Funk to Funky
If the `70s are seen as one of the most indulgent and excessive eras in modern history (though the ’80s definitely went a step further), it certainly played out in the rock music landscape of the time. And I don’t just mean the drugs. Sure, drugs were inextricably tied to the music of the decade, but so were lofty ideas like concept albums, or double LPs, and in many cases, both simultaneously. That’s part of what makes The Wall so iconic, after all. Bowie rarely recorded albums long enough to fit on two LPs, save for live recordings like Stage, but he has certainly recorded his share of concept albums, the best of them being Ziggy Stardust. The second best, however, is one that’s often seen as a thematic idea pushed a little too far. It might be a stretch to call Diamond Dogs divisive, but it’s definitely not celebrated to the extent that Ziggy is, for likely a variety of reasons, one of them being that the idea of Orwell’s “1984” as a rock opera is bound to meet a little skepticism, another being that its song-cycle progression pushed it away from the pop accessibility that Bowie had become known for, and lastly that it marked the beginning of Bowie’s oft-maligned foray into soul music.
But screw all that, because Diamond Dogs rules. A brief spoken-word narrative spiked with howls of the titular dogs and themes about “peoploids” and other such goofy jargon give way to what is essentially the coolest one liner to open an album: “This ain’t rock `n’ roll… this is genocide” (though a very close runner up goes to “Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine”). And with that, the dogs are let loose on to the streets. The title track rips with all the pomp and glamour of Bowie’s string of prior albums, though it’s not long before the conceptual elements lend their abstraction to the music itself. Just three tracks in, Bowie begins a suite of tracks, “Sweet Thing/Candidate/Sweet Thing (reprise)”, concerning a sexual tryst amid the dystopian future that glues together the album’s themes at large. This trio of songs, or one lengthy movement, is both the reason why some have trouble with the album, and in other cases, some listeners’ favorite part. But they’re followed pretty closely by “Rebel, Rebel,” which is about as kickass a rock song as they come. Is connection to “1984,” though? Minimal. In fact, its themes of androgyny come a lot closer to the likes of “Queen Bitch” or “Oh, You Pretty Things!” than the end-of-days soul of “Big Brother,” or “1984,” which is essentially Bowie writing his own “Theme from Shaft.” When dude got funky, he made some pretty sweet sounds, though in this case, he was still performing under the guise of a flashy glam-rock artist. A year later, he’d trade the makeup for a more mainstream look and sound, which, while interesting, proved mostly a stepping stone toward a period that yielded some of his strongest work.
Rating: 9.1 out of 10
Following some flirtations with soul and funk music on Diamond Dogs, Bowie went full-bore R&B withYoung Americans, an album inspired by Philadelphia soul and as such, was fairly successful in the United States, reaching the top 10 on album charts. And for the most part, the album received strong reviews, thanks in large part to some well-written songs, a strong Beatles cover, and bookending singles, one of which made for one of Bowie’s biggest singles of all time. But thematically, it is a little bit odd. For starters, following a solid four years of glam rock showmanship, Bowie essentially put a permanent end to that era of his career and took on a uniquely American style of music. Yet, for an album so influenced by American music, it’s got a pretty heavy dose of the Beatles running through it. One of the tracks on the album is a cover of “Across the Universe,” another, the title track, incorporates a snippet of lyrics from “A Day in the Life,” and “Fame,” the album’s breakout hit, is co-written by John Lennon, and features his backing vocals. All in all, an odd mixture, but for the most part, it works. It doesn’t hurt that Bowie collaborated on the album with a young Luther Vandross, and likewise, the album is Bowie’s first to feature guitarist Carlos Alomar, who has played an important role in the Thin White Duke’s discography for the past three decades and change. Oh, and on that note, it’s here where the term “The Thin White Duke” is first used to describe Bowie, a tall and thin figure made all the more gaunt through cocaine use. Which is a nice segue into the next entry…
Rating: 8.6 out of 10
Station to Station
Station to Station, like many of Bowie’s most significant works, is conceptually driven, though it’s not a concept album, per se. As indicated in the opening line of the 10-minute opening title track, “The return of the Thin White Duke/ throwing darts in lovers’ eyes,” Station to Station is written around the idea of The Thin White Duke as a character. The Duke, in a sense, is Bowie, or was, at the time. He’s a stylish, but detached figure, singing passionate love songs but feeling nothing. He’s a character of sorts, but hollow. He looks good, but beneath the natty attire is numbness. And that more or less speaks to Bowie’s own state of mind at the time, consuming copious amounts of cocaine and becoming a far more intense personality outside of his music. Just a few short years later he’d note that the Duke was something of an ogre, but his presence made for one hell of an artistic breakthrough.
With Young Americans, Bowie had established a fascination and aesthetic appreciation for funk and soul music, and on Station to Station that continued, though warped into strange shapes, as on the fiery standout “Stay,” or “TVC15,” supposedly inspired by Iggy Pop’s girlfriend being eaten by a TV set. Must be the drugs talking. Still, musically, there are a lot of incredible things happening on the album. It’s much darker than the albums that precede it, no doubt in part because of the problematic place Bowie was in, personally, though other themes, such as religion, Nietzsche and Aleister Crowley played a big influence on the album as well. The title track is certainly the show-stopper, one of the most complex works in Bowie’s entire catalog, split between a lurching Krautrock-inspired dirge and a more upbeat second half. And “Golden Years,” the sole hit from the album, is likewise one of the most straightforward, a funky R&B number that Bowie initially had written for Elvis Presley, who rejected it. Oh, and only to further the ongoing myth of Bowie being an alien, the album cover is a still from Nicholas Roeg’s “The Man Who Fell To Earth,” starring Bowie as, that’s right, an alien!
Rating: 9.7 out of 10
Standing By the Wall
What began, auspiciously, with Station to Station grew to new heights of experimentation and artistic growth on Low. In some respects, Low is a reaction to Station to Station, with Bowie leaving the coke-heavy climate of Los Angeles for the more austere surroundings of Berlin, where he attempted to kick the habit. And in the process, he began a three-year period of collaboration with Brian Eno now known as the “Berlin Period,” which produced some of the most avant garde and powerful music of Bowie’s career.
Low, in many ways, is a vibrant and colorful album. Having been inspired by the likes of Kraftwerk and Neu!, Bowie took to a more synth-heavy approach, washing tracks like “Sound and Vision” and “Speed of Life” with rich keyboard tones. And yet the “low” that the album’s title refers to is a reflection on Bowie’s own personal pain, much of which stemmed from his own personal drug use. And looking into the lyrics of the album, there’s a lot of psychological drama to unpack, from the confession “I’m a little bit afraid of you” in “What In the World” to the plea “Don’t look at the carpet/ I drew something awful on it” in “Breaking Glass.” And yet these two tracks, in addition to “Sound and Vision,” “Always Crashing in the Same Car” and “Be My Wife” rank as some of the strongest pop songs he’s ever written.
Still, upon Low‘s release, reactions were split, which has a lot to do with the album’s second half, comprising mostly instrumental, primarily ambient electronic pieces. What had started out, essentially, as a pop record had morphed into an abstract art record with only the accessible “A New Career In a New Town” as a bridge between the rock songs and the electronic drift. Strange as it may have been at the time to divide the album as such, it splits the album into two distinctive and equally compelling halves for very different reasons. The first is merely Bowie at his strongest in terms of songwriting. The second is Bowie and Eno charting an excursion into new territory, which is not only artful and unconventional, but quite beautiful. Take the atmospheric score of “Warszawa,” the Steve Reich-inspired minimalism of “Weeping Wall,” or the transcendent soundscape of “Subterraneans.” Indeed, Low must have thrown listeners for a loop when it was released, but the sheer audacity that Bowie had to go against everything commercial and release an album of uncompromising honesty and abstraction only shows how far ahead he’s been all this time.
Rating: 10 out of 10
I feel I need to get this out of the way before going any further: “Heroes,” the song, is an absolute masterpiece. I’m not sure if I can say with any certainty that Bowie ever recorded a single track any better than this. He came close, certainly. And “Life on Mars?” probably ties it for me. But this soaring, powerful statement is both so devastating and so masterfully executed, the rest of the album it lends its name could have been entirely phoned in, and I’d still rate it pretty highly. Fortunate, then, that the other nine tracks are almost all perfect.
Released the same year as Low and recorded with a similar lineup in Berlin, “Heroes” can very easily be seen as a companion album to that one, and is the middle piece of the “Berlin Trilogy.” But of the three, “Heroes” is the most explicitly Berlin. Take that heart-wrenching title track, which tells a tale of two lovers sharing a brief tryst at the Berlin wall. Or the title, which was inspired by German band Neu!’s “Hero.” Or upbeat instrumental “V-2 Schneider,” whose name is a tribute to Kraftwerk’s Florian Schneider. German pop culture is a pretty big aspect of “Heroes”, and to further emphasize that fact, a German-sung version of the title track was recorded for the film Christiane F.
Much like Low, “Heroes” includes a chunk of instrumental tracks on its second side, though they take on a much different role on the album. “V-2 Schneider” is lively enough that it’s essentially a pop song, while “Moss Garden,” the only really underwhelming track here, is a meditative ambient piece. Of the four instrumentals, “Sense of Doubt” is the one that’s most awe-inspiring, a dramatic and ominous cascade of synths and angelic interludes. But by and large, this is still very much a rock record, boasting powerful tracks like “Blackout” and “Beauty and the Beast.” It’s also Bowie’s third classic and nearly flawless album in the span of only two years.
Rating: 9.6 out of 10
The cover of Lodger, the third and final album in Bowie’s “Berlin Trilogy,” is intended to look like a postcard, showing Bowie’s legs on the front, the punchline of the artwork being that the flipside reveals his bruised and bandaged face. But the more important concept at work is that of travel and foreign surroundings. The first half of the album plays this out pretty explicitly, with “Fantastic Voyage” kicking off the album, then leading into the exotic sound of “African Night Flight,” the Turkish-tinged reggae of “Yassassin,” and “Red Sails” pulling more influence from the likes of krautrock innovators Neu! Yet the flipside is concerned more with ideas from Western culture, such as disc jockeys in “D.J.” and archetypes of masculinity in “Boys Keep Swinging.”
Keeping with the theme of adventure and foreign places, however, the production of the album was intended to put the performers in unfamiliar situations. Old songs (such as “All the Young Dudes”) were played backwards and made anew. Musicians swapped instruments. And guitarist Adrian Belew recorded multiple takes of songs for which he had entirely been unprompted, nor even given a key in which to play. That kind of maverick spontaneity is what makes the album one of the more thrilling entries in Bowie’s catalog, though it’s set apart from the “Berlin Trilogy” a bit by featuring no instrumental tracks. It is, however, still highly experimental, particularly in the first half. And yet, much like its two predecessors, it triumphs largely as a result of its risks, even if it’s not quite the smashing success they were.
Rating: 9.3 out of 10
Even if Scary Monsters was released in 1980, it represents, to a great degree, the culmination of David Bowie’s work of the 1970s. It’s his last great `70s album, and in a sense feels almost like a `greatest-hits’ collection, not the least of reasons why being that it’s pretty self-referential. “Ashes to Ashes,” in particular, takes on the mythos of early Bowie character: “Ashes to ashes/ funk to funky/ we know Major Tom’s a junkie/ strung out in heaven’s high/ hitting an all-time low.” All of its songs are immediate but delightfully weird, abrasive but accessible. It’s Bowie distilled to his purest essence, and it’s a truly amazing piece of rock music. But even with its fairly direct connection to all the `70s material that led up to it, it still opens the doors to the 1980s in a big way. Bowie’s mime makeup, for one, served as a template for the burgeoning New Romantic movement in the UK. And “Ashes to Ashes,” his trippy, synth-laden single, is in many ways the first great New Romantic song.
Yet traces of Berlin still lurk beneath the hooks and grooves. “Teenage Wildlife” has traces of “Heroes,” for instance, though without the experimental recording techniques. And the abrasive dance-grind of “Fashion” is certainly as bizarrely captivating as any of the better tracks from the three albums preceding Scary Monsters. That weirdness, coupled with a danceable, catchy sound, puts Scary Monsters in a league of great early ’80s post-punk and goth albums, only instead of merely being music inspired by Bowie, it’s actually Bowie creating it. And frankly, even compared to many in the post-punk underground, it’s pretty harsh. “It’s No Game (Part 1)” hits with a severe impact, cut with the jarring sound of a woman speaking loudly in Japanese and Bowie’s screaming verses. And similarly, “Fashion” squeals and squalls, shrieks and skronks, in the most delightful way. If Bowie was going to embrace pop wholeheartedly in the `80s, he was going to give fans something nasty and heavy to embrace first. It’s an immaculate, fucked-up delight.
Rating: 9.5 out of 10
Having spent the entirety of the previous decade reinventing himself, both musically and as a distinctive personality, David Bowie shed the makeup in 1983, styled his blonde coif and merely allowed himself to be the charming pop star he always was, but made up with a bit more Hollywood glam than that of London art rock. Thus, Bowie conquered the burgeoning MTV network (in particular, his sensual “China Girl” video) and issued one of the most successful albums of his career. It’d be pretty rare to find anyone who would call Let’s Dance Bowie’s best album; in fact, I’m not sure that person exists. And yet, it’s probably unlikely that you’d ever find anyone who just flat out doesn’t like it. It’s Bowie’s most populist album — it aims straight for the pleasure center and gets nice and comfortable. And that’s what it’s supposed to do. It’s a POP album, and an excellent one at that.
For the sake of creating the best pop album he could, Bowie teamed up with Chic’s Nile Rodgers, a guy who knows a thing or two about making big-budget dance records. The result is pretty damn good, even if it’s precariously top heavy. Bowie stacks the album’s three big singles right at the front of the record, setting the stage for some inevitable disappointment in the second half. But we’re not yet. For now, let’s savor the glorious new wave of “Modern Love,” the glossier second take of Iggy Pop’s “China Girl,” and the powerful funk of the title track, complete with guitar licks from blues legend Stevie Ray Vaughan. Those three tracks are absolutely perfect, and some of the highest peaks of ’80s pop. But they also essentially put the rest of the album (which is still pretty good!) in a less flattering light. “Cat People (Putting Out Fire)” is one of the better tracks, which also lent its name to a horror movie and subsequently showed up, anachronistically, in Inglourious Basterds. And the cover of Metro’s “Criminal World” is also quite good. “Ricochet,” “Without You” and “Shake It” are inessential, if nice enough, though all in all, this one’s a keeper. The next couple, though… oh, dear.
Rating: 8.4 out of 10
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.