In this mammoth piece from Uncut’s March 2008 issue (Take 133), a host of famous fans and collaborators pick David Bowie’s 30 best songs! “Bowie represented a way to get out of myself, an escape, a hope that there was something else…”
TONY VISCONTI: “When I first met Bowie in 1967, he couldn’t get arrested. The music business and journalists just weren’t looking in his direction for the Next Big Thing. Even when Hunky Dory came out, I think the industry was still scratching their heads. David had to pull his socks up big time and invent his Ziggy Stardust persona.
“I love to work with him because I think we make really good records. His talents are exceptional, and he has rarely inhibited his creativity. I think other recording artists regard him enviably as someone who’s reached the pinnacle of unbridled creativity. He’s multi-dimensional. For most of his career, he’s been an iconoclast, not a trend follower. But then, he also has a charm and charisma usually associated with movie actor legends. Although he never denies his working-class upbringing, he’s like royalty. These days, we keep in touch via email. Instead of watching a film together we send each other links to YouTube. We also send each other all types of music we’ve either discovered or rediscovered. During the making of the last two albums, Heathen and Reality [which Visconti produced, along with earlier Bowie LPs Young Americans, Low, “Heroes”, Lodger and Scary Monsters…] we used to watch episodes of The Fast Show and The Office, respectively, on our lunch breaks. We both love British comedy.
“We’ve known each other for 40 years. There’s no pretension, no awe, just a mutual love of creating something from nothing. On the other hand, we don’t take each other for granted. I respect him more than ever. He’s one of the few people I know who actually keeps on growing. He’s always full of surprises and revelations.
“Who hasn’t been inspired by Bowie’s music? Certainly not the über and unter peers contributing to this collection. David Bowie has long ago achieved Gandalf status in the rock world, and his songs have become potent magic spells.
“Welcome to Uncut’s Top 30 Bowie songs, picked to praise by an all-star cast.”
30 In The Heat Of The Morning
Available on Bowie At The Beeb: The Best Of The BBC Radio Sessions 1968-1972 (recorded 1968, released 2004)
An early track that catches the newly solo artist in mid-transformation – part mod King Bee, part theatrical Tony Newley trouper
ALEX TURNER (Arctic Monkeys/Last Shadow Puppets): For the B-side of [the Last Shadow Puppets’] “The Age Of The Understatement” single we’ve done “In The Heat Of The Morning”, which is the first track on Bowie At The Beeb. It’s got a great melody – it’s one of them, where we both had the CD, and we were both like, “The first tune on that!” And we were both like, “Yeah, yeah!” It was very much part of the world we were in when we started writing stuff for The Age Of The Understatement, so when it came to recording B-sides, there were some tunes we definitely wanted to do: “The Girls And The Dogs” by Scott Walker, “Wondrous Place” by Billy Fury, and this.
MILES KANE: I also like “Time” on Aladdin Sane, and “Five Years”. Does the aspect of re-inventing myself appeal? You should see me at the weekend. Eyeliner, the lot…
29 Boys Keep Swinging
From Lodger (May 1979); released as a single, April 1979. Highest UK chart position: 7
Neurotic funk à la Talking Heads, released ahead of Lodger, with Bowie dragging up as three different backing singers for the video
ADRIAN BELEW: Bowie was a very charismatic person to be around. Musically, he gave me complete freedom to go wild and have lots of ideas. Recording Lodger in Lake Geneva, David and [co-producer] Brian Eno played me some tapes, wanting my initial reaction to certain music. Eno had a chart of favourite chords on the wall. He’d point to a chord and you’d just go along and improvise. He and David were great advocates of getting you to do things you never realised you could. You wouldn’t even hear the songs – no tempo, no key – and it immediately threw you into a different space. It was one giant brainstorm. I had a go at playing “Heroes” and remember walking in on David and Brian and they were just laughing. Nobody told me the original was made of various guitar parts spliced together. They thought it was hilarious I’d been able to play all those composites live! In New York, David was doing vocals for “Boys Keep Swinging”. He played me it and said: “This is written after you, in the spirit of you.” I think he saw me as a naïve person who just enjoyed life. I was thrilled with that.
28 Moonage Daydream
From The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust… (June 1972)
Originally written for Bowie’s 1971 Arnold Corns side-project, subsequently dusted down to herald the arrival of the space-invading alligator and “rock’n’rolling bitch” Ziggy Stardust
DAVE GAHAN (Depeche Mode): Bowie represented a way for me to get out of myself, and also to escape from where I was. Basildon was a factory, working-class town. Bowie gave me a hope that there was something else. This world that he seemed to be a part of – where was it? I wanted to find it. I just thought he wasn’t of this earth. And that was really attractive to me, to live in a different persona.
“Moonage Daydream” still gives me the goosebumps. I couldn’t really tell you what the hell he’s singing about. It’s about feeling and emotion first, it doesn’t really have to make any sense. It makes more sense melodically, it’s abstract musically. That’s with me now, every time I’m trying to write. It inspired me. Without it, I would have been resolved to a life of petty crime. Over the years, it’s the one staple I’ve stayed with. When it comes down to it, The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars… or David Live goes on.
I had the wonderful experience of actually meeting him, a couple of years back. I felt like he was just as much out of sorts as I imagined he would be. Even though he seemed to have it really together, and was very healthy. But I think that stuff doesn’t go away: that longing to belong, somehow.
27 Station To Station
From Station To Station (January 1976)
Twisting, coldly funky, 10-minute epic that namechecked the “Thin White Duke/throwing darts in lovers’ eyes ”. The only track from its eponymous album not to be released on a single
STEPHEN MORRIS (New Order): I got into Bowie early on, when Hunky Dory came out. I remember going to see him at the [Manchester] Free Trade Hall with Ian [Curtis] in 1972. Bowie apparently asked Ian if there was a club he could go to, where he could hear some Northern soul. This was the same day that “Starman” came out, and Bowie bore a startling resemblance to my best friend’s mother. She had red hair and the same boots. I sort of fell out with Bowie when he jacked Ziggy in, but thanks to the Britannia Music Club, I got Station To Station. It was bloody weird, with The Thin White Duke and the cabbalistic lyrics.
The title track itself gave strong hints as to where Bowie was going, with various Kraftwerk-isms in there. At the same time, it has soulfulness too, but it’s mutating into something else. Listening to it now, it reminds me of something by Van Der Graaf Generator. There’s prog-ness about it, but it has a real energy and drive. Christ knows what he’s singing about, but it was a stepping stone to Joy Division for me, in that it moves from funk towards the experimentalism of Low and “Heroes”. It completely restored my faith in Bowie.
26 Always Crashing In The Same Car
From Low (January 1977)
“Every chance that I take, I take it on the road…” Three minutes of bleak, breathtakingly nihilist melodrama, and a powerful metaphor for making the same mistakes over and over again…
RICKY GARDINER (Low guitarist): I was surprised when I got the call to play guitar on Low. I wasn’t as familiar with David’s work as I might have been. My impression of David was of a man who took life seriously and who understood the need to keep working, irrespective of what else may have been going on in his life. That is worthy of respect. He also kept working when not necessarily feeling in top form. David, Iggy Pop and I are near contemporaries [Gardiner also played on Iggy’s Lust For Life, and composed the music for “The Passenger” ] – there is something like 18 months between us. Brian [Eno] is not far away in age either. What makes this generation of musicians tick is creative expression. It is pleasure and release. It is identity and purpose. It’s love at a deep level, together with the challenge that brings.
I wasn’t instructed in any way at all regarding modes of approach or specific techniques. When it came to overdubbing the solo in “Always Crashing…”, David hummed the first few notes he wanted and I took it from there. These things don’t evolve as such. They happen spontaneously and the engineer has to catch them. I believe it was generally well received at the time. People do ask me about that solo so it must mean something out there!
25 Can’t Help Thinking About Me
By David Bowie & The Lower Third. Released as a single, January 1966.
Did not chart. Available on David Bowie: Early On (1964-66)
The first song released as Bowie: a would-be mod anthem about leaving home and making it on your own
STEVE VAN ZANDT: This is one of those really classic garage rock things that I have in my permanent playlist. I’m not really a Bowie expert, but he was quite a good, mod-ish rocker before he went into the John Lennon-slash-glam thing. I love his early stuff. He had a blues band, The King Bees, who were great, and then The Lower Third. I play early things by people in spite of their success. All of that British scene were good – The Move, The Pretty Things, The Creation, The Animals. But Bowie was a great blues singer, a great interpreter. There’s a song or two later on – “Rebel Rebel” is a wonderful track – but that era for me is it. There was a lot going on there, and he was a big part of it.
24 Drive-In Saturday
From Aladdin Sane (April 1973); released as a single, April 1973
Highest UK chart position: 3
Bowie’s sci-fi take on American Graffiti, imagining future teens boning up on romance from old movies and pop songs…
MORRISSEY: I’ve covered the song, and even recorded a version last year in Omaha, Nebraska. It was a very strong song in its time, and a very clever song too. I prefer the Jobriath version, but nevertheless “Drive-In Saturday” was a fascinating piece of art at the time, infiltrating a very, very drab Top 30. Yes, Bowie’s a human vampire, but I’m grateful, very grateful, for some of the songs.
From Hunky Dory (December 1971)
Charmingly ramshackle and oddly touching British pop pastiche, dedicated to Bowie’s new-born son, Zowie (later Joey) Bowie
RUFUS WAINWRIGHT: I always loved this, and “Fame,” and “Heroes”. When I grew up David Bowie was still in the mainstream, in the prime of his career. But I got into it when I moved to New York and met a bunch of hip drag queens who wanted to sleep with straight rock boys. I have a very special relationship with David only because we share a guitar player in Gerry Leonard. He plays with David a lot, so David has come to a lot of my shows and always been very supportive, which is such an amazing honour.
I’ve talked a lot with Gerry about the insides of the workings of David’s mind – and it’s pretty amazing. I think the main thing I’ve realised is that he’s actually quite shy: there’s a real kind of Wizard Of Oz quality to him, by which I mean that behind the flamboyance, the fire and green lasers and stuff there’s this little guy there, working away in his attic. Really, he’s very, very sensitive about being an artist – trying to be in sync. He’s a very vulnerable, and very affected by the world around him, and by what people say. He’s not at all jaded.
From Heathen (June 2002)
Low-key opening track from Heathen, with Bowie reunited with Tony Visconti for the first time since Scary Monsters…
TONY VISCONTI: “Sunday” is absolutely stunning. It took a long time to make and every time we added a layer of sound from either us or a visiting musician, the song grew to be more and more of an emotional experience. I think Heathen was a very spiritual album. David wrote some great lyrics, wore his heart on his sleeve for that album. This is all my assumption. He rarely “explains” his lyrics to me. But I have to make something of them so I can help to create his musical settings. Sometimes he would specifically tell me his meaning, to keep the recording focussed. I don’t know what [2003 album] Reality really is. We created it under completely different conditions. Heathen was made in an isolated studio in upstate New York and it sounds as lofty as where the studio was located, on a mountain top. Reality was made on the border of SoHo and NoHo in New York City. It has more angst than Heathen and sounds like a teeth-grinding record to me. Was he on the way to another great trilogy of albums? Yes, David was very keen to do a third album and it would’ve been perfect. There might be a third in the series someday. He’s very fit now.
21 The Bewlay Brothers
From Hunky Dory (December 1971)
Mysterious but moving closing track on Hunky Dory, reputedly about Bowie’s relationship with troubled half-brother Terry Burns
JAMES MURPHY (LCD Soundsystem): Where I grew up, it was a small town. I always played music. I don’t remember not playing music or writing songs since I was four or five. My older brothers and sisters were 10 years older than me so I listened to a lot of classic rock. My first records were “Alone Again Naturally” by Gilbert O Sullivan and “Fame” by David Bowie.
People say that “New York I Love You” [from LCD’s Sound Of Silver album] sounds like Bowie’s production on Transformer. But are we really in a time where the problem is that there are too many bands that sound like Transformer? How is this a problem?! I WISH we had the kind of problem!
“The Bewley Brothers” is just so beautiful and sad. It really uses his voice. It’s one of those songs that would be a very hard cover. Maybe that’s why I like it most. His best songs are just so wonderfully coverable, because they’re such good songs. But “The Bewley Brothers”? So sad, and it really uses his voice in a really cheesy, borderline hack-Broadway kind of way. But it’s so good!
20 Letter To Hermione
From David Bowie – US title: Man Of Words/Man Of Music – (November 1969); reissued as Space Oddity (November 1972)
Dreamy acoustic farewell dedicated to Bowie’s ex-girlfriend and fellow Lindsay Kemp dance student, Hermione Farthingale
RICKY GERVAIS: It was a surprise. I discovered it probably in reverse order. It’s on the Space Oddity album in 1969. When I first got into Bowie it was for “Heroes” and I worked my way backwards to Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane. And, then I heard this song and of course the badge I was wearing of Bowie was one of this artistic, fashionable, trendsetting, androgyne – “I’m different.” What I wasn’t wearing was, “I’m a brilliant songwriter of love songs.” And, it’s a total surprise. It’s stripped down. Just like Bob Dylan surprises you sometimes. Just as most people think Dylan is a political singer-songwriter and then he comes out with “If You See Her, Say Hello”, and you go, “Oh my God.” The same with Bowie. “Letter To Hermione” starts off, “The hand that wrote this letter sweeps the pillow clean…” It sounds like Keats. And then, “Something tells me that you hide/When all the world is warm and tired/You cry a little in the dark/Well, so do I.” That’s amazing. “Did you ever call my name just by mistake?” This guy just hoping. It’s beautiful. It’s beautiful.
19 Oh! You Pretty Things
From Hunky Dory (December 1971)
Stomping, melodious album cut that somehow proposed a pop collaboration between Paul McCartney and Friedrich Nietzsche
PHIL MAY (The Pretty Things): With The Pretty Things, you’d have lots of people who’d come around the stage at the end, from Bromley or Sidcup, even at the early art school shows we did. Lost souls who, like us, thought they were weird and different and yet, when they were in a place where music was played, suddenly didn’t feel such a weirdo. David was the one who struck me like a jackdaw. He was collecting, storing and taking in music like a sponge. He wasn’t like a fan. We talked about art, too – we’d been at the same art school.
I’ve always interpreted this song as a fantasy of outsiders taking over. In terms of using our name, I think we were a beacon to him. I’ve never had a conversation with him about it, but there was “Pretty Things Are Going To Hell”, too [from 1999’s hours…]. I think the phrase is a euphemism for how he saw our band when he was starting up – somebody shining a light on his situation, when for the rest of his life, he was on his own.
18 Rock’n’Roll Suicide
From The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars (June 1972); released as a single, April 1974. Highest UK chart position: 22
Epic, defiantly show-stopping closer to the Ziggy live show, a rock’n’roll update of Jacques Brel’s “My Death”
MARC ALMOND: There are so many Bowie songs of the late ’60s and early ’70s that represent so much to me, but I have to single out “Rock’N’Roll Suicide”. As a skinny, spotty 14-year-old, bloody from being bottled by thugs on the way to Liverpool Empire in 1972, I climbed over the orchestra pit at the front of the stage. And as Bowie sang “Give me your hand!”, he reached down and took my hand. I was a mess of blood, glitter and cheap, badly applied make-up, but in a state of near religious ecstasy. “Rock’N’Roll Suicide” is a wonderfully structured song. It’s Bowie at his theatrical, Jacques Brel-inspired best. Sometimes I still sing it live to bring back that moment.
I loved all his work throughout the ’70s. That’s an incredible body of work, brilliant and innovative. I can’t think of any other artist that’s made so much impact in a short period. A year ago, at an opera in New York, he sat opposite me. We smiled at each other, but I’m not even sure he knew who I was, though Bowie probably knows who everyone is. I quite like it that we’ve never really met, as I can still be a fan that admires him from a distance.
17 Young Americans
From Young Americans (March 1975); released as a single, February 1975
Highest UK chart position: 18 Highest US chart position: 28
Stateside, Bowie hopes to catch some of the Philly Sound, and winds up inventing post-Nixonian Plastic Soul
SLASH: I remember this track really well. I was about 11 years old and my mom had worked as a costume designer on the Nic Roeg movie that he starred in, The Man Who Fell To Earth, and Bowie was around the family a lot. He and my mum were kinda dating. And this was the record that had come out when my mom was first hanging out with him. I didn’t know anything about him before that, he was just this cool-looking guy who’d come round the house. So this period of Bowie’s work – the whole white funk thing, Young Americans, Station To Station – that was my introduction to his work. What I love about it is that it’s funk, but there’s no sense of pastiche or parody. He’s taken this music and made it his own – cool, icy, stylish, sexy, a bit frightening – to the point that it couldn’t be anyone else. After that I worked backwards into Aladdin Sane and Ziggy Stardust, and I got heavily into “Heroes”, which is a fantastic single, and I loved all the Low period, like “Warszawa”. But it’s stuff like “Young Americans” that had the biggest effect on me.
16 The Man Who Sold The World
From The Man Who Sold The World (April 1971)
The title track of Bowie’s third album, a cryptic sci-fi lyric but an unforgettable riff, covered by everyone from Lulu to Nirvana
LULU: I first met Bowie on tour in the early ’70s, when he invited me to his concert. And back at the hotel, he said to me, in very heated language, “I want to make an MF of a record with you. You’re a great singer.” I didn’t think it would happen, but he followed up two days later. He was über-cool at the time and I just wanted to be led by him. I didn’t think “The Man Who Sold The World” was the greatest song for my voice, but it was such a strong song in itself. In the studio, Bowie kept telling me to smoke more cigarettes, to give my voice a certain quality. We were like the odd couple. Were we ever an item? I’d rather not answer that one, thanks!
For the video, people thought he came up with the androgynous look, but that was all mine. It was very Berlin cabaret. We did other songs, too, like “Watch That Man”, “Can You Hear Me?” and “Dodo”. “The Man Who Sold The World” saved me from a certain niche in my career. If we’d have carried on, it would have been very interesting.
15 Sound & Vision
From Low (January 1977); released as a single, February 1977
Highest UK chart position: 3; Highest US chart position: 69
A gleaming two-minute intro of Krautrock easy listening – featuring Mary Hopkin singing backup – leads into one of Bowie’s bleakest Berlin lyrics
ALEX KAPRANOS (Franz Ferdinand): We were asked to cover a song from 1977 [for the Radio 1: Established 1967 LP] and when I looked down the list, “Sound And Vision” jumped out as my favourite song of that year. I love it because it does what my favourite pop songs do: it’s out there, it’s unpredictable and does things you’d never heard in music. Yet it’s immediate at the same time. Because it takes so long for the vocals to come in, the pattern of the melody is so unpredictable and takes so long to evolve, and the fact it fades out at a bizarre point, you immediately want to put it on again. You feel like the song is playing for eternity in some other universe. It’s like you caught a snippet of something that will always be playing. And that’s not really like a standard pop song. There’s no start, middle and finish.
I grew up listening to Bowie. It’s one of the few things you inherit from your parents, something with edge. I’ve met him a couple of times at our gigs, which is always a little disconcerting. I remember him looking at the setlist and saying, “Oh good, you’re doing ‘Evil And A Heathen’. I’m looking forward to that one.”
14 John, I’m Only Dancing
Released as a single, September 1972, re-released January 1980; “John, I’m Only Dancing (Again)” (1975) released as a single, December 1979; Highest UK chart position: 12
Bowie’s first successful follow-up single, six months after “Starman”, consolidated his career and cemented the “Hi, I’m bi!” pose
SIOUXSIE SIOUX: It always takes me back to when I was 14. I just remember the feeling of that time. I think “School’s Out” by Alice Cooper was out, too. I was just getting ready to turn, I think. When Bowie’s music happened, it was a lifeline. I’d always grown up with music, but to be into something that was happening currently, something of my own that my sister and my brother hadn’t played first… it felt personal. I liked the subversiveness of Bowie. That was his appeal, and the fact that there was all that confusion about “Is it a boy? Is it a girl?” And I was pretty confused about myself, and that really tapped into something. I’d never be tempted to cover “John, I’m Only Dancing”. It’s perfect as it is. It’s so of a time. I wouldn’t want to mess with that.
13 Diamond Dogs
From Diamond Dogs (May 1974); released as a single, June 1974; highest UK chart position: 21
The title track from Bowie’s George Orwell concept opera once again mines Stones riffola and wasted Iggyish hijinks
HERBIE FLOWERS (Diamond Dogs bassist): The first time I played with Bowie was on the session for “Space Oddity”. Dear Gus [Dudgeon] was quaking in his boots. It might have been the first thing he ever produced. “Space Oddity” was this strange hybrid song. Rick Wakeman went out to buy a little Stylophone for seven shillings from a small shop on the corner where Trident Studios was. With that and all the string arrangements, it’s like a semi-orchestral piece.
We did Diamond Dogs very fast, doing basic tracks in three days in the little studio at Olympic. Bowie was writing a lot of the stuff as we were going. I think it was a semi-rescue attempt from his proposed George Orwell musical. The music was weird. I have to say I found it mildly unattractive at the time, but it was interesting stuff. Touring Diamond Dogs across America afterwards, it felt like those new songs were anarchic, all about tearing things down. It was prophetic in many ways. And the music was so loud and angry. Those shows were well organised. Strange things were going on, too. There was some in-fighting and maybe a lot of other things going on. But the band stuck together.
12 All The Young Dudes
Bowie’s version was never released on a studio album, but is available on a number of compilations and David Live (November 1974)
After Mott The Hoople rejected “Suffragette City”, Bowie came up with this career-saving track that they took to No 3
ROBERT WYATT: On the chorus of “All The Young Dudes” there’s a slight out-of-sync-ness between the chords as they go under the vocal melody. The chords start marching off before the tune comes in, so the word “dudes” is already on the third chord. Then there’s a great catch-up at the end of the chorus where the chords stamp their feet a couple of times waiting for the melody to catch up. Most writers would strum and hum, having the melody and chords coming in at the same time, but Bowie gives the song a great sense of motion. It’s got the immediate appeal of a timeworn folk melody, or one of the better football chants. I think it’s extraordinary and very generous that Bowie chose to give this song away and that his own role in it was so modestly placed.
I only met David for the first time very recently. We were guests at a David Gilmour concert at the Albert Hall. He came in to do a couple of old Pink Floyd songs. He was an extremely nice young man – I call him young, I’m in my sixties – and what he was doing on stage was blindingly good. All due respect to Syd, but his songs couldn’t have been realised any better. David’s voice is terrific now – it’s got a warm weight to it, and real authority.
11 The Jean Genie
From Aladdin Sane (April 1973); released as a single, November 1972. Highest UK chart position: 2; Highest US chart position: 71
Inspired by a combination of Jean Genet and Iggy Pop, hitched to a quasi Yardbirds riff, this proved Bowie’s biggest hit to date
JOHNNY MARR: It’s one of those amazing bits of noise that existed as a commercial release. It’s got sex and subversion and artistry in it. But it’s not so obscure that it couldn’t get on the radio. It really is a superb advertisement for what was once called rock’n’roll . Of course Mick Ronson’s guitar-playing is fantastic, but it’s the atmosphere created by the vocal and the attitude of the singer: it’s remote and scary and… quite alluring. It’s all the things that attracted me to rock music in the first place. And that it’s all wrapped up in a 7-inch 45 format is just perfect. It’s also really funny! The actual words themselves are a great example of why you don’t need to be earnest in pop music. And a great example of a sort of nonsense. It’s all about imagery over message. It’s just… cool!
10 Let’s Dance
From Let’s Dance (April 1983); released as a single, March 1983. Highest UK chart position: 1; Highest US chart position: 1
Bowie straightest pop song yet, white funk immaculately produced by Nile Rogers and Bernard Edwards, eases him into stadium megastardom
JIMMY PAGE: I played on his records, did you know that? His very early records, when he was Davy Jones & The Lower Third. The Shel Talmy records. I can think of two individual sessions that I did with him. He said in some interview that on one of those sessions I showed him these chords, which he used in “Space Oddity” – but he said, “Don’t tell Jim, he might sue me.” Ha ha!
There’s a lot of Bowie stuff that’s just terrific. He’s multi-faceted, multi-talented, isn’t he? I’m going to say “Let’s Dance” because it introduced everybody to Stevie Ray Vaughan. People were always saying, “Who’s the guitarist on that?” In the early days [Page is presumably referring to the 1970s] he was prolific and he put out some really important work. He was taking from various sources and putting it together, but that’s an art form in itself. And then the application of images… that whole Ziggy Stardust period and the build-up to Aladdin Sane, it captured the imagination. I knew people who couldn’t get enough of that world he created, couldn’t wait for the next release, the next tour. People still refer to his work from that time, and I think they always will. He’s a really important figure.
9 Life On Mars
From Hunky Dory (December 1971); released as a single June 1973 Highest UK chart position: 3
Bowie’s rejected English lyrics for the French original of “My Way” form the backbone of this astonishing song, and relocate the Dame as a kind of glam Sinatra…
MICK ROCK (photographer): Bowie wasn’t very well-known when I first met him. There were about 400 people at Birmingham Town Hall in March 1972. But I was fascinated with him. Even though they were small audiences, he projected very big. I made videos for him – “Moonage Daydream”, “John, I’m Only Dancing” and “The Jean Genie”. Then “Life On Mars” was released as a single in the summer of ’73. The video production values are minimal, all born of necessity. There was no budget at all. I shot “Life On Mars” in a day at Earls Court. I loved Hunky Dory, but there was something about “Life On Mars” that really got me. I still couldn’t tell you what it’s about, but that’s art. I wouldn’t go as far as saying it’s like reading Rimbaud, but it is rock’n’roll poetry. There’s something Zen-like about that song, even though it’s so emotional. It was the song that sold me on David. It triggered me towards wanting to write something about him and take some pictures. And as a result, our relationship developed from that. All that came afterwards, from Iggy and Lou to Queen, came in the wake of the stimulation provided by that LP and, specifically, “Life On Mars”. It’s the most significant Bowie song for me.
From Hunky Dory (December 1971); released as a single, January 1972, re-released December 1974. Highest UK chart position: 41; Highest US chart position: 66
The first single taken from Hunky Dory was a commercial flop, but proved an enduring artistic manifesto for Bowie’s pop mutations
GUY GARVEY (Elbow): Hunky Dory was my entry point into music. One of my sisters had a cassette tape of it and when I got my first player, I put it on. I loved it as a kid, mainly because of the sing-a-long nature of the tunes. When I came back to it in my teens, I started to realise what Bowie was singing about. It made it exist on a whole different level. It was organic and personal, a beautiful piece of work. From the outset, the chord progression of “Changes” is so dramatic. It starts off uneasy, gets a little less uneasy and then suddenly becomes so excited. The last chord of the intro is quite disconcerting, then this riff drops in that’s very sure of itself. It’s very well-constructed. It’s also the first time you hear this spiky kind of character emerge in his singing. The way he sings those first few lines is like he’s adopted some really bizarre character, like a wizened old scientist.
KEITH RICHARDS: Can’t remember. Who is he? Oh, he went to the same art school as me. “Changes”, maybe. That’s about it. Not a large fan, no. It’s all pose. It’s all fucking posing. It’s nothing to do with music. He knows it, too. I can’t think of anything else he’s done that would make my hair stand up.
7 Rebel Rebel
From Diamond Dogs (May 1974); released as a single, February 1974. Highest UK chart position: 5; Highest US chart position: 64
Bowie says farewell to glam with an irresistably Keefy riff and gender-bending lyric, originally written for a proposed Ziggy musical
RODNEY BINGENHEIMER, DJ: In early 1971, I was working for Mercury Records in LA and took Bowie around Hollywood. We stayed at my friend Tom Ayres’ house. I remember Gene Vincent being there and Bowie writing the lyrics for “Hang On To Yourself” and talking about the Ziggy character. He was talking about making it into a stage play. I think LA was a culture shock for Bowie. His mind was blown, everything was so big and bright. But it was a culture shock for others, too, because he was wearing a dress, the same one from the cover of The Man Who Sold The World. One party was at [socialite, columnist] Dianne Bennett’s house and [Warhol acolyte] Ultra Violet was there, in a milk bath. Bowie sat on the bed and played stuff from Hunky Dory and Ziggy on acoustic guitar. Everyone loved it.
In London, Bowie took me to the Cellar club, where they played music by Slade and T.Rex. That was where he gave me the idea for doing Rodney’s English Disco in LA. I always loved Bowie’s glam stuff. When I had the club, he would send me acetates and test pressings of those songs. “Rebel Rebel” was such a great dance song. It was really the glam rock song. It was like an anthem.
6 Ashes To Ashes
From Scary Monsters (September 1980); released as a single, August 1980. Highest UK chart position: 1
Bowie’s second No 1: an audaciously self-referential junkie confessional, matched with a sublime video, perfectly timed to catch the New Romantic wave
ROBERT DEL NAJA (Massive Attack): I was 16 when it came out, just left school. I was sniffing too much glue, messing around with chemicals. Growing up with Bowie as a kid, with the references in the song, I bound them into this idea of addiction, and personality development, and change. As well as being a beautiful pop song, it dealt with those issues in an accessible way. The sense of impending change and doom was interesting to a boy of my age. Major Tom’s so strung out he’s in outer space. I was going through a time where I’d lost my grip. That line, “My mother said, to get things done, you’d better not mess with Major Tom” was really resonant for me. That record was an echo of what was going on inside my head, questions I couldn’t answer.
“Ashes to Ashes” sounds so distinct. It’s got a strange start-stop quality, there’s something very beautiful about the way it rolls. Although it’s electronic construction, with its synths, it’s still one of the great songs of that time which managed to convey absolute human spirit. You were totally captivated by the song and the voice.
5 Space Oddity
First released as a single, July 1969; re-issued September 1975. Highest UK chart positions: 1
His first hit, rush-released to cash-in on the Apollo 11 moon landing, this snapshot of cosmic alienation was also – six years later – Bowie’s first UK No 1
SUFJAN STEVENS: It’s so beautiful, bizarre and otherworldly. It’s everything that Bowie does in one song: there’s humour, a political thrust, great guitar sounds and beautiful melodies. The countdown especially gives it a childlike feel. It’s got that comic-book quality, similar to what The Beatles achieved with “Yellow Submarine”, and yet it’s vast and psychedelic like a Pink Floyd song. Bowie sings it like an alien.
I suppose “Space Oddity” is the song on which he started to explore the idea of becoming a character, as followed through later on Ziggy Stardust. I first remember seeing Bowie doing “Let’s Dance” on MTV in the ’80s. Then I saw the film Labyrinth – I loved that when I was a kid. Bowie was so odd, so magical, and… I don’t know… sexually ambiguous. And that’s a very strange impression to take away as a kid! His art is so multi-faceted. He has many faces. I mean, even his eyes are two different shades.
From The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars (June 1972); released as a single, April 1972. Highest UK chart position: 10; Highest US chart position: 65
The last song to be recorded for Ziggy Stardust, supposedly because nobody heard a single on the album. The chorus octave-leap self-consciously apes “Somewhere Over The Rainbow”
WOODY WOODMANSEY (Spiders From Mars drummer): I first met David in 1969 at his place, Haddon Hall in Kent. Mick [Ronson] had been working with him for a few months. My only knowledge of him was “Space Oddity”, and a Hull festival flyer showing him with what looked like an afro hairstyle. So I met this guy wearing red cords, red slip-on shoes with a blue star painted on them, and a rainbow-striped T-shirt. His hair was long, so I didn’t immediately recognise him. We chatted about music. He even did a bit of mime. My impression was that this guy’s serious about making it, he’s already living it. For me the whole trip was a leap of faith. By Ziggy, we were all focused. We all lived in Haddon Hall. David was writing almost on a daily basis, He’d just started writing on the piano. I love “Starman” as it’s the concept of hope that the song communicates. That “we’re not alone” and “they” contact the kids, not the adults, and kind of say “get on with it”. “Let the children boogie”: music and rock’n’roll! It lifted the attention away from the depressing affairs in the ’70s, made the future look better. “Starman” was the first Bowie song since “Space Oddity” with mass appeal. After “Starman”, everything changed.
From Young Americans (March 1975); released as a single, July 1975. Highest UK chart position: 17; Highest US chart position: 1
Bowie meets Lennon in New York, and talk naturally turns to celebrity team-up – superbly soundtracked by Carlos Alomar’s irresistible guitar riff
DAVE GROHL: I’d like to pick one that not everyone else is going to pick. I love “Fame”, it’s fucking amazing. The drums, the vocals, the arrangement, the performance. That song is fucking slimy. I think it’s classic Bowie – the guitar tones just sound dirty, it sounds like a fucking garage band and could have been a Sub Pop single. There’s also“Hello Spaceboy”. We [Foo Fighters] played it with him at his 50th birthday party, at Madison Square Garden. Fuck man, the four of us onstage with his band – it was so fucking brutal. But for classic Bowie I’d have to say “Fame”.
2 Ziggy Stardust
From The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars (June 1972); released as the B-side to “The Jean Genie”, April 1972
Supposedly inspired by a combination of Brit rocker Vince Taylor and C&W weirdo The Legendary Stardust Cowboy, and the first of Bowie’s many adventures in rock’n’roleplay
PETER BUCK, REM: I lived in a small town called Roswell, Georgia, which
is now pretty much part of Atlanta but back then was like the Moon. “Ziggy Stardust” was about as weird as anything that existed anywhere. I remember buying the LP and learning four or five of those songs. I loved “Ziggy” particularly – Mick Ronson’s guitar lines are just beautiful. As someone who was trying to figure out a way to be a guitar player, but who didn’t want to be a Southern rock boogie guitar player, it was nice to see a soloist playing something angular and forward looking, and not rooted in “Hoochie-Coochie Man”. Ronson was very much an influence – the pithiness and intelligence of his playing. He does a lot of single-note stuff that doesn’t sound like he’s soloing away – it’s very melodic and very smart guitar-playing.
Living where I did, when I did, there weren’t any glam people in my town. But I did see the New York Dolls when I was 15. Bowie wasn’t quite underground – some radio stations would play him – but it didn’t make you popular to like that stuff. It would call your sexuality into question. But there were about five of my friends who would put on a little makeup, or wear one black thumbnail. Getting beaten up by guys in pick-up trucks was always a threat but, you know, all those guys are selling insurance somewhere or working for fertiliser companies.
From “Heroes” (October 1977); released as a single, September 1977 Highest UK chart position: 24
“There’s old wave. There’s new wave. And there’s David Bowie…” ran the press ads for the “Heroes” album, and Bowie never caught a better balance between epic romantic alienation and cool ironic poise than on the title track. Originally an instrumental composition partly inspired by Neu!’s track “Hero”, Bowie and producer Tony Visconti conjured up a Phil Spector dream of krautrock, from Robert Fripp’s endless feedbacking guitar to Eno’s droning synth discordance. The result is the greatest song of Bowie’s career
JOHN CALE: My first encounter with David was when I was doing A&R at Warners in 1971. I was there to bring in the strange and freaky stuff, the underground stuff. So there we were with Hunky Dory, the deal was on the table and everyone was trying to figure out how this cabaret-ish, Brit art-rock could work. At that time, Warners had The Doobie Brothers and Alice Cooper and all of that, which they understood. But coming around to the art side of things, they just didn’t get what David was doing. It was [producer] Ted Templeman and I who went to [Warners head] Joe Smith and told him the rest of the A&R department was really divided about Hunky Dory. It’s a very difficult thing to fight for in a large corporation like that if no-one understands where they’re going with it. It really wasn’t fair, certainly not to David. There were certain things you knew you weren’t going to get your hands on in those days and that was one of them. You were struggling in the trenches. But I loved Hunky Dory. I saw the Anthony Newley/Lionel Bart vein in it. It was unique, strange and very unorthodox. But if you tried to explain Anthony Newley and British music hall tradition to the executives, they just wouldn’t get it. So I was really disappointed I couldn’t do anything at Warners with him. I think, later on in the ’70s when I saw the whole thing build with David, it all started to make sense to people.
David and I didn’t actually meet until I first went back to New York, after I’d done Patti [Smith; Cale produced Horses in 1975]. When we did that bootleg [Cale and Bowie recorded “Piano-La” and “Velvet Couch” in New York in October 1979], it was like the good old bad old days. We were partying very hard. It was exciting working with him, as there were a lot of possibilities and everything, but we were our own worst enemies at that point. We also played that show for Steve Reich and Philip Glass [1979’s ‘The First Concert Of The Eighties’]. That was a lot of fun. That was when we were hanging out, so I asked David if he’d like to come and play “Sabotage” with me. I ended up teaching him the viola part, which he had a whack at and then ended up playing on stage for the first time. Did I ever want to produce Bowie? After spending time with him, I realised the answer was no. The way we were then would have made it too dangerous. Nowadays it would be different, though. He could improvise songs very well, which was what that bootleg was all about. The great thing about when we met and then started hanging out in the ’70s was that he would say [puts on thick Welsh accent] “That’s Dai Jones from Wales, isn’t it?” He loved all that. That set us off. We got along really well, but most of what we were doing was just partying.
I suppose David and I were similar in that we were coming from the European art side of things as much as rock’n’roll. What struck me about “Heroes” was that branded hammer piano. There was a lot of layering, too, a lot of orchestral stuff on it, but it’s really that two-chord special. It was that “Waiting For The Man” thing, though when we eventually met, we didn’t really talk about The Velvet Underground at all. Aside from the repetitive hammer piano, there’s a real groove in “Heroes”, but it’s very horizontal. And then it was layered with all Brian [Eno]’s stuff. If anything, I think it was their dissimilarity that drew David and Brian together. It was kind of how the VU was with Lou and I: put two people from very different backgrounds in the same room and you get a third thing. And I think that’s what happened with David and Brian. Did I see my own influence on Low and “Heroes”? If you’re talking about David’s use of drone, then yes. It’s all through that stuff. That’s why Brian was involved. But I think the tapestry idea of “Heroes” and blanketing the music to give it depth was a very good idea. I could see David’s progression to making it rhythm-oriented and then disco-oriented, which was the style of the day. Against what was happening with disco, if you had that sustained tapestry of sound behind you, it really helped. Especially if you had material like David had. It wasn’t like doing The Village People.
The imagery in “Heroes” is interesting. Hansa Studios was an interesting place to be at the time. The Berlin Wall was still up. I saw the two lovers by the Wall as two Brits adrift in Berlin, when Berlin was really something you couldn’t pin down at all. You’d have to drive through East Germany to get there. Being in West Berlin was very different from what it is now: everyone was nuts, living on the edge. It was a real circus over there. When Brian and I did that Nico concert where she insisted on singing “Deutschland Über Alles” [in October 1974 at The Nationalgalerie], they really went nuts. All the young people there were living with the Wall. And it was a fiery place to be.
Interviews by David Cavanagh, Carol Clerk, Nick Hasted, Rob Hughes, Tim Jonze, John Lewis, Dan Martin, Andrew Mueller, Sam Richards, John Robinson, Marc Spitz and Stephen Troussé