My copy of Nicholas Pegg’s The Complete David Bowie arrived in the mail today so expect my future entries to occasionally be peppered with references to that excellent encyclopedia. My working method so far has been to jot down a few thoughts about my reaction to the song, consult Pushing Ahead of the Dame for salient history and then write something that’s sometimes not related to either my original thoughts or to O’Leary’s take. Now, I can choose to ignore even more information.
What I can’t ignore, I address in entry #130. Bowie was a small-g rock god and like a member of a pantheon of ancient gods, he did a few gross things.
In somewhat related news, I’ve learned to recognize that – every time I start one of these lists – there will be a balance of “Yes, I feel the same way” and “No, what is your serious problem” in response to certain songs. I think one song on this portion of the list will be divisive, but I’m not going to say what it is and I’ll leave it to all y’all to identify it. My hypothesis is that this is the list where I’ll lose everyone under 40.
130. Bang Bang (live)
Fourth Singles from Never Let Me Down (1987), Released as a single in 1987 (UK Only)
Cover of a song originally written and recorded by Iggy Pop
I can’t find the live version that was released as a single, but I’ve got to be honest with you: I didn’t look very hard.
“The evil that men do lives after them;
The good is oft interrèd with their bones.” (Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, 3:2, 74-75)
Bowie is a complex and paradoxical figure and it would be relatively easy to ignore some of his less-than-awesome behavior if he didn’t record this song in 1987 that opens with an Iggy Pop lyric that reads “Young girls they know what they’re after/Young girls don’t kiss me goodbye.” So this song gets to be placed here. It’s both a mediocre version of a second-rate Iggy Pop rock tune and it forces me to confront the story of Lori Mattix whenever I hear it. Yeah yeah yeah, different times, 70’s groupie culture, still unacceptable. There’s an excellent, thoughtful piece about Bowie and Mattix/Maddox at Jezebel that is worth your time.
Daveed Diggs addresses the contradiction between a great person’s crimes and their accomplishments in this discussion of Thomas Jefferson in Hamilton. I really like David Bowie’s music, I genuinely admire his performances, his social activism and his overall artistic impact, but I also struggle with some aspects of his 70’s life (we’ll get into his mid-70’s cocaine fueled apparent endorsement of fascism later, too). I don’t think we do the world any favors by ignoring the bad acts of people we admire. We humans are the sum of all the things we do. Shakespeare was anti-Semitic, Jefferson owned slaves, and Phil Spector is a murderer but I still like “Hamlet,” the Declaration of Independence and The Ronettes (on the other hand, I’m done with Woody Allen and Bill Cosby whose work I also loved). And, obviously, I still really love Bowie and his music. You can love somebody and not approve of all of the things they did in their life. Humans are complex and paradoxical.
129. I Can’t Read
From soundtrack to the film The Ice Storm (1997), released as a single in 1997
Rerecording of a song by Tin Machine from their début album (1989)
“I Can’t Read” started life as the best Tin Machine song. Now, to understand Tin Machine, you have to understand that Bowie really wanted to get back to recording as a band so he did his best to treat Gabrels and the Sales Brothers as equal partners. The Sales Brothers were committed to the idea of recording first takes live in the studio. Thus, most of the Tin Machine songs we have now eschewed Bowie’s normal working method of developing songs in the studio as he worked. As they started touring, the songs started to get more polished and ultimately evolved into more finished pieces. “I Can’t Read” was not released as a Tin Machine single (perhaps because of the profanity in the chorus) but, later, Bowie and Gabrels reworked it and slowed it down for the closing credits of the 1997 movie The Ice Storm. I don’t know, people, this isn’t necessarily bad but it just falls short of the original rocking take. Its was a nice closer for the film, but if you want to hear what a great contemporaneous reworked piece of Bowie music for film sounds like, listen to this mix of “Something in the Air” from 2000’s American Psycho. Never a single but so good.
128. You’ve Got a Habit of Leaving (as Davy Jones & the Lower Third)
Stand-alone single by Davy Jones & The Lower Third, 1965
The Lower Third was Bowie’s band from May of 1965 through January of 1966. It consisted of Bowie on vocals, guitar and saxophone, Denis “Tea-Cup” Taylor on lead guitar, Graham Rivens on bass, Les Minghall on drums. Minghall was replaced by Phil Lancaster before they recorded a note. O’Leary explains how the song was specifically influenced by The Who (from Bowie’s own words) while Nicholas Pegg points out the band also drew influence from The Yardbirds and John Lee Hooker (The Complete David Bowie, 522-524). I think everyone recognizes that Bowie spent a significant portion of his career listening carefully to what was going on around him musically and hopping on stylistic trains as they were just leaving the station. At this point, he was 18 and still hadn’t found his own voice as a songwriter so this ends up being a mediocre Who pastiche. Still, if he hadn’t spent a few years learning how to effectively mimic styles, we’d not have had the Bowie we all came to know and love.
127. Magic Dance
Second Singles from the soundtrack to the film Labyrinth (1986), released as a single in 1987
I recognize a lot of people love this song. Indeed, both O’Leary and Pegg dig it. Everyone who grew up watching Labyrinth seems to love it. I do like some of it – specifically the opening call and response (even if it was based on a bit of an exchange from 1947’s The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer) and the first “I saw my baaaaybaaaaay” (which is a kind of humorous nod to the original macabre opening of Iggy Pop’s “Tonight” – #138). I even appreciate that this song finds Bowie singing once again (and at long last) with gnomes. I find most of the rest of the song – where Bowie basically sings the words “dance magic dance” over and over for approximately five years – to be lousy 80’s pop rock.
There’s another thing, though. When Labyrinth came out in 1986, it felt like something had changed. At first, it was like “muppets and David Bowie together? What’s not to like!” Then we all saw the movie and it was like ‘Oh, that’s what’s not to like.” I didn’t know about the Lori Mattix story I mentioned above when I saw this movie, but I was still more than a little creeped out by watching glam-rock goblin Bowie pursue 15 year old Jennifer Connelly (and was super relieved she rejected him in the end). Years later, Jareth the Goblin King is seen as a seminal role that exposed Bowie to a new generation of fans. To me, in 1986, it was another little slide down the artistic ladder that ultimately culminated in 1987’s Never Let Me Down. There were some decent songs on the soundtrack that still shine despite 80’s production standards and one of them is on the top half of my list. Just not this one. Sorry.
Also, the baby sounds on the song? That’s Bowie robbing an actual baby of a possible career launching vocal performance.
126. Rubber Band
First Single from David Bowie (1966), released as a single in 1966
Bowie eschewed rock for the most part on his quirky self-titled début album. It’s not my favorite Bowie album, but it’s filled with weird little delights and offers a portrait of an artist just starting to find his own voice as a songwriter. Bowie started embracing a more theatrical approach in the mold of one of his idol’s, Anthony Newley. It’s a huge leap from his previous 60’s-rock derivative work both in terms of music and lyrics. He performs it theatrically even including a bit of “collapsing onto his fainting couch” sobs and a wonderfully spiteful last cry of “I hope you break your baton.” Bowie, for the first time, plays a variety of characters on this album. O’Leary puts this all in context on Pushing Ahead of the Dame – this is “an early sign of Bowie’s ability to be attuned, almost immediately, to changes in pop.” Psychedelia was on the rise and many artists were embracing earlier forms (notably, of course, The Beatles). I think the problem with this song – and with many of the songs on David Bowie – is that he’s trying to be funny and not quite succeeding. In brief, this is like the sort of song Dr. Demento would play once and then you’d be fine with him not playing it again.
125. Can’t Help Thinking About Me (as David Bowie with The Lower Third)
Stand-alone single by David Bowie with The Lower Third, 1966
I’ve always been amused that Bowie’s last song credited to David Bowie as a member of a band (until Tin Machine) was titled “Can’t Help Thinking About Me.” Anyhow, somewhere between his first single with The Lower Third and his second (and last), Bowie’s manager Ralph Horton phone up an industry type named Kenneth Pitt who suggested Davy Jones change his last name to avoid confusion with the singer from The Monkees. Thus, David became Bowie (his other band members allegedly thought the name change – specifically the name choice – was moronic and would never work).
Before Bowie’s death, I had this fantasy that he’d change his name back to Davy Jones and go on tour with the reformed Monkees just to mess with everyone. Come on, you know you’d have gone to watch that show.
“Can’t Help Thinking About Me” shows Bowie’s continued growth as a songwriter (I sound like an art teacher) but still isn’t anything special. I appreciate that he never really elaborates on what thing he did that “blackened the family name.” Leaving home as a teenager can be a bummer, especially under unfortunate circumstances. Bowie would address this topic with much more skill on “The London Boys.”
124. Black Tie White Noise (with Al B. Sure!)
Second Single from Black Tie White Noise (1993), released as a single in 1993
The last time I played this song in the car, my wife said “you like this [stuff]?” I’ve taken care to make sure to skip over it when I know its been coming up on subsequent plays of my Bowie list. The album Black Tie White Noise was touted as a return to form for Bowie. It was his first post-Tin Machine album, it saw him pairing up again with Nile Rodgers and it’s really rather good. Had this been the album he put out in 1987 instead of Never Let Me Down, Bowie’s story would look very different indeed. At the time, I think most long-term fans would not have been satisfied with anything less than Scary Monsters II and the pop charts had moved on to other sounds. Still, the album is, as a I said, quite good and furthermore was the first in a string of quite good to excellent 90’s records. Bowie might not have returned much to the Top 40, but he reclaimed his place as a cool musician right outside the mainstream (a place where he was very comfortable) and found his voice again.
The title of the album is apparently a sort of reference to Bowie and Iman – she’s the classy black tie, he’s the messy white noise. Bowie clearly loved Iman very much (and their daughter and, for the record, his son from his first marriage) and there’s no evidence that he continued any sort of untoward behavior once he came down from his 70’s mountain of cocaine.
The song (and much of the album) was in part a response to the post-Rodney King verdict riots in Los Angeles. This track is so close to being a great song – I mean, the lyric is one of Bowie’s best and most astute with call outs to Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” and some deserved shade thrown at “We Are The World.” “Black Tie White Noise” is a nuanced look at race relations in the 1990’s that still is relevant today (and that was also relevant in the early days of MTV). Al B. Sure! does a good job as the featured vocalist on the song. The thing is something about the song just doesn’t hold together to my ear. I can’t quite put my finger on what it is but every time I start liking it, it loses me. Part of it is the “Noi-oi-oi-oi-oise” business, but part of it is perhaps that I can’t quite find a hook that, er, hooks me.
123. I Dig Everything
Stand-alone single, 1966
Bowie’s final stand-alone single before his first album was released with his uncredited backing band The Buzz – uncredited in part because they apparently were replaced by session men for this track. For the record, The Buzz were Derek Boyes on keyboard, Derek Fearnley on bass, John Eager on drums, and John Hutchinson (followed by Billy Gray) on lead guitar. They lasted from February to December in 1966. Producer by Tony Hatch, “I Dig Eveything” is a little slice of swinging London about a dude (possibly high, definitely a hippe-leaning youth) who has recently arrived in the city and is totally enamored of it. There’s a hint that this situation isn’t going to last, but for the most part its breezy forgettable fluff.
122. Baby Universal (as part of Tin Machine)
Second Single from Tin Machine II (1991), released as a single in 1991
I confess, I’ve put a ton of Bowie’s 1984-1990 work on the lower half of this list. I went from discovering Bowie and revering him, to feeling disillusioned by him, to thinking he had become a bit of a joke over the course of the 80’s. I’m not alone – Bowie would release at least one song from Black Tie White Noise under a different name in order to get it airplay since he suspected that just having his name on a song was enough for it to be dismissed by some. This is, at least in part, due to Tin Machine II. O’Leary provides some context for why the album was so loathed at the time, but it’s neither as bad as its reputation nor good enough to be embraced all these years later. “Baby Universal” was the second single from that album and is regarded as one of the band’s best songs but it’s just all right to me. I recognize that Tin Machine allowed Bowie to reboot and reconnect with his art, which is awesome. Sometimes, his songs – even some of his great songs – sound unfinished or meandering. Bowie reworded this one for Earthling but never released it. I’d be curious to hear that.
121. Without You I’m Nothing by Placebo featuring David Bowie
From Placebo’s album Without You I’m Nothing (1999), released as a single with additional vocals by David Bowie (1999)
David Bowie had a song titled “Within You” (from Labyrinth but not released as a single) and another titled “Without You” (from Let’s Dance and coming up later) but I can find no evidence he ever covered The Beatles’ “Within You Without You” and you have to admit that that is a crying shame. He did, however, lend his voice to a remix of a limited issue single by Placebo. I confess, I know absolutely nothing else by Placebo, but Bowie must have admired them because he quite literally called their lead singer/guitarist, Brian Molko, and asked to sing on one of their songs. In fact, since Placebo had already released the album that this song was on, he asked to add harmony vocals. How do you say no to that? Bowie’s old friend, Tony Visconti, did the remixing and the song was released as a single in 1999. Bowie lent his vocals to tracks by many artists he respected but this is one of the few where his presence occasionally dominates the song (in a good way). Furthermore, I believe this might be the only tune that Bowie guests on to which he was added after the song’s initial release. Anyhow, the tune fits right into Bowie’s late 90’s ouevre and makes me want to seek out some more Placebo. None-the-less, it’s not an essential part of the Bowie “canon” and I can sort of take it or leave it.
Coming Soon: 11 songs in 10 slots.