a roadie on how to adjust his microphone). He delivers an acoustic take on "Space Oddity," where he performs all the electronic effects with just his vocals. Sounds chancy, but he pulls it off.

The acoustic guitar stays for an amusing "Andy Warhol," and then a touching cover of Jacques Brel's "My Death." Bowie has always chosen his covers carefully. This one demonstrates a prime influence on him—Brel was a Belgian folksinger popular in Europe, but mostly unknown in the United States.

Then it's back to the electric guitars for "The Width of a Circle." This is actually the low point of the album, as the guitar jam between Bowie and Ronson meanders for quite some time, without ever quite kicking in.

After that it's a race to the finish, with one tight rocker after another. For a guitar freak like me, this is the meat of the album, one highlight after another. "Queen Bitch," "Moonage Daydream" (with an extraordinary solo from Ronson), "John, I'm Only Dancing," and the Velvet Underground's "Waiting for the Man," another well-chosen cover, and another chance for hot guitar work from Ronson.

Now we're into the homestretch, but the strain is starting to show. "The Jean Genie" teeters on chaos, and (as I mentioned) Bowie forgets some of the lyrics to "Suffragette City." But it's okay. The band is rocking all out, and Bowie's not letting some little slips hold him back. He brings it all together with an encore of "Rock'n'Roll Suicide," a song which always made more sense live ("Give me your hands/ You're wonderful").

Much of the credit for this album should—and does—go to The Spiders. Bowie has always had an ear for talented musicians, but this is probably the best band he ever had. The key is that it is a band, a group that functions as a single unit, not just musicians assembled for a tour or album. Bowie recognized this when he allowed them to have their own identity, not just exist as backing musicians. The rhythm section of Trevor Boulder on bass and Woody Woodsmansey on drums stays locked in all the way through. Although much of keyboardist Mike Garson's work is lost in the mix, it is beautiful and tasteful when it comes through, especially on "Life on Mars?" and "Five Years."

Then, of course, there's Mick Ronson (when Bowie introduces the band, he casually throws off, as if it's an afterthought, "Oh, yeah… that's Mick Ronson on lead guitar."), whose lead guitar is extraordinary all the way through. I don't want to get into the old did “Bowie create Mick Ronson or vice versa controversy” (I see it as a completely symbiotic relationship), but Ronson does make this album.

This is not meant, in any way, to denigrate Bowie's strengths as a performer. His vocals and persona are consistently powerful. He is right upfront throughout the show, leading it, directing it, making it happen. This tour was Bowie's introduction to American audiences, and this album shows clearly how he pulled it off, how he made himself the superstar who would dominate much of the decade ahead.

I'm not the only fan he made with this tour.


David Bowie – Live Santa Monica '72 is out July 22nd. Buy it on Amazon.

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