16 January 2016

And I will sing, waiting for the gift of sound and vision

Like many millions of fans, I felt this week's loss of David Bowie keenly. His music has played a huge role in my life since my teenage years. It was such a thrill to discover that the pop star I knew from the radio in the first half of the 1980s and from the Labyrinth soundtrack (my first Bowie LP - a true gateway drug to a lifelong musical addiction) had actually produced a myriad of amazing albums in the 1970s that were all just waiting to be discovered and treasured.

In 2004 it was a huge thrill to see the man perform a powerful set at the Stadium here in Wellington, even though the filthy weather dampened the occasion and the farm-boys in the row behind talked all the way through the gig as if they weren't particularly interested in what was unfolding on the stage. And late last year I was lucky to be able to visit the V&A exhibition 'David Bowie Is' at the ACMI in Melbourne and see first hand the amazing range of Bowie costumes, stories and ephemera that helped shape this most intriguing of artistic careers.

Now as I prepare to listen to his final studio album Blackstar another time, and heartened by the news that the UK album charts are awash with people buying Bowie's music anew - ten Bowie records including Low, Aladdin Sane and Diamond Dogs in the top 40 in 2016! - I'd like to share five great Bowie tracks that helped us all turn and face the strange:

Eight Line Poem
(Recorded June-July 1971; released Hunky Dory LP)

A brief but beautiful hippie interlude on my favourite Bowie album, Eight Line Poem features a typically obtuse lyric melded with two fine, languid Mick Ronson guitar bookends and the squelching echo of producer Ken Scott's top secret recording bunker. It may not mean anything much, but sandwiched as it is on Hunky Dory's side A between the classic world-beaters Oh! You Pretty Things and Life On Mars it's a thing of rare quiet beauty, and I totally want it played at my funeral.

Waiting For The Man
(Written by Lou Reed; recorded live 20 October 1972, Santa Monica Civic Auditorium; released on "Live Santa Monica '72" LP in 2008) 

All bow down to the incendiary epicness of Mick Ronson's lead guitar on this strutting, menacing declaration of Bowie's Lou Reed fandom. Definitely my favourite song ever about a debilitating attack of paranoia whilst waiting to purchase some tasty, nutritious class-A drugs.

Young Americans
(Recorded live for the Dick Cavett Show 2 November 1974, broadcast 4 December 1974)

'Hope you like my new direction!' Bowie hits Philadelphia and goes all soulboy on this crisp, punchy introduction to his new musical addiction. Great band (that sax from David Sanborn!), great backing singers (including new boy Luther Vandross, who got his start here) and simply a devastating performance. (For the full Cavett show see here).

Sound & Vision
(Recorded September-November 1976; released Low LP)

Bowie scholar Peter Doggett: 'Sound & Vision was Bowie's admission that his creative inspiration had disappeared: cunningly, he used a confession of artistic bankruptcy to spark his muse back to life... Sound & Vision didn't promise that he could reconnect with the outside world (it was telling that he chose not to promote this record in any way), but it did at least reconnect him with himself; and as such it was arguably one of the most important songs he had ever written'. The female vocals are provided by former pop star Mary Hopkin ('Those Were The Days', 'Goodbye'), who was then married to Bowie's producer Tony Visconti. As with much of the Berlin-era Bowie, this track may have been recorded 40 years ago but it still smacks effortlessly of music's future.

As The World Falls Down
(Released July 1986 on the Labyrinth original soundtrack LP)

It's presence on a children's movie soundtrack shouldn't distract from the fact that in the Labyrinth songs Bowie produced some of his most impressive work of the 1980s. As he entered middle age Bowie's voice suited the swooping torchsong medium even better, and this is a fine example of MOR material performed professionally to great effect. And the video has Hoggle.

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