If you hadn’t guessed by now, we really do rather like David Bowie, and we’ve been on something of a Bowie binge in the lead-up to the release of The Next Day. In the process, we’ve ended up revisiting some material that we haven’t heard in quite some time — with such an extensive back catalog, it’s inevitable that some songs and records get neglected, so it’s been a pleasure to listen again to some of the more oft-forgotten corners of Bowie’s discography. We thought we’d share some of our favorites — do let us know what yours are! (And yes, we even revisited Tin Machine. Pray for us.)
“Letter to Hermione”
Bowie’s lyricism has been generally characterized by a certain obliqueness — his songs’ subject matter is rarely straightforward, his lyrics open to multiple interpretations. This early song, however, has as simple and heartfelt a lyric as you’ll ever hear: it really is a letter to Hermione, the Hermione in question being Bowie’s first serious girlfriend Hermione Farthingale, with whom he played in an early band called Turquoise and lived throughout late 1968. She left him in 1969, and he was heartbroken.
Bowie’s Nietzsche ‘n’ Crowley phase yielded plenty of well-documented goodness, but this track from The Man Who Sold the World remains a largely under-appreciated pleasure. It’s a quietly sinister faux nursery rhyme that manages to evoke the sense that inside every adult is a frightened child. The instrumentation is similarly discomfiting, especially that creepy fairground organ. The song has been accused of preaching Satanism, and it certainly paraphrases Crowley’s famous dictum — “Live ’til your rebirth and do what you will” — before finishing on an ambiguous note (“Forget all I’ve said, please bear me no ill”).
Two years later, this track found Bowie revealing a rather more ambivalent relationship with his twin lyrical obsessions. “Quicksand” seems to catalog a struggle with both Crowley’s ideas of ego death (“I’m frightened by the total goal”) and Nietzsche’s of the übermensch (“Just a mortal with a potential of the superman”), relating a desire to escape or transcend his own mortal limitations but also acknowledging both the ultimate impossibility of this ambition and the pitfalls of trying to pursue it — specifically, the connection between Nietszche’s philosophy and fascism. Who else writes lyrics like this?
We’ve always thought Diamond Dogs was rather underrated as a whole. Several of its songs started life as a part of a stage production Bowie wanted to make based on George Orwell’s 1984 (the project was abandoned after Orwell’s estates refused to grant him the rights to do so) and the influence of Orwell’s classic dystopia is obvious here, both in the song’s title and its subject matter. Given Bowie’s enduring fascination with the idea of dystopian futures, his affection for 1984 makes perfect sense. It’s a shame the stage show never did get off the ground.
Considering Bowie apparently can’t remember recording Young Americans, it’s startling how good it is. There’s the title track, of course, which isn’t underrated at all, but perhaps the fullest expression of Bowie’s soul obsession came with this funked-up opus, co-written with Luther Vandross.
Bowie’s occasionally flirted with Middle Eastern musical stylings — “The Secret Life of Arabia” from “Heroes”, for instance — and this Lodger track adopted Turkish-inspired sounds to suit its subject matter (the living condition of Turkish guest workers in Berlin). The title has nothing to do with the word “assassin,” by the way — it’s Turkish, and means “live long.”
“Time Will Crawl”
Even Bowie hated the much-maligned Never Let Me Down: “Never Let Me Down had good songs that I mistreated. I didn’t really apply myself. I wasn’t quite sure what I was supposed to be doing.” He’s basically right about it, but still, the album did have its moments — or at least one, anyway, namely this track. As ever with Bowie, it was heavily laden with post-apocalyptic imagery, although in this case, the apocalypse was a real one: the song was inspired by the Chernobyl disaster and its lingering effects.
“I Can’t Read”
This is how much we love you, gentle readers: we listened to Tin Machine again for you. In fairness, the problem with Bowie’s just-a-regular-dude-in-his-regular-dude-band phase wasn’t so much the songwriting as it was the arrangements — their hard rock stylings didn’t sound great at the time, and in 2013 they sound as dated as the awful headstock-less guitar that Reeves Gabrels insisted on playing. The band were at their best when they eschewed the lumpenrock and guitar pyrotechnics of tracks like “Heaven’s in Here” and “Under the God” for a more subtle approach. This is perhaps the track on which the whole idea worked best, a proto-alt-rock song that sounds like Gabrels had been listening to a lot of Sonic Youth and Dinosaur Jr.
This Outside-era track surfaced on the soundtrack to David Lynch’s Lost Highway, for which it was a perfect fit. That fact, along with its title, should give you a pretty good indication of its abiding mood. The cut-up style lyrics were arranged in something called the Verbasizer — a custom program someone wrote for Bowie to scramble and rework his lyrics — and as such they’re more evocative than literal, but they still manage to be singularly disconcerting.
“Battle for Britain (The Letter)”
Bowie’s drum ‘n’ bass phase inspired bewilderment at the time, but we rather liked it, and unlike Tin Machine, it sounds better in retrospect, not worse. This jagged, scattershot piece was one of the best examples of Bowie taking inspiration from a contemporary style and molding it into something of his own, just like he did with soul music on Young Americans 20 years before. Remarkably, the song is apparently based on something by Stravinsky.
In celebration of David Bowie’s first album in a decade, The Next Day — and, you know, because we really love him and will seize any excuse to write about him — we have officially declared David Bowie Week at Flavorwire. Click here to follow our week-long coverage of rock legend, from his new release to a legacy that now spans nearly half a century.