David Bowie Singles Ranked, 21-30

This is the 100th entry on this site.

I discovered that two singles that I assumed were late releases from The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders from Mars and thus had initially ranked higher on this list were actually the inferior live versions from Stage. After much grumbling and moaning, I’ve reordered the list to reflect where I feel these two singles should actually be. Thus, “Soul Love” was moved from #6 to #115 and “Star” was moved from #40 to #103. This resulted in at least one and usually two songs from every section being moved up into the next sections. I’m not happy about this and probably I’m the only one who cares, but it would have bothered me if I didn’t fix it.

I’ve also added that message to every entry from 111-120 through this one. Here’s what I wrote about “Soul Love” as I dropped it in at #115:

115. Soul Love (live)

Japan only single from Stage (1978), released as a single in 1978
Original version from The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars (1972)

I would have put the original Ziggy Stadust version of this song in my top ten. In fact, I had. Then I discovered that “Star” – which I’d originally ranked around 40 – was actually from the live album Stage. With dread, I looked at the rest of the list and discovered that the version of “Soul Love” released as a single was also from Stage. Its ok live, but without Ronson/Woodsmansey/Bolder as his backing band, the song loses some of its glorious glam awesomeness. So here it is now at #115, placed here almost a month after I finished that section of the list and screwing everything up.

And we start off the top 30 with a song that used to be #31…

30. White Light/White Heat

First single from Ziggy Stardust: The Motion Picture (1983), released as a single in 1983
Cover of a song original written and performed by The Velvet Underground (1968)

I got to hear Bowie play this Velvet Underground cover during his 1990 Sound + Vision tour. The single was a live version recorded by Bowie and The Spiders from Mars during the Ziggy Stardust tour, though not released until 1983. I propose that the Bowie/Ronson era band could have made an entire career out of just covering Velvet Underground songs slightly faster. I really should make sure to write about Velvet Underground singles at some point. Anyhow, this is one of Bowie’s best cover song performances. When he played it in 1990, I had not heard the Ronson version and was a little put off that he was playing something that I didn’t identify as a greatest hit on his greatest hits tour. What I’m saying is I’m a moron.

Bowie, by this time, and Ronson has already produced and arranged Lou Reed’s solo album Transformer in 1972, included his hit “Walk on the Wild Side.” Even in ’72, Bowie wanted to bring an artist he loved greater success. Anyhow, “White Light White Heat” is apparently about taking speed. I mean, of course it is.

What I Love: Again, Ronson and Bowie and the rest are at the top of their game and play this great song with joyous, reckless abandon. Its divine.

29. Rebel Rebel

First single from Diamond Dogs (1974), released as a single in 1974.

“Rebel Rebel” is another song that I must have heard a thousand times on I-95 while riding he bus back and forth from Newtown High School. Apparently this song is his most covered track (indeed, several artists chose this song as their tribute to Bowie shortly after his death). You can read O’Leary’s account about how “Rebel Rebel” was Bowie’s farewell to glam at Pushing Ahead of the Dame. I think one of the things that fascinated me about Bowie when I was younger (and continues to fascinate me to this day) was how restless he was regarding music styles. “Rebel Rebel” is different from his earlier glam work (not in the least of which because Mick Ronson’s distinctive guitar is absent here) but it’s also different from everything that came after. It has (with some justification) been pointed to as one of the precursors of punk, though Nicholas Pegg (in The Complete David Bowie) points out it’s also very much drawing from the same lyrical source as many of Bowie’s earlier tracks and musically from Keith Richards and the Rolling Stones. Back in the early 80’s, my high school community was simultaneously pretty homophobic and almost entirely enamored of this song. Teenagers and humans in general are a mass of unexamined contradictions.

What I Love: Herbie Flowers’ bass line, that endless riff, the fact that you only need to have like a four note vocal range to sing the whole song well.

28. John, I’m Only Dancing

Stand-alone single released in 1972 (and 1973)

I placed the more disco-y version of this track much lower on my list (#143). If those of us on the bus in the 80’s in Newtown were a mass of unexamined contradictions vis-a-vis our feelings about “Rebel Rebel,” we were experiencing full on cognitive dissonance regarding “John, I’m Only Dancing.” I’ve had a series of realizations and revelations since high school that have led me to recognize that, to my shame, I was homophobic and, indeed, my whole high school community was homophobic. There was no more devastating insult in the early 80’s at my high school than to be called gay. If Bowie backed away from his sexuality in the 80’s, he surely did it in part in recognition of the fact that he could sell more records in the homophobic United States as an artist in the closet. Indeed, Freddie Mercury of Queen, with whom Bowie sang one of both of their greatest songs, didn’t come out until he was on his deathbed in part for fear of impacting his career. In general, the United States in general (and the music industry in specific) rejected openly gay artists. That all said, I can’t remember a week that went by listening to I-95 in the 80’s where they did not play “John, I’m Only Dancing.” I remember listening to an older boy explain to other boys on the bus how Bowie wrote this song for a female singer but liked the song so much he released that version. This simply was not true, but I guess that’s how we rationalized loving this song back in the day. I mean, the mass of young people I socialized with in middle school and high school in the late 70’s and early 80’s didn’t grasp that The Village People were gay at the time. Basically, we were homophobic morons. Most of us, thankfully, grew out of that but what awful people we were.

What I Love: I love the rhythmic changes on the vocal melody during the verse especially leading into the chorus, but I also love the chorus which always sounds a little haunting to me after the faster paced verses.

27. Drive-In Saturday

Second single from Aladdin Sane (1973), released as a single in 1973

Bowie’s “great lost single,” “Drive in Saturday” is a sort of 50’s pastiche science fiction epic about a grim future where young people have forgot how to make romance (as the euphemism goes) and have to watch images of Mick Jagger and adult films to figure it out. This song was not played on my bus in the 80’s and, indeed, I very much doubt I ever heard it until I picked up my copy of The Singles Collection. Apparently, Bowie’s US label didn’t dig on this single (a top 3 hit in the UK) and chose to issue “Time” (#87) instead. “Time,” I’ll also note, was never played on I-95 while I was riding home on my bus (my apparent metric for a song’s relative popularity at Newtown High School from ’81-’85).

What I Love: The doo-wop, the great “uncertain if she likes him…” chorus, and the sheer familiar weirdness of the whole endeavor.

26. Let’s Dance

First Single from Let’s Dance (1983), released as a single in 1983

I had heard rumors that a new David Bowie album was coming out before “Let’s Dance” was released and was listening carefully for it on I-95 during those long bus rides. The DJs weren’t always reliable in regards to identifying songs, so one day they played another new song – “New Moon On Monday” by Duran Duran (#9) – and I thought that might be the new Bowie song. I sang a bit of that song to one of my friends who encouraged me never to bring up Duran Duran to him again. I recall also thinking that The Talking Head’s cover of “Take Me To The River” (#20) might be the new song (I’d not heard it before around 1983 I guess) and receiving a similar admonishment regarding my taste in music. This is how we learn to suppress our actual taste and maybe listen to a few songs we dislike just to fit in.

In my bus-ridin’ days, I had not gotten to experience the release of a new David Bowie song. Thus, when Let’s Dance came out, it was my first new Bowie album. I knew little about Stevie Ray Vaughn (“Pride and Joy” was released after Let’s Dance but in my memory they happened at the same time). I knew of Chic but I didn’t know the name Nile Rodgers or that he was the album’s producer. Indeed, I didn’t know about any of Bowie’s collaborators or producers from years past either. I just knew BowieTM the product not Bowie the process. Let’s Dance is, of course, very, very product focused. You’ll recall (if you read #101) that Bowie knew he had a hit record from the moment he found the basis for the rhythm guitar hook on this song (a hook that Nile Rodgers really made sing). Bowie wanted a huge US hit album and US hit singles and he got both. For a window of years there, he was the biggest artist on the planet. Let’s not let the fact that the success messed with his artistic vision allow us to ignore the monumental feat of transforming from a beloved art rock creator to the biggest rock act in the world from one album (Scary Monsters) to the next (Let’s Dance).

I wasn’t convinced in 1983 that “Let’s Dance” is actually a dance song (though of course it is). I mean, you can dance to it, but I couldn’t. I needed more obviously steady unts unts unts and less complex dun duh dun dun dun (tickatickaticktick) to be able to dance effectively. indeed, in 1983, I needed especially determined friends to force me to the dance floor. This is not Bowie’s fault.

What I Love: Vaughn plays a solo, but before the solo he contributes one incongruous chord in the middle of the song. I love that. I also love the “Ahhhh” and the “if you should fall into my arm and tremble like a flooooooowwwwwwwah” and the bass work. I mean, this is a great great song.

25. Sound and Vision

First single from Low (1977), released as a single in 1977

Is this song even finished? There was a new version released in 2013 for a commercial (see #113) and that doesn’t necessarily sound any more finished. The song is obviously fully formed and the musicianship is fantastic and the lyrics are direct and don’t need anything else to be complete, but when the song ends I always think its ended way, way too early. Perhaps that’s just because I like it so much. This song has become a genuine beloved Bowie standard over the years but it hadn’t quite reached that point in the early 80’s. It was included on the less popular Changestwobowie compilation (i.e. the 80’s Bowie compilation for people who wanted to hear his songs that didn’t get played on I-95 all day) and was originally from the remarkable album, Low – which is to say in lame 80’s teenager parlance “did Bowie have an album titled Low? Is ‘Fame’ on it? No? Never mind.”

What I Love: Carlos Alomar’s guitar riff is maybe his single greatest contribution to Bowie in specific and music in general. Otherwise, the whole piece is perfect and I wish it were ten minutes long, but that was not the point of Low.

24. Fashion

Second single from Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps) (1980), released as a single in 1980

This was the last time that Bowie performed with drummer Dennis Davis and bassist George Murray. He would work with Alomar on and off for a few more years, but basically Bowie’s great post-Spiders of Mars band ended on Scary Monsters. Don’t get me wrong, The Spiders from Mars were a remarkable band, but holy cats the combination of Alomar-Davis-Murray was remarkable. Looking ahead to my top ten, five of my top ten (and three of my top five) are played by this line-up. If you’re going to record one last song with your band, you should be so lucky for it to be something as good as “Fashion.”

Bowie denies this, but I remember in the 80’s we all assumed this was a song about fascism. I mean, “Turn to the left/turn to the right?” “Goon squad?” The way he pronounces the titular word? C’mon, Bowie. It certainly doesn’t come across as being in favor of fascism – far from it, it sounds like fascism is cold, creepy and plodding into your neighborhood. I am certain I heard this for the first time on MTV – it didn’t get much play as near as I can recall on I-95.

What I Love: Robert Fripp’s random set of notes that passes for a guitar solo, the fact that much of the music sounds like it was played with angle grinders instead of picks, the swampy “bow bow bowwwww,” an the lyrics.

23. Time Will Crawl

Second single from Never Let Me Down (1987), released as a single in 1987

I contend that if Bowie had released “Time Will Crawl” as the first single from Never Let Me Down, we might all look a little more kindly on the album. Sure, it’s still somewhat steeped in 80’s production (not unforgivably so), but its also a powerful, catchy, wearily angry reaction (sic) to Chernobyl. The musicianship is top-notch, Bowie sounds genuinely connected to the song and the stream of consciousness lyrics terrifying. I played this song like mad on KTUH in 1987 (because there wasn’t much else from the album that I could stand and I was so excited to be able to play a great new Bowie song). I think this song is much, much more accessible that “Day-In Day-Out” (#140) and while I have no illusions that this would have been a “Let’s Dance” size hit, I imagine it could have been a “Blue Jean” size hit. Alas, by the time this song was released as a single, the whole Never Let Me Down endeavor had the stink of flop on it. If only Bowie had thought to consult me before choosing his singles.

What I Love: The backing vocals especially, but I think really this song was an oasis of awesome in a sea of suck for Bowie in the late 80’s.

22. The Next Day

Third single from The Next Day (2013), released as a single in 2013

I was so excited about hearing new songs from Bowie in 2013 that he could have just released an album of him hitting tin cans shouting “sausage for sale” and I’d probably have proclaimed it the best record since Station to Station. As it happened, The Next Day was excellent – Bowie raging against the proverbial dying of the light, crying out on this title track “here I am not quite dying…” O’Leary describes this better than I do. The song announces that he’s been gone, but he’s back and he’s ready to rail at you for a while. Musically, the song is a vicious, relentless rock track that builds to an lying-in-a-garbage-heap-cursing-God chorus (ok, a tree and cursing the people who put him there, but I’m talking about his delivery).

What I Love: Bowie’s vocal forever.

21. Never Get Old

Second single from Reality (2003), released as a single in 2004

For like nine years it seemed like Bowie’s last new single released was going to be “Never Get Old,” and that would have been a fine end to his career. Bowie retires, vanishes from the public eye and when people look at his capstone, it’s the great man reminding us that he’s never going to get old. Yes, he’s playing a character here – a debauched aging rock star – but isn’t that exactly what everyone assumes about aging rock stars? Give the people what they want, right? Bowie’s band on Reality included his decades-long collaborator Mike Garson on piano, bass player Gale Ann Dorsey, drummer Sterling Campbell, a coterie of guitar players and producer Tony Visconti. Again, if Bowie was going to go out on this album, he would have gone our with a fine backing band. But, as I’ve mentioned, he didn’t go out. He had more songs to go – and so do we. Wheeeee!

What I Love: I love how the verse skips along and then how the chorus turns into the sound of pure infinite appetite.

Coming Soon: Songs from ’72 to ’15.

David Bowie Singles Ranked – 141-147131-140121-130111-120101-11091-10081-9071-8061-7051-6041-5031-4021-3011-201-10

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