In Ten Tracks is a selection of tracks that have meaning to me and have stuck with me through the years, appearing frequently on mixtapes and playlists. Not necessarily stuff you’ll find on an artist’s Greatest Hits collection.
Black Country Rock Mick Ronson does a nice guitar riff on this and producer Tony Visconti plays a cool bass part as well. The track, from 1970’s Man Who Sold the World, makes explicit David Bowie’s debt to T. Rex as he even imitates Marc Bolan’s ‘warble,’ a distinctive vocal mannerism. The whole thing was a bit too much for Ronson and drummer Mick Woodmansey, as Woody related in a 2013 NME article: “The last track we recorded was ‘Black Country Rock’. And we hated how Bowie sang it like Marc Bolan, so Mick and I didn’t want to perform it ‘live’. We had a gig at Leeds University, and Mick and I went up in a taxi while Bowie drove his car. We got to a crossroads with Leeds one way and Hull the other. I said, ‘Do you fancy going home?’ and Mick said, ‘Yeah.'” Bowie later patched things up with the band who became The Spiders from Mars
Lady Stardust “People stared at the makeup on his face/laughed at his long black hair/his animal grace/The boy in the bright blue jeans/jumped up on the stage/Lady Stardust sang his songs of darkness and disgrace” is how this first track on Side 2 of The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars begins. Pronoun dissonance aside, this was pretty heady stuff for 1972, and I find myself wondering if people were that much more open then or if they didn’t really listen to what was there. But the kids who were listening definitely got the message as ensuing decades of David Bowie-inspired musicians and artists have talked about how much his gender-bending imagery and presentation meant to them as LGBTQ youngsters. Ronson’s piano playing is evocative of some of Elton John’s ballad work on 1970’s Tumbleweed Connection and 1971’s Madman Across the Water. It’s a beautiful song, melody, lyrics and all.
Sweet Thing/Candidate/Sweet Thing (reprise) With 1974’s Diamond Dogs Bowie took his eye off aliens coming down from the sky and instead created a tribal future world where abandoned cities were ruled by mutants who roamed ‘like packs of dogs, assaulting the glass fronts of Love-Me Avenue.’ In this world where prostitutes of all kinds roam the streets and make deals involving sex and politics, the two become fused in a cynical dance of power and submission. Diamond Dogs was spun off of Bowie’s attempt to adapt George Orwell’s 1984 as a musical, but Bowie was denied rights by Orwell’s estate. Presented both on the album and in concert as one long song without break, these tracks can be broken up without disturbing any of the other sections. Bowie chews up the scenery, going from basso profundo to his normal range to the highest notes he can manage, with various characterizations (Mae West, a carnival barker, the Artful Dodger) popping out like possessing demons. It’s an amazing song that’s at the heart of Diamond Dogs and it has definitely seemed prophetic many times in the years since its release.
TVC15 This song, from 1976’s Station to Station is a doozy. It was reportedly inspired by Iggy Pop’s dream of his girlfriend being eaten by a television set, but it also seems heavily reliant on Bowie’s characterization of alien Thomas Jerome Newton in The Man Who Fell to Earth. Newton fills rooms of his home with television screens and sits watching a dozen or more at once, supposedly absorbing them all. Bowie’s narrator is absorbed, even obsessed with his ‘hologramic’ and ‘quadrophonic’ TVC15, some kind of advanced television. As the song progresses, he reveals that the TVC15 took his girlfriend in and reveals nothing back about where she’s gone. The song presents media as a drug, as a lover, as a reflection of self, showing everything but revealing nothing. It is the precursor to David Cronenberg’s Videodrome, whose mantra is ‘long live the new flesh’ and to William Gibson’s Neuromancer.
In 1979 Bowie appeared on Saturday Night Live and performed the song with backup vocals by club kids Joey Arias and Klaus Nomi. The album version of the song is also notable for E Street pianist Roy Bittan’s New Orleans by way of Tin Pan Alley playing.
What In the World 1977’s Low was a complete break with the past for David Bowie. Holed up in West Berlin he worked not just at reinventing himself but also at creating a whole new way of working and a new sound while at the same time rehabbing from his West Coast drug-fueled haze along with buddy Iggy Pop. “What In the World” was originally written for Pop’s album The Idiot, but it was decided that he had enough material without it. The lyrics, basically a fragment (as are all the songs on Side One of Low) is like an anthem for future emo girls who would hide ‘deep within your room/talking through the gloom’. The underlining music is frenetic, conveying amphetamine energy with its boxy drums, blinky modem-influenced electronics and aggressive guitar work that presages Robert Fripp’s future appearances on Bowie projects.
V2 Schneider David Bowie was the master of incorporating his influences until it was impossible to tell where they ended and Bowie began. Certainly, Bowie was influenced by Kraftwerk, using their music as an atmospheric introduction prior to his 1976 shows. This track is unlike the Low instrumentals or those that followed on Heroes–-it’s much more recognizable to a rock audience and much more structured and reliant on a traditional rock and roll band sound, but it also evokes the West German ‘motorik’ sound of Neu! that first appeared in 1972. The title references Kraftwerk member Florian ‘V2’ Schneider and it is both an homage and a challenge.
D.J. “He used to be my boss and now he is a puppet dancer.” DJ is a song about any creative (musician, writer, artist) who identifies too much with his or her work. If “I am what I play” then I’m only as good as my last project, song, novel, painting, whatever. Staying up late, drinking, imbibing chemicals, eating fast food, partying are presented as ‘living nostalgia: humble pie or bitter fruit?” From the album Lodger, released in 1979, it is seen as the final album of Bowie and Eno’s Berlin Trilogy, but it is much more transitional than the first two, Low and Heroes. Bowie is returning to the land of the rock song, and his DJ character is as much out of control as Station to Station‘s Thin White Duke. There’s also a good Adrian Belew guitar solo. Bowie forced Belew to play solos against background tracks he had never heard and knew nothing about–not even the key, then put pieces of them together to form a completed solo.
Up the Hill Backwards This lyric has always seemed a bit like a Zen koan with its tidy, Japanese-inspired melody underscored by a stuttering beat and Robert Fripp guitar outbursts that are like a blowtorch being blasted full-on at intermittent moments. I admit to feeling like Scary Monsters was David Bowie’s last truly great rock album that managed to push towards the future instead of merely signaling the present or referencing the past. Songs like this and “It’s No Game” foreshadowed Bowie’s future interest in noise and industrial rock that he explored with Tin Machine and some of his own work, but it was kind of the last time Bowie was leading the parade.
Never Let Me Down With the 1980s came a David Bowie as romantic crooner persona who showed up regularly from Let’s Dance onwards. I mean, there were tracks like ‘Wild Is the Wind’ that always showed Bowie could do this stuff, but he wasn’t writing material for himself that exploited that area of his abilities. 1987’s Never Let Me Down (the album) was reviled by Bowie as his worst due to the production rather than the material. In 2008 he remixed the track “Time Will Crawl” with real instruments substituted for drum machines and MIDI synths for a compilation, and he expressed a desire to remix the entire album that way, which was done in 2018. So this song never got a lot of play from Bowie, though it was performed throughout his Glass Spider Tour. It’s a sweet and sentimental lyric that was written for his longtime assistant Coco Schwab who had passed away, with a John Lennon-inspired vocal. No one could sell this like Bowie, and I’m not embarrassed to include it in this list, dammit. It was also the last time Carlos Alomar would share writing credit with Bowie, the last of many such collaborations. Though Alomar and Bowie would work together again Alomar was really just a session musician from here on out.
Strangers When We Meet An excellent song that was first released on the Buddha of Suburbia soundtrack (1993), which is the version heard here. Bowie redid the song for the last track of his Outside (1995) album, where it appears just as much an afterthought as on Buddha, where it is at least surrounded by ambient pieces and other song tracks with a similar palette. It’s an incisive Bowie lyric that is nonetheless open to interpretation, but ultimately it’s about getting older and more alienated from those you love and becoming, really, a stranger to everyone, perhaps even to oneself. It’s a gorgeous Bowie melody in the service of a good, even great, lyric.
MORE IN TEN TRACKS: Elvis Costello