This second post in the Music Discovery series covers a dozen years and nine David Bowie albums. It follows Bowie as he says goodbye to Glam Rock and Ziggy Stardust and takes on American soul, German electronic music, atmospheric art music, and finally pop superstardom. The first six albums come out with regularity about a year apart, but by the 1980s, Bowie’s musical output drops considerably with only three albums in 8 years. Sadly, the quality of that music also falls off a cliff, and it’s hard to believe it’s the same artists. Bowie himself would refer to it as his “Phil Collins period.”
Despite only three albums, Bowie remained busy in the 1980s with major world tours and collaborations with other artists. Some, like with Queen, were transcendent while other’s, like with Mick Jagger, were embarrassing. Bowie also kept busy acting in films like The Man Who Fell to Earth, Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, and Labyrinth (I need to have a David Bowie movie marathon and watch all of these). I didn’t include his movie soundtrack work so there is more musical output there. Bowie’s film experience also translated to music video and he helped make an art of the medium. I remember the 20-minute movie/video for “Blue Jean” being a huge deal on MTV at the time, although his “Ashes to Ashes” video stands up more over time.
So here is it all, the weird and wonderful and sometimes cringe-worthy middle career of David Bowie.
Album: Young Americans
Release Date: 7 March 1975
Favorite Tracks: “Young Americans,” “Fame,” “John, I’m Only Dancing (Again),” and “Who Can I Be Now?”
Thoughts: Bowie transitions into a 70s soul & funk style for this album. To help out he collaborates with Luther Vandross, but also works with John Lennon on a couple of tracks. I found the sound of this album a refreshing change at first, although it all starts to blend together after a while. The cover of “Across the Universe” seemed particularly uninspired since a Philly soul take on that song seems so promising. The two hit singles from this album, and surprisingly the bonus tracks added in later editions stand out for me.
Album: Station to Station
Release Date: 23 January 1976
Favorite Tracks: “Golden Years” and “TVC 15”
Thoughts: The album continues the r&b sound of it’s predecessor, with a darker mood, and the addition of electronic instrumentation that prefigures the post-punk/New Wave sound by about five years. Apparently Bowie was completely coked-out in recording this album and channeling the numb-to-emotion persona of the Thin White Duke. I know this album is well-regarded so I hope Bowie fans won’t judge me too much for it not resonating well with me. Still, a definite musical achievement.
Release Date: 14 January 1977
Favorite Tracks: “Be My Wife,” “”A New Career in a New Town,” “Warszawa,” and “Subterraneans”
Thoughts: Bowie escaped a cocaine-riddled life in Los Angeles and moved to Berlin, working with Brian Eno on the first of what would become known as the Berlin Trilogy albums. Stylistically, Bowie moves on from American funk & soul to German electronic and avant guarde music. The entire second half of the album is mostly instrumental and atmospheric music, something I really like although I imagine it was a shock to rock & roll fans in 1977. I’d never heard any of this album before so it was a pleasant surprise to hear Bowie innovating in yet another musical style.
Rating: ***1/2 (I’d give the B-side a full ****)
Release Date: 14 October 1977
Favorite Tracks: “Beauty and the Beast,” “‘Heroes’,” “Sense of Doubt,” and “Neukoln”
Thoughts: Bowie and Eno’s experiments with electronic and atmospheric music continue with this album trying and succeeding to incorporate those sounds into pop songs with lyrics. There’s still a segment of three consecutive instrumental, atmospheric tracks near the end of the album. As a result, the album feels all over the place musically, but delightfully so. This very much feels like the groundwork for 1980s New Wave music.
Release Date: 18 May 1979
Favorite Tracks: “DJ” and “Boys Keep Swinging”
Thoughts: Bowie builds on the experimental sounds of the previous two albums in a collection of songs with much more pop sensibility. To this is added an element of world music on several tracks. The effect is kind of a Bowie take on Talking Heads.
Album: Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps)
Release Date: 12 September 1980
Favorite Tracks: “Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps),” “Ashes to Ashes,” “Fashion,” and “Because Your Young”
Thoughts: The album is a culmination (and perhaps a purging) of all the musical sounds of the seventies, as well as a preview of what’s to come in the eighties. There’s very little of the experimentation of recent albums, just straight forward rock in a New Wave vein.
Album: Let’s Dance
Release Date: 14 April 1983
Favorite Tracks: “Modern Love” and “Let’s Dance”
Thoughts: Bowie dives into 1980s mainstream success with this collection of danceable soul/funk tracks. He plays no instruments, but his voice is joined by Stevie Ray Vaughn, and Nile Rogers produces ready made hits. While “Modern Love” and “Let’s Dance” are a couple of the great songs of the 1980s overall, the rest of the album is kind of a bland morass.
Release Date: 1 September 1984
Favorite Tracks: “Blue Jean”
Thoughts: An attempt to follow up on the commercial success of Let’s Dance, this album is basically a collection of covers packaged around the one good song “Blue Jean.” The rest of the album is almost unlistenable and it’s hard to believe it was created by the same person who made the previous 15 albums.
Rating: 1/2 *
Album: Never Let Me Down
Release Date: 27 April 1987
Favorite Tracks: none
Thoughts: I want to be more generous with this album, because it sounds like there may be some good songs under the awful 80s production, and Bowie made the effort to write a new set of songs with a rock band. But it still isn’t much fun to listen to this.
Next week: Bowie returns to innovating music setting an example for other rock and roll elder statesmen right up until his death in 2016.