Since the Springsteen list went over so well, I’ve decided to do one for my other all time favourite artist, Bowie. This is a tricky one. Bowie was as prolific as Springsteen and if anything even more diverse in the styles he embraced. With a body of work spanning five decades, there are so many tracks to consider.
If you’re looking for ‘Heroes’ I’m afraid you won’t find it here. It was a great track at the time, but I grew bored with it years ago.
OK, wish me luck, I’m going in.
Put a peephole in my brain
Two New Pence to have a go
I’d like to be a gallery
Put you all inside my show
I’m choosing this one for the outstanding dueling acoustic guitars and the sheer cleverness of the lyrics. This album (Hunky Dory) was really, I think, the first taste of Bowie the innovator.
Now the dress is hung,
the ticket pawned
The Factor Max that proved the fact
Is melted down
And woven on the edging of my pillow
Now my Brother lays upon the Rocks
He could be dead, He could be not
He could be You
One of the most indefinably sinister and downright unsettling sets of lyrics from Bowie, ever. This song is a minor classic that, like Andy Warhol, came off the seminal Hunky Dory; quite brilliant.
Don’t fake it baby, lay the real thing on me
The church of man, love
Is such a holy place to be
Make me baby, make me know you really care
Make me jump into the air
The trouble with Bowie is that he made it all look so effortless and sound so simple that even now, most people fail to get just how clever his song structures were. Bowie did things with chords and with timing changes that nobody else would even think to try in a pop song. The man was a genius.
Well she’s a tongue twisting storm, she will come to the
Praying to the light machine
She wants my honey not my money she’s a funky-thigh
Layin’ on ‘lectric dreams
Mick Ronson was Bowie’s secret weapon of mass seduction during this period. Ronson’s guitar rips up this track and drives the rhythm well beyond the confines of Bowie’s carefully cultured vocal treatment.
Hey man, Henry, don’t be unkind, go away
Hey man, I can’t take you this time, no way
Hey man, droogie don’t crash here
There’s only room for one and here she comes
Here she comes
This song is a blast to play live and I’m amazed Bowie didn’t include it more often in his sets. Again, Ronson is the powerhouse behind this speedy little nugget. A glam classic.
Ain’t there a man who can say no more?
And, ain’t there a woman I can
sock on the jaw?
And, ain’t there a child I can hold without judging?
Ain’t there a pen that will write before they die?
Ain’t you proud that you’ve still got faces?
Ain’t there one damn song that can make me
break down and cry?
To me, this is Bowie’s The River (though it predates the Springsteen track by a good six years). Thematically there are some very strong similarities and I do wonder if Bowie played Springsteen this track when the young Jerseyite visited him at Sigma sound studios in Philly during the recording of the album. Perhaps some of the ideas percolated through to Springsteen’s own efforts. The River (as everyone knows) draws upon his own sister’s experience of teenage pregnancy but still, it’s another obvious point of comparison between these two songwriting giants.
He laughed at accidental sirens that broke the evening
The police had warned of repercussions
They followed none too soon
A trickle of strangers were all that were left alive
Panic in Detroit, I asked for an autograph
He wanted to stay home, I wish someone would phone
Shadow love was quick and keen
Life’s a well-thumbed machine
Saw you watching from the stairs
You’re everyone that ever cared
You know I need some loving
Move me, touch me
I know, I do this a lot but in my defense, some songs are simply equal in every respect. In the case of these two tracks, there is also a musical kinship. Both are frenetic bordering on anarchy. Bowie at his early strangest.
But if you pray
all your sins are hooked upon the sky
Pray and the heathen lie will disappear
Prayers they hide
the saddest view
(Believing the strangest things,
loving the alien)
And your prayers they break the sky in two
(Believing the strangest things, loving the alien)
The inclusion of this track (ahead of some absolute Bowie classics) may seem strange but the sheer poetry of his lyrics here justify its inclusion. The production on the actual studio version is far too slick, but he did some killer live renditions.
They say hey that’s really something
They feel he should get some time
I say he should watch his ass
My friend don’t listen to the crowd
They say ‘Jump’
Got to believe somebody
Got to believe
I simply adore this track. Inspired by the suicide of his older brother and included on the album (Black Tie, White Noise) which he recorded as a wedding gift to Iman, this song is latter day Bowie at his very best.
I bet you laugh out loud at me
A chance to strike me down
Give me peace of mind at last
Show me all you are
Open up your heart to me
And I would be your slave
For the bass line alone this track deserves to make the list but it is also a piece of masterful writing from the erstwhile Thin White Duke. A tragically underrated addition to the DB pantheon.
Something happened on the day he died
Spirit rose a metre and stepped aside
Somebody else took his place, and bravely cried:
(I’m a blackstar, I’m a blackstar)
What can I say about this track? Written by a man who knew his days were numbered, it is simply beautiful. So achingly beautiful that I have trouble screwing up the courage to listen to it. Incidentally, the type of tumor that Bowie had is known as a black star tumor because of the way it looks in X-rays.
Oh no love! you’re not alone
You’re watching yourself but you’re too unfair
You got your head all tangled up but if I could only make you care
Oh no love! you’re not alone
No matter what or who you’ve been
No matter when or where you’ve seen
All the knives seem to lacerate your brain
I’ve had my share, I’ll help you with the pain
You’re not alone
From, arguably, Bowie’s greatest album, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars comes this work of poetic magnificence. To my ear, it is very reminiscent of some of Springsteen’s early New York/ New Jersey myth arc songs, like Incident on 57th Street or Jungleland. It has the feel of the streets and a descriptive poetry building steadily towards an inevitable crescendo.
Time – He’s waiting in the wings
He speaks of senseless things
His script is you and me boys
Time – He flexes like a whore
Falls wanking to the floor
His trick is you and me, boy
Another poetic masterpiece, this cut gives me chills now whenever I hear it. An ode to mortality, it is spiritually linked to Blackstar. This is Bowie at his best, forcing us to look deeper, to pull back the curtain on life’s truths.
His name was always Buddy
And he’d shrug and ask to stay
She’d sigh like Twig the Wonder Kid
And turn her face away
She’s uncertain if she likes him
But she knows she really loves him
It’s a crash course for the ravers
It’s a Drive-in Saturday
Bowie loved to play with notions of sexuality and never more so than in this little number. Set in a future where people have lost the ability to make love organically, They look to alien intervention and old videos of Jagger to relearn the skills of their ancestors. Or something like that.
Sailors fighting in the dancehall
Look at those cavemen go
It’s the freakiest show
Take a look at the Lawman
Beating up the wrong guy
Oh man! Wonder if he’ll ever know
He’s in the best selling show
Is there life on Mars?
This had to be included. It may be almost a cliché to consider this a favourite but who can really resist the pull of these prescient words put to some of the most emotive music he ever wrote. Rick Wakeman rather than Mike Garson did the keyboard honors on this one.
First they give you everything that you want
Then they take back everything that you have
They live upon their feet and they die upon their knees
They can work with satan while they dress like the saints
They know god exists for the devil told them so
They scream my name aloud down into the well below
After a break of nearly a decade, Bowie roared back with one of his best albums since the 70s. This, the title track, was just one of the standout cuts. I’ve included it to represent the entire album which, recorded in secret, was dropped almost unannounced upon a public desperate for more output from their idol. If you don’t own this, you’re no Bowie fan.
I had to phone someone so I picked on you
Hey, that’s far out so you heard him too!
Switch on the TV
we may pick him up on channel two
Look out your window I can see his light
If we can sparkle he may land tonight
Don’t tell your poppa or he’ll get us locked up in fright
Here are we
One magical movement
from Kether to Malkuth 1
There are you
You drive like a demon
from station to station
The return of the Thin White Duke
in lovers’ eyes
I know these two are a little incongruous placed together but they are both defining moments in Bowie’s career and equally worthy of 4th place.
Motor sensational, Paris or maybe hell – I’m waiting
Clutches of sad remains
Waits for Aladdin Sane – you’ll make it
Who’ll love Aladdin Sane
Millions weep a fountain,
just in case of sunrise
This has been a long time favourite of mine going back to my twenties, which is the reason it has scored a position near the top. Mike Garson’s piano arrangement is pure and undeniable genius. I had the thrill of getting him to sign my copy of this album back during Bowie’s Reality tour. It remains a treasured possession.
Ziggy really sang, screwed up eyes and screwed down hairdo
Like some cat from Japan, he could lick ’em by smiling
He could leave ’em to hang
Here came on so loaded man, well hung and snow white tan.
This is one song I will never grow bored of. It’s deceptively simple upon first listening but any guitarist will tell you, it’s not until you attempt to work out the chord structure that you realise what a clever piece of writing it truly is. Ah Ziggy, you canny little alien.
Do you remember a guy that’s been
In such an early song
I’ve heard a rumour from Ground Control
Oh no, don’t say it’s true
They got a message from the Action Man
“I’m happy. Hope you’re happy, too.
I’ve loved. All I’ve needed: love.
Sordid details following.”
The shrieking of nothing is killing me
Just pictures of Jap girls in synthesis
And I ain’t got no money and I ain’t got no hair
But I’m hoping to kick but the planet is glowing
Ashes to ashes, funk to funky
We know Major Tom’s a junkie
Strung out in heaven’s high
Hitting an all-time low
Time and again I tell myself
I’ll stay clean tonight
But the little green wheels are following me
Oh, no, not again
I’m stuck with a valuable friend
“I’m happy. Hope you’re happy, too.”
One flash of light
But no smoking pistol
I never done good things
I never done bad things
I never did anything out of the blue,
Want an axe to break the ice
Wanna come down right now
The return of Major Tom (from such an early song) caused quite a ripple of excitement in the ranks of Bowie fandom when this track was dropped back in 1980. That said, the song was simply the most alien thing most of us had heard coming out of the radio – ever*. As weird as Kate Bush’s ethereal hit Wuthering Heights, Ashes to ashes helped cement Bowie’s legacy as the high priest of strange. It’s hard to believe he followed this album up with Let’s fucking Dance.
Songs that should have made the top twenty: Breaking Glass, Scary Monsters, I’m Afraid of Americans, Wild is the Wind, Diamond Dogs, The Heart’s Filthy Lesson, (You Will) Set the World on Fire, Bring Me the Disco King, All the Young Dudes, and finally, Fame.
Well, there it is. I could do an entire alternative top twenty of equally fantastic and essential tracks. That’s the problem when you’re trying to encapsulate the prolific output of a bonafide creative force of nature.
I hope you enjoyed our little musical journey. Comments, as always, are encouraged.
*And a major contributor to that unique sound was none other than E Street’s Roy Bittan who played keyboards on this and other cuts from Scary Monsters.