At 59-years old and after 40 years as artiste, David Bowie – despite emergency heart surgery two years ago – continues to weave a restless web between contemporary music, performance, club culture, the visual arts, the digital world, and film.
Last week Bowie announced ambitious plans for the May 2007 debut of an annual 10-day arts and music extravaganza in New York City, “The High Line Festival,” which will blend emerging and star talent and be shaped by a different “iconic visionary curator” each year. Bowie himself will orchestrate next year’s show and perform a large outdoor concert at the finale of the event – his first show in NYC since December 2003.
“The High Line Festival” will take place on the street and in neighboring venues alongside the High Line, a public park being created along 1.5 miles of abandoned elevated train tracks on New York City’s West Side.
Bowie – who was just voted the eighth Greatest Rock Hero by NME – said, “I’ve been particularly excited about seeking out emerging artists and giving them a place in a Festival that will also feature some very well-known names. That will be an ongoing mission of The High Line Festival – to offer performances and exhibitions that are unique and original to New York.”
So Bowie has something interesting to work on for the next year – I am pleased. As varied and creative as his work has been over his entire career, Bowie’s irreducible icon status derives from a protean six-year period 1970-1976 (in addition, Low, Heroes, Scary Monsters, and Let’s Dance are all touched with greatness) where the stakes were highest and he delivered the most.
Man Who Sold the World – Station to Station
Guitarist Mick Ronson was summoned to London in 1970 to work with David Bowie on the follow-up to his first hit single, “Space Oddity.” Bowie and bassist/producer Tony Visconti were assembling a hard rock band to blow away Bowie’s frouffy, flower power image. With the addition of ex-Rat Woody Woodmansey on drums, The Man Who Sold the World lineup was complete.
Man rocks with an authority that startles, even today. While the material is uneven and Visconti’s production is somewhat pinched, Man is Bowie’s first classic album. Ronson’s guitar propels the opus “Width of a Circle”; he riffs viciously like Jimmy Page and solos on the twang bar with a Jeff Beck-like intensity. “All the Madmen” is one of the most successful examples of Bowie’s career-long fascination with the Outsider. The title track is driven by Ronson’s melodic lines and a spunky Latin beat.
After Man, Bowie returned to songwriting; when he was through writing Hunky Dory, Ronson, Woodmansey and another ex-Rat, bassist Trevor Bolder, answered the call to London.
This time Ronson acted as band leader and arranger as his electric guitar flash was subsumed within a delicate mix of piano, strings and acoustic guitar. Ronson helped bring Bowie’s melodic gifts to the fore with brilliant arrangements of Bowie’s career-theme “Changes,” the lush “Life On Mars,” the wistful and affecting “Kooks,” and Bowie’s evocation of spiritual impotence, “Quicksand.” Ronson’s bowel shaking electric guitar returns to give “Queen Bitch” the edge it demands, giving a foretaste of the glory that was to be the Spiders From Mars.
Bowie’s next album, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars, defined an era as completely as “Rock Around the Clock,” Elvis’s Sun Sessions, or the Beatles’ first album. Bowie and the Spiders created a compelling, dangerous and mythic world of glittering cosmic androgyny powered by rock ‘n’ roll.
The greatness of the Spiders band emboldened Bowie to envision himself as a superstar, although he hadn’t come close to attaining that status in real life yet. Bowie’s risk was backed up by the music on the album, which is the most consistent, tuneful and least self-indulgent of his career. Ziggy is also Ronson’s greatest musical moment as he played guitars and keyboards, and co-arranged the album with Bowie.
“Soul Love” is a perfect example of the contrast that Ronson seemed to be able to bring out in Bowie’s music. The “baby” background vocals that Ronson and Bowie share have an otherworldly lightness, while Bowie’s soul sax swings gently, and Ronson’s fuzzy Les Paul gooses the song with heaviness at the right moments.
“Lady Stardust” introduces the Ziggy character in all of his decadent glory with makeup, long black hair and “animal grace,” as Ronson’s piano and Bowie’s longing vocals lend the song an elegiac flavor. Ronson’s guitar line on the title track is a study is melodic economy. “Suffragette City” rocks with Ronson’s pounding piano and driving Les Paul. The stomping chorus and the immortal line “Wham bam thank you ma’am” contribute to make it Bowie and Ronson’s most memorable song.
Ronson and the Spiders continued with Bowie for two more albums, Aladdin Sane, and Pinups. Sane yielded two more classics, “Panic In Detroit” and “The Jean Genie,” as well as Ronson’s hardest guitar on record, the crunching and squealing “Cracked Actor.”
Pinups is a collection of covers songs that was received with mixed enthusiasm, and this response coupled with Bowie’s natural restlessness led to the breakup of the band. Neither Bowie nor Ronson was ever again to find as symbiotic or successful a partnership.
In a move away from sci-fi glam rock to what he called “plastic soul,” David Bowie recorded the swinging “Young Americans” with Tony Visconti producing and a new band (Alomar, Willy Weeks on bass, Luther Vandross on background vocals, David Sanborn on sax) at Philadelphia’s Sigma Sound (made famous by Gamble and Huff) in Fall-’74.
Bowie and Visconti had also recorded “Win,” “Right,” “Somebody Up There Likes Me” and the great “Fascination” (co-written with Vandross) at Sigma, but then Bowie went back on tour and Visconti returned to London. The tapes were sent to NYC’s Record Plant to be mixed by young Harry Maslin.
Bowie had a falling out with his management company, MainMan, over the direction of his new music and his drug use, among other things, and the album was put on hold. Then in November, recalled Maslin in a phone conversation, “I was home one day with my then-girlfriend and a couple of friends and we had a couple glasses of wine. I get a call on the phone and it’s David Bowie.
“He says, ‘Look, you gotta do me a favor. You have to get me some time at Record Plant because I want to finish my album so I can get home by Christmas, and it’s getting late.’
“I said, ‘No problem, let me see what I can do.’ He said, ‘You gotta do one other thing for me – you gotta produce the rest of the album.’ I took the phone away from my ear like I was hallucinating, then put it back and said, ‘Ah, I think I can do that.’ I hung up the phone and told my friends and they all thought I was full of shit.”
Maslin helped Bowie produce “Across the Universe” and the funky classic “Fame” – with John Lennon playing and singing along – and ended up with co-production credit for every song on the album except “Young Americans.”
Pleased with their work together, Bowie then asked Maslin to co-produce his next album – his highest-charting in the U.S. – Station to Station. Recorded at Cherokee Studios in Hollywood with Bowie in character as the icy, arch-European Thin White Duke, Station is a strange but ultimately successful amalgam of Bowie’s Young American soul stylings and muscular rock jamming (led by lead guitarist Earl Slick).
The title track is a 10-minute medley of mechanical beats and soul-rock riffing that somehow combines Kraftwerk and early-Bruce Springsteen. “Golden Years” is great, tuneful, uptempo soul and was the only song on the album to be recorded quickly and easily.
“TVC15” is odd – even for Bowie – with lyrics inspired by his starring role in the science fiction film classic The Man Who Fell to Earth, Roy Bittan’s (of the E Street Band) jaunty whorehouse piano, martial dance beats, and a mesmerizing refrain. “Stay” rocks to the dual guitars of Alomar and Slick, and Dennis Davis’s syncopated drumming.
With Bowie wired on coke, working vampire’s hours, and writing/rewriting songs in the studio, Station was very difficult to make, but somehow came out a classic.