Released 6 months after Aladdin Sane, David Bowie released the covers album Pin-Ups as a stop gap release for the record label. The album is mostly glammed up versions of R&B hits released in the 60s while Bowie was a teenager. On “See Emily Play” (Pink Floyd), Bowie and The Spiders from Mars (minus drummer Mick Woodmansey) add 90 seconds of psychedelia at the end. Of the two tracks originally by The Who, “I Can’t Explain” is the better one that Bowie turns into a slower, sleazy love song. “Sorrow” (The Merseys) is another highlight. The easy, laidback beat adds strings and horns as Bowie turns in a very good vocal performance.
The two tracks that sound the most like original Bowie songs is “Friday On My Mind” (The Easybeats) and The Kinks’ “Where Have All the Good Times Gone”. While Pin-Ups mostly feels like a quick, dashed off recording, it does open the listener to several tracks that may have been forgotten. In the age of streaming, downloading the originals would make for a cracking compilation playlist.
The sixth studio album from David Bowie, Aladdin Sane, was released in the spring of 1973. The iconic lightning bolt album cover has been recreated countless times by fans and other artists, it also possibly more famous than a lot of the music contained within. Having to follow-up two classic albums, Bowie wrote much of this album, a pun of “a lad insane”, in the US and has been referenced as “Ziggy (Stardust) goes to America”. A bit more rushed with a glam rock stomp, the music of Aladdin Sane has a nostalgic yet futuristic feel, especially on second single and #3 UK single “Drive-In Saturday Night”.
The album can certainly rock – “Watch That Man” has horns and piano aplenty as Bowie recalls a night on the tiles in a stream of consciousness like lyrics. Mick Woodsmansey’s drums add jungle beat behind Mick Ronson’s opening guitar lick on “Panic In Detroit”. “Cracked Actor” is a violent, dangerous song of an actor meeting up with a prostitute as Bowie sings, “crack, baby, crack/show me you’re real”. Mike Garson’s piano adds a barroom feel to the cover of The Rolling Stone’s “Let’s Spend the Night Together” before the most famous song here, “The Jean Genie”, adds another flash of glam rock with a blinder of a chorus.
The harder hits can steal some of the thunder but it’s the slower tracks that really settle in. The title track asks, “who will love Aladdin Sane?” on a song about bright young things being sent out to war. While the “The Jean Genie” is a belter, the closing track “Lady Grinning Soul” is a stunner. The atmospheric track may sound a bit like blur to 90s listeners. It’s an incredible song once again built around Mike Garson’s piano that sounds classy and mysterious at the same time. Aladdin Sane would continue to see Bowie’s star rise with a set of songs that make it essential listening for fans of 70s rock and roll.
Five Years is an important theme in the early part of David Bowie’s career. It’s the name of his first boxset that covers 1969-1973 and also the name of a 2013 documentary that covers those years. It’s also the first track on his classic album from 1972 where he unveils his Ziggy Stardust character entitled The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. “Five Years” is the first track with mostly just the spare drum of Mick Woodsmansey, piano stabs, and the occasional bass notes from Trevor Bolder. The song builds into a crescendo and release as Bowie sings about those being the last five years for Earth to exist.
“Moonage Daydream” is a glam rock stomper with the opening line, “I’m an alligator/I’m a mama-papa coming for you”. The guitar of Mick Ronson goes into the stratosphere while the track gains a whole new generation of fans when included in the Guardians of the Galaxy Soundtrack. The cover of Ron Davies’ “It Ain’t Easy” is mostly remembered for its powerful chorus and the sped-up guitar lines of “Hang On To Yourself” points the way to punk rock that would come a few years later.
The album co-produced with Ken Scott includes three iconic Bowie songs, the first being “Ziggy Stardust”. The famous guitar riff leads into describing the rock star that “took it all too far but boy could he play guitar” as he falls out with his other bandmates. Not to be outdone, a second classic guitar riff appears on “Suffragette City”, a song that is still a sure fire floor filler down at the indie disco. The “hey man” lyrics likely pay tribute to Lou Reed and the guitar riff is almost eclipsed by the false ending leading to Bowie exclaim – “wham bam thank you ma’am” before the music comes storming back.
Earlier on the album, Bowie returns to the “Space Oddity” theme on on first single, “Starman”. The earthbound lyrics expand to widescreen in the chorus where Bowie sings, “There’s a Starman, waiting in the sky/he’d like to come and meet us/but think he’d blow our minds”. A performance of “Starman” was beamed into living rooms across the UK thanks to his appearance on Top of the Pops where many future singers were taking notes. Regularly regarded as one of the greatest albums of all time, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars propels Bowie into stardom and most of its tracks can still be heard on classic rock radio every day, everywhere around the world.
A year after releasing, The Man Who Sold the World, David Bowie returned in late 1971 with his first truly great album, Hunky Dory. An eclectic album that takes in a wide range of styles, one The Beatles had done so well in the 60s and blur would do in the 90s. First song and single, “Changes” signifies Bowie’s chameleon like stylings. This enduring track was both his first official US single and also the last song he performed in concert. The horns and piano make it punchy while Bowie delivers one of the finest faux stutters this side of, “My Generation”.
“Oh! You Pretty Things” touches on both Nietzsche and Alesteir Crowley while Bowie wonders – “Oh, you pretty things/don’t you know you’re driving you mamas and papas insane?” “Kooks” is a charming track written for newborn son Duncan where Bowie amusingly suggests that the lad “don’t pick fights with the bullies or the cads/cause I’m not much cop at punching other people’s Dads”. “Fill Your Heart” is the only track here not written by Bowie, one that let’s the listener know that “love cleans the mind” which is in contrast to the more serious and inward looking “Quicksand”.
A memorable dual acoustic guitar along with a snapping beat powers “Warhol”, a track that the artistic legend was reportedly not fond of. Bowie also references Robert Zimmerman throughout “A Song For Dylan” before presenting the Velvet Underground swagger of “Queen Bitch”, one of the finest album tracks here. MGMT would later ape the sound of album closer, “Bewley Brothers” where Bowie references his brother as the acoustic guitar swells in the chorus.
The space dreaming lad from Brixton once again looks skyward on one of his finest singles, “Life On Mars?”. One of Bowie’s most popular songs, he brings together various dreamlike imagery to wonder what life is like beyond our dreary lives. On both this single and the album, Hunky Dory is a giant leap from previous releases. It is on this landmark recording that Bowie really starts to find his voice on a set of songs that still sound fresh and new to this day.
Almost exactly a year after the David Bowie (Space Oddity) album, David Bowie’s The Man Who Sold the World appeared in November of 1970. Whereas the year before, Bowie was on a more dreamy hippie trip, this new release had a distinctly harder edge with many tracks sounding like the advent of heavy metal. Tony Visconti was back to produce and this time had plenty of input from guitarist Mick Ronson.
First track, “The Width of a Circle” sets the tone early with a heavy Ronson guitar lick along with the dexterous drumming of Mick Woodmansey. Double tracked vocals on the vocals are effective on “All the Madmen” about Bowie’s half brother Terry who at that time had been hospitalized for mental illness. “After All” features a melancholy circus organ that sounds like a waltz for the dead.
No singles were released from the album and most fans under the age of 50 would know the title track better from Nirvana’s version that appeared on 1994’s MTV Unplugged in New York. The famous guitar riff leads into Bowie’s treated vocals and a moog synthesizer adds an ethereal quality to the whole affair. Using a Jimmy Page guitar line given years before, “The Superman” closes out the album.
This is certainly a departure from the previous year as much of The Man Who Sold the World sounds like a hard rock band that Bowie was fronting. Besides the Nirvana cover, the most famous item is the photo of Bowie posing in a dress that was eventually adopted as the final album cover. Still, there is a way forward here where glam gets introduced to the sound and Ziggy Stardust is eventually born.