(editors note- David Bowie passed away at age 69 on 1/10/16 just days following the publication of this list)
David Bowie has always epitomized what it means to be a true musical chameleon. Some artists evolve. Bowie transforms. From his beginnings in the late ‘60s as a fair-haired folkie to his drag queen persona, on to his iconic role as Ziggy Stardust and the androgynous guise he adopted early on, through to his roles as The Thin White Duke, a cool crooner and master of Euro-electro ambiance, the former David Jones has always kept his admirers guessing as to how he’ll reinvent himself next.
Along the way, Bowie’s offered any number of classic songs, music that’s allowed him to make an indelible mark in the modern rock firmament. And yet, given the expanse of his career, inevitably there are those tracks that fell below the surface — overlooked, unappreciated and paling by comparison. In honor of the release of his new album Blackstar*, and the fact that its release date falls on his 69th birthday, we present to you a list of 15 songs that may have been under appreciated the first time around, but still loom large in the Bowie songbook.
1. Wild Eyed Boy from Freecloud, Man of Words, Man of Music (1969) AKA Space Oddity (1972)
An early example of Bowie in more abstract and expansive mode, its meaning is somewhat ambiguous, hardly a surprise considering the fact that Bowie’s neo-folk musings were an essential part of his early designs. Originally the B side to his single “Space Oddity,” it marked the debut of Mick Ronson as Bowie’s chief guitar foil. The string arrangement, courtesy of erstwhile producer Tony Visconti, is another key element, lending a grandiosity, although the theme of the song is far more insular, having to do with the isolation the introverted young artist was said to have suffered from at the time.
2. Oh! You Pretty Things – Hunky Dory (1972)
With its highlighted exclamation point, cooing vocal and seemingly pandering lyric, “Oh! You Pretty Things” remains one of Bowie’s most overt pop songs, sugary almost to the point of becoming saccharine. It’s little wonder then that Herman/Peter Noone chose to cover it, enlisting Bowie to play piano. (Noone altered the original lyric that described the earth as a “bitch” by substituting the word “beast” instead, making it decidedly PG in the process.) Still, there is an unmistakable air of sarcasm wafting through the irrepressible chorus, and, if some pundits are to be believed, the entire theme is a lot darker than the catchy melody might suggest. It’s said it’s really related to the teachings of philosopher Friedrich Nietsche and occult idol Alesister Crowley, in that it foretells the end of human dominance on earth and the coming of a superior alien presence. Whatever the ultimate meaning, it’s still a superb sing-along.
3. Life on Mars — Hunky Dory (1972)
Although it appears to be a song sung from the perspective of someone pondering life in outer space, thereby creating a thematic link between “Space Oddity” and the subsequent emergence of Ziggy Stardust, in truth its origins are far more muddled. Try to follow along with the explanation offered by Wikipedia: “In 1968 Bowie wrote the lyrics “Even a Fool Learns to Love”, set to the music of a 1967 French song “Comme d’habitude”, composed by Claude François and Jacques Revaux. Bowie’s version was never released, but Paul Anka bought the rights to the original French version, and rewrote it into “My Way”, the song made famous by Frank Sinatra in a 1969 recording on his album of the same name.
Its success prompted Bowie to write “Life on Mars?” as a parody of Sinatra’s recording.” Indeed, in the album liner notes it references the fact that the song was “inspired by Frankie.” Other observers suggested that it was really a love song written after a failed affair, but BBC Radio summed it up more succinctly by saying it had “one of the strangest lyrics ever.” Bowie himself claimed the song revolved around a young girl’s struggle with reality. Whatever the meaning, its powerful, passionate performance ranks it as one of Bowie’s best.
4. Moonage Daydream — The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1972)
With its stirring refrain and defiant call to arms, “Moonage Daydream” deserves to be called one of the standout songs from its parent album, even though other tracks were played more frequently and gained greater notoriety. Originally released under the psuedonym of “Arnold Corns” (an early incarnation of the future Spiders), it was re-recorded for the Ziggy Stardust album. It remains one of the critical songs in its narrative arc, describing an impending disaster and Ziggy’s emergence as the rock star saviour that give the planet its last grasp of hope, both physically and philosophically. It was later adapted as the title of photographer Mick Rock’s book, Moonage Daydream: The Life and Times of Ziggy Stardust… quite appropriately we might add.
5. Five Years –– The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1972)
Another essential additive in the Ziggy song cycle, “Five Years” gives warning about an impending disaster that’s about to overtake mankind. “Five years, that’s all we’ve got.” It’s urgency is unrelenting, making it, as the album opener, the true centerpiece of the entire effort. As a rallying cry it set the tone, a dynamic lead-in to Ziggy’s immortal epic.
6. Hang On To Yourself — The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1972)
Another grabbing and engaging extract from the Ziggy songbook, and one that boast one of its most relentless refrains. The song cautions its listeners to keep their wits about them as Ziggy and the Spiders prepare to tackle the coming apocalypse. Like “Moonage Daydream,” it was originally recorded by Bowie and his band Arnold Corns, and then remade for Ziggy Stardust. An excellent example of Bowie in glam rock mode, it’s both compelling and compulsory.
7. Drive In Saturday – Aladdin Sane (1973)
With its circular melody and lyrical drift, “Drive In Saturday” seemed destined to remain in Bowie’s secondary tier, but given a renewed listen it becomes as exacting as anything in his canon. Despite referencing Karl Jung, Mick Jagger (“When people stared in Jagger’s eyes and scored/Like the video films we saw”), someone named “Buddy” (Holly?), and “Twig the Wonder Kid,” it’s basically a boy-girl tale of two lovers opting to spend a quiet day in bed while attempting to reignite their affection. (“She’s uncertain if she likes him/But she knows she really loves him”) We can only hope there was a happy ending at last…
8) Panic In Detroit — Aladdin Sane (1973)
The sense of urgency is absolutely palatable in this track supposedly inspired by Iggy Pop’s recollections of the revolutionaries he had known as a kid growing up in Michigan. It also might have been written about the riots that took place in 1967, marking it as one of the few Bowie songs to actually have historical precedent. Not surprisingly, radicals John Sinclair and Che Guevara are referenced in the lyric. It’s also distinguished by the unlikely musical references inscribed in its refrain, a combination Bo Diddley beat with hints of Latin melody conveyed through a prominent conga drum and the back-up vocals.
9) 1984 — Diamond Dogs (1974)
Here again, Bowie foretells an era of dramatic change and autocratic rule, using George Orwell’s classic tome as its template. “Come see, come see/Remember me,” Bowie urges, urging his flock to take action before it becomes too late. Much like the early Ziggy Stardust opus, it fit into an overall concept, one which was originally intended to be a stage play until Orwell’s heirs denied him permission. The one real break from the motif comes in the form of some wah-wah guitar and hints of funk that would later be fully realized on the album Young Americans.
10) TVC15 — Station To Station (1976)
Bowie was not at his best during his residency in Berlin. Despite the fact he kept company with such notables as Brian Eno and Iggy Pop, he became entrapped in a cocaine haze, and he later admitted that he barely remembers recording much of the material that emerged from that era. Still, with its catchy hooks and dance-ready rhythm, “TVC15” is the most accessible song the Station To Station album had to offer, even though its origins are slightly suspect. It was supposedly inspired by a hallucination Iggy Pop claims to have had, and indeed, the lyric about a woman sucked into a television set would seem the ideal fodder for such delusional decadence.
11) Sound and Vision — Low (1977)
It bore a catchy title, one that eventually came to symbolize Bowie’s career up until that point. Indeed, when his first box set was compiled, it took its name from this song. The original arrangement by Tony Visconti featured the synthesized setting that characterized Low overall, but the striking guitar work and backing vocal by Visconti’s wife Mary Hopkin (“Those Were the Days”) allowed it to stand out. The lengthy instrumental intro makes it apparent that Bowie wasn’t quite sure about the song’s direction, but he needn’t have worried. It still managed to scale the British charts, even though it failed to register in the States.
12) Be My Wife — Low (1977)
Rumor has it that “Be My Wife” was written for his then-wife Angela during a critical phase of their marriage which found the couple squabbling over where they would relocate. Angela opted for Switzerland; Bowie preferred Berlin. The tactic had worked before; when Bowie was courting her, he coaxed her into marriage by playing her “The Prettiest Star” over the phone. Sadly, history would not be repeated. Bowie refused to move and he and Angela divorced three years later. Still, that failure doesn’t diminish the strength of the song. Eschewing the atmospheric electronics that pervaded the majority of the Low album, it was remarkably conventional in comparison, specifically in terms of both its theme and composition. It later went on to become a staple of his set list, and it’s said, a song that ranks among Bowie’s personal favorites.
13) Teenage Wildlife— Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps) (1980)
Running at almost seven minutes, the song was the longest track on Scary Monsters, and Bowie’s longest composition since “Station to Station” four years prior in 1976. and lyrically is one of his most personal. This song came upon the rush of a new decade and a plethora of New Wave bands/artists and press seeing Bowie perhaps as passé. Bowie with his best snark wrote: “One of the new wave boys/Some old thing in brand new drag.” He then goes onto describe himself as a “group of one” and dismisses the new generation as “same old thing in a brand new drag.” At this point Bowie was 33 and just getting started…. again.
14) Criminal World –– Let’s Dance (1983)
Easily overlooked among the upbeat entries that marked Bowie’s return to the charts and the renewed enthusiasm that brought him there, “Criminal World” is a thoughtful entry that deserves a kinder treatment in retrospect. Interestingly enough, it’s one of the few covers Bowie’s ever recorded, his duet with Mick Jagger, “Dancing in the Street” notwithstanding. It was written, not so famously, by Duncan Browne (a noted singer/songwriter in his own right), Peter Godwin and Sean Lyons, the three principals of the admittedly obscure British band Metro. Originally released on their debut album, their version is also worth a belated listen. Rumor has it that it was also one of the tunes the American military used to lure Panamanian strongman Manuel Noriega out from hiding in the hours leading up to his capture. Hmmm… that factoid implies a result that’s less than complementary. (“Enough already! I surrender!”)
15) Slow Burn –– Heathen (2002)
With help from old pal Pete Townshend on guitar, Bowie unleashes a sturdy, seductive vocal atop a ferocious rhythm, resulting in a forthright performance that qualifies as one of his most riveting performances of his latter day career. Released as a single in June 2002, it earned Bowie a Grammy nomination for Best Rock Male Vocal Performance and helped make Heathen his most successful album in nearly twenty years.
What other ones should have made the list…share away!!!