Friday, July 7, 2017

Top 100 Albums of the 1970s - #80 - David Bowie - Hunky Dory (1971)

Bowie's second entry in the Top 100 albums list is one which I enjoy more consistently than Ziggy Stardust: the one which directly preceded it. Listening to the two records side by side, it's hard to believe it's the same artist, so different are the styles, although Bowie's distinctive vocal provides continuity between these two periods of his career.

Whereas Bowie is primarily remembered as a glam-rock icon, Hunky Dory finds him in humbler garb, A largely acoustic, piano based set of songs that sound more like the work of a singer-songwriter than a rock god. 

Bowie's sci-fi leanings that would fully blossom on Ziggy Stardust are still in their infancy here, most fully fleshed out on Life On Mars, while Changes and Oh, You Pretty Things showcase, somewhat uncomfortably, Bowie's fascination with the work of Friedrich Nietzsche and his idea of the ├╝bermensch.

Hunky Dory also finds Bowie stretching himself in pretty flagrant mimicry of some of his influences. Song for Bob Dylan sounds like, well, Bob Dylan, and Queen Bitch is a straight take on Lou Reed, a fact which doesn't detract from it being one of Bowie's best songs ever. Elsewhere, Bowie name checks Andy Warhol and covers an unlikely tune by frivolous tunesmith Paul Williams, something it would have been unthinkable for Ziggy Stardust to do. If all this makes the album sound derivative or lacking in inspiration, that's not exactly true. In fact, one of the remarkable things about the record is the way in which it wears its influences on its sleeve without compromising ingenuity and originality at all. The little bits of studio chatter left in here and there are a clever production choice that adds to the records quaint charm.

The album's closer, the Bewlay Brothers, is a domestic epic, as the longest song on the record featuring backwards guitar solos and a remarkably sophisticated structure. It has always felt to me like a sister song to Jethro Tull's Baker St. Muse, albeit more modest in its ambitions. It shows that Bowie could have gone full on prog rock if he had wanted to, and leads to questions of what might have been.

Speaking of prog, I can't fail to mention the contribution of flamboyant Yes keyboardist Rick Wakeman, whose dynamic piano playing adds welcome color to what might otherwise be dull tunes like Kooks or Fill Your Heart. It's nice to hear him shine without having to resort to ten-minute Moog solos, metallic capes, and over the top performance spectacles, proving that he really is an excellent musician.

Hunky Dory represents Bowie at the height of his early powers, and since there was no more space to move upwards, he instead opted to go sideways, switching genres entirely. It was really the only thing he could have done, and a remarkably savvy move for the young star, especially given the ever present pressure from record companies to repeat one's previous triumphs.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Top 100 Albums of the 1970s - #81 - David Bowie - The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1972)

What can one say about glam’s most famous record that hasn’t already been said? Of the four albums from the Bowie canon that appear on this list, this one is the lowest down, and deservedly so, I think. While the album that made Bowie a superstar, and certainly containing many fine songs, it is far from his best work. It contains a vague concept that doesn’t really work.

The above criticism should not be taken to mean that I don’t like the album. It's actually great. But like so many classic albums, it has been a victim of its own reputation. Ziggy Stardust on vinyl can’t possibly live up to Ziggy Stardust the legend.

Part of this is due, no doubt, to historical context, Bowie was already an accomplished and critically acclaimed frontman, but this album completely changed his image and rocketed him into the stratosphere. This is the point where Bowie transitioned from a vaguely folky singer-songwriter into a rock star of the highest calibre, as well as kicking off the journey through various styles of music that would continue for his whole career. It also introduced the world to Bowie's brand of glam-rock showmanship, including outlandish costumes and makeup, still relatively unusual in the early 70s, Arthur Brown notwithstanding.

Here, Bowie takes the Nietzsche-meets-Heinlein sci-fi elements he had been flirting with in the last two records all the way up, constructing a full on, if difficult to comprehend, concept album about a spaceman and his troubled relationship with mankind. It almost sounds prog, except it is anchored by straightforward rock playing by an excellent backing band, and concise, tight songs.

The closer, Rock and Roll Suicide, is the finest track, building from slow, cool-down melancholy into a roaring, saxophone driven anthem, compete with a string section. Other highlights include Suffragette City, with its driving, almost frenzied rhythm, and Lady Stardust, with its poignant melody. Bowie's vocals have really taken a leap forward here as well, attaining a muscularity absent from earlier records.

Unfortunately, not every song reaches these lofty peaks, and the concept doesn't really hang together as well as it might. Future releases like the Berlin trilogy and even Station to Station sound more coherent, at least to my ears.

Overall, Ziggy Stardust is a collection of mostly great rock songs, but as an album I’ve always found it to be slightly lacking, especially when stacked up against the rest of his discography.