One month ago, David Bowie turned 69. At the same time, he released a great album, arguably to be compared to his best ever works. But, two days later, he died.
I am not over it. Maybe the Internet has moved on. But, I haven’t.
David Bowie helped to shape the world I grew up in. So many musical movements I enjoyed was touched by him. Every weird haircut that I admired was indirectly inspired by him. The very definition of what a man was supposed to be was redefined for me by him. For our generation, manhood (and womanhood too!) became a spectrum of identity along which we became free to move. With that in place, we could decide on the details of what our identities meant for ourselves dynamically instead of holding to some spurious one size fits all ideal. Turn and face the strange, he said! These days, these dynamics are just a given, of course. But, I believe that we have Bowie to thank for a lot of that just because of the impact he had on popular culture with the various masks and personas he wore.
That’s just the thing. David Bowie was as much about redefining how we perceive identity as he was about musically inspiring his peers and followers. In fact, Bowie’s innovation with identity and artifice is entwined with his musical output in such a way that makes either one a facet of the other. What’s come out of that dichotomy between persona and sound simply makes him immortal.
Here are 16 personas that Bowie projected through out his career either by his design or made manifest through our perception as his audience. Which one do you identify with the most? I imagine the answer to that is as varied as there are the number of personas Bowie took on. But, take a look, and tell me what you think.
Listen to this track by New York-based art rock and new wave quartet Talking Heads. It’s “Psycho Killer”, an early composition that would eventually appear on the band’s appropriately titled 1977 debut album Talking Heads 77 and become its second single.
The song was released in the winter 1977, months after New York City was menaced by The Son Of Sam, a serial killer later revealed to be one David Berkowitz, who claimed that he was driven to kill six young women at the behest of his neighbor’s dog Harvey, who according to Berkowitz, was actually a demon in dog form. Despite this song seeming to be a direct reference to this series of events, the song actually pre-dates them, written in 1974 around the time the band was formed. Maybe it was chosen as a single because of its relevance during a time when psycho killers were on everyone’s mind.
Singer, guitarist, and co-writer David Byrne has been quoted as saying that this song is about the Alice Cooper meets Randy Newman interior monologue of a single, and very pretentious killer. Yet, I think this suggests something beyond that that has more to do with us listeners than it does with any one bad guy. Read more
Listen to this track by musical chameleon, vocal titan and otherwise folk-jazz-whatever singer-songwriter Tim Buckley. It’s “Song Of The Siren”, the version which appeared on his 1970 album Starsailor.
The song had been around for a while, featuring in particular on his 1968 musical guest appearance on the very last episode of The Monkees TV series, of all things. In that appearance, the song is decidedly folkier and more vocally polite than the one you’re hearing here. Buckley was a restless artist, constantly on the move and seemingly driven to push his own artistic boundaries, sometimes to a fault when considering his commercial footholds, or lack thereof. During his particular era, changing tracks musically, or in fact building one’s own track from scratch, was a trickier thing than it is today. The template for that kind of career wasn’t quite set across the board.
Regardless of all of that, Buckley’s “Song Of The Siren” is one of his best known songs, even if it appeared on an ablum that wasn’t exactly mainstream-friendly. So, was Buckley trying to accomplish by retooling it? Read more
Listen to this track by hitmaking and highly festive British glam-rock purveyors Slade. It’s “Merry Xmas Everybody”, an enormous 1973 hit single that snagged the highly coveted Christmas number one spot on the British charts that year.
The song was an amalgam of elements that writers Noddy Holder and Jim Lea had lying around, from as far back as 1967. This might explain its slightly psychedelic feel. Guitarist and singer Holder had the melody to the chorus, and bassist Lea had the melody to the verses. Holder and Lea fashioned the festive lyrics and the band recorded the song at the Record Plant in New York City in the summer of 1973.
This song would achieve more than just impressive chart showings and eventual platinum sales. Holder’s “It’s Chrrriissssstmas!!” screech would become a personal trademark for years to come during personal appearances in concert and on television. Beyond that, the song would gain a place in the DNA of a whole culture, helping to reveal the values of that culture more precisely at just the right time of year. Read more
Listen to this track by former blues-rock titans turned folk and pop-oriented concern featuring an evolving line up, Fleetwood Mac. It’s “Dust”, a song written by the band’s 21-year old guitarist and vocalist Danny Kirwan, and featured on the band’s 1972 album Bare Trees. The song features lines from a poem of the same name by Rupert Brooke, an Edwardian poet who died in 1915.
Kirwan joined Fleetwood Mac when fellow guitarists and original members Peter Green and Jeremy Spencer were still both in the band. The Then Play On album would feature Kirwan’s dual lead vocals and his emerging talent on the guitar, which was a tall order when considering Green’s enormous stature as a player in particular. By the time the elder guitarist departed the group in 1970, Kirwan was well-established to take his place, or at least become the focus in Green’s absence.
This song is evident of Kirwan’s influence, which was the slow drift away from the blues, and into a more wistful, pastoral, and more radio-friendly direction during a time when folky singer songwriters were making headway when it came to selling records. This song in particular would reveal something else about Kirwan though, and would unfortunately foreshadow his fate at the same time. Read more
Listen to this track by Dusseldorf duo and krautrock architects with an ironic consumerist moniker, Neu! It’s “Hallogallo” the lead track off of their eponymous 1972 debut record.
The band was made up of guitarist Michael Rother, and drummer/multi-instrumentalist Klaus Dinger. Both were involved in early iterations of fellow innovators Kraftwerk, and deal in many of the same musical approaches to a generous use of space and economic instrumentation. Speaking of space, this tune in particular seems to evoke a vast aural landscape of motorways and fast car travel. A sense of childlike wonder is contrasted to the idea of a dehumanized world of metal and glass that is an important undercurrent and vital tension in the music.
The incredible thing about this song in general is that this tension is evoked by the sparsest means, most notably a simple and unrelenting drum beat that is so undeniable it even has it’s own name: motorik.Read more
Listen to this track by top-of-the-heap prog rock players Yes. It’s “And You And I”, a track that served as a single in a radio-edited form, and heard in its full form on their 1972 record Close To The Edge. That record is the last in a trio of key albums that would define their peak period, kicked off by The Yes Album, with Fragile in the middle.
These records feature what is widely acknowledged as the classic line-up of Yes; Jon Anderson singing, Rick Wakeman on keyboards, Steve Howe on guitars, Chris Squire on bass, and Bill Bruford on drums. It was this configuration that enabled them to connect smaller musical ideas into larger and more involved extended pieces for which they became known. This song is certainly one of those, which to this day is among the core tunes on set lists.
As popular as this piece is, a lot of the discussion around it is on what it’s actually about. Is it a love song? Is it a spiritual homily? Is it what the band (inexplicably) called it, a protest song? Read more
Listen to this track by golden-throated singer-songwriter and soon-to-be Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Famer Harry Nilsson. It’s “Turn On Your Radio”, a deep-cut from his 1972 album Son of Schmilsson. The record is a self-consciously-titled follow-up to his Nilsson Schmilsson album, which is his biggest selling record to date.
By 1972, Nilsson had scored a number of successes, with seven records behind him, songs on mainstream movie soundtracks, and songs of his covered by other artists. Also, Nilsson had made a lot of friends by then, and had won a number of celebrity fans too, some of whom helped him realize his musical goals during the sessions. This included two Beatles — Ringo Starr (credited as “Ritchie Snare”) on drums, and George Harrison playing his signature slide guitar. Later on of course, he’d have another Beatle in his inner circle; John Lennon, who helped Nilsson drink a lot of Brandy Alexanders at the Troubadour Club. But, that’s another story!
Beyond that, this song illustrates the magnitude of Nilsson’s talent by then. He was able to strike a balance that few songwriters were able to do, between sumptuousness and simplicity. Lyrically too, this song seems to hit two chords at the same time. Read more
Listen to this track by British singer-songwriter, poet, essayist, and all-around musical genre defier Labi Siffre. It’s “Watch Me”, a single on the Polydor label released onto the UK charts with a top thirty placement in 1972. That year, he would also release his third album, Crying Laughing Loving Lying.
Before his recording career as a solo artist began in the 1970, Labi Siffre was a jobbing musician in the jazz clubs of Soho in London in the 1960s. His music would be delivered in two separate stages. First, he would put out six albums from 1970 to 1975. Later, he would retire as a recording artist, only to return in the mid-eighties, and make four more records by the end of the nineties. His work would be covered by acts ranging from Madness, who had a top ten hit with Siffre’s “It Must Be Love”, to Rod Stewart who would record “Crying Laughing Loving Lying”. His music has since been sampled by Eminem, Kanye West, Jay Z, and Primal Scream.
In this early part of his career, he would become known in England as a writer of great depth and dimension to be compared to many of his contemporaries who had come out of similar scenes including Joan Armatrading, Cat Stevens, and Al Stewart. This song is a prime example of what he was able to do; write towering love songs full of beaming optimism without any hint of soppiness or hackeyed sentiment of any kind. He would also make a point of breaking down all kinds of barriers, both of a musical and of a personal nature. Read more
Listen to this track from Avant garde tenor player with a soft side Pharaoh Sanders. It’s “Astral Traveling”, a track as taken off of his 1971 LP Thembi. This record catches Sanders during what many consider to be his prime period. But, instead of stretching out for side-long excursions into tempestuous and ferocious whirlwinds of sound, this record is more varied, and with more bite-sized track lengths, not to mention moments of serenity and lyricism. Maybe it was because the record was named after Sanders’ wife. But, it largely deals in subtlety and sonic variation, as opposed to the crashing assault for which much of his work is generally known.
This album is actually the product of two different sessions. Like many jazz records toward the end of the sixties and into the seventies, these sessions were edited into a whole at the production stage instead of being recorded right off of the floor as is. This doesn’t mean that the record was without spontaneity or the spirit of experimentation. In fact, this very track can certainly be considered experimental, even if it is pastoral in equal measure. Read more