David Bowie Memory Palace [part 6]

Freddie Mercury + Bowie

Freddie Mercury + Bowie

1981

The year of 1981 shaped up like a Bowie party with no guest of honor. In England, the New Romantic movement; the Bastard Children of Bowie were all over the charts. Peaking peacocks. Steve Strange, who had been recruited for the “Ashes To Ashes” video for color, had begun his own pop career, fronting Visage, the studio project that had coalesced out of the infamous “Bowie Nights” held at the club Billy’s for the new, bright young things that followed Punk in the UK media. I recall first hearing about the Blitz Movement, as it was called, on the CBS evening news with a few minutes on what the British youth were doing after punk rock caused so much outrage.  They were playing his records, and he was the creative elephant in the room. Still no new Bowie records though. It was too soon following “Scary Monsters.”

RCA | US | LP | 1980 | AYL1-3857

RCA | US | LP | 1980 | AYL1-3857

No problem. I thought “I’ll just buy old ones, then!” I had such good luck with “Low” that my next move was buying “Heroes” for a mid-line price at Record Mart Warehouse. This one also had Robert Fripp, who had turned my head on the new album, so it was a must hear. And how! Much like “Low” had the previous year, this 1977 Bowie album had now become my go-to Bowie Record. Which it would remain to this day. Three of my favorite David Bowie cuts are on it and the rest isn’t chopped liver, either! “Beauty + The Beast” is hands down, my favorite song by Bowie. Fripp’s reptilian guitar was unstoppable and Eno’s treatments of same were amazing. Sure they took Eno’s “Skysaw” as a template, but this song really went places, comparatively. Then the amazing title track thrilled and the closing “The Secret Life Of Arabia” sounded like the record that 1981 so desperately needed from David Bowie, albeit recorded five years earlier. Didn’t sound it, though. It was a New Romantic dancefloor monster out of its own time.

© 1981 Roy Carr + Charles Shaar Murray

© 1981 Roy Carr + Charles Shaar Murray

The next Bowie sighting was on the pages of the David Bowie “Illustrated Record.” This career overview of the artist, packed with lots of intriguing photos [especially of rare, foreign editions] and in a compelling 12″ square format that gave the album covers as darn-near-to-actually-holding-them feel, was an amazing book that my friend, chasinvictoria had and let me read. It made a compelling case that Bowie could creatively Do No Wrong. The ten year period it covered, right through all of the singles from “Scary Monsters,” certainly gave one that impression. I began looking for a copy of the book to call my own and would continue for many years hence.

RCA | US | LP | 1980 | AFL1-0998

RCA | US | LP | 1980 | AFL1-0998

Next, I finally made a bee-line for the album that had provided the incredible “Fame” seven years earlier. I knew that this was his “plastic soul” record but was ill-prepared for how much of its time that most of it was. “Fame” was funky, but sounded unique; alien even, with that grinding, overmodulated fog horn bass to rock my world. Much of the rest of the album was too conventional for my tastes at the time. “Across The Universe” was flat out disastrous. It was simply the worst thing I’d heard Bowie perform, but I was young. Give me a few years.

RCA | US | LP | 1981 | AYL1-4234

RCA | US | LP | 1981 | AYL1-4234

RCA had been cutting all of Bowie’s recent albums that hadn’t troubled the charts down to mid-line priced albums, so I kept up the program of buying them. “Lodger” was the last recent one that I managed to buy for $4.99 and now I could listen more intently than I could from a borrowed cassette. Hmm. It was not as gratifying as the two previous or indeed, the one after it had been for me. It was the runt of the litter that took many decades later until I came ’round to appreciating exactly what it had to offer. But the videos were truly astounding. “Look Back In Anger” was so ripe with imagery that The Fixx remade it [with director Brian Grant lifting ideas from his partner in MGMMO, David Mallet – who had directed the Bowie clip four years earlier] as “Saved By Zero” a few years later. Still, I now had a full run of Bowie albums from 1977-1980 to call my own.

Elektra | US | 7" | 1981 | E-47235

Elektra | US | 7″ | 1981 | E-47235

Then, about a year following from “Scary Monsters,” a bizarre new record appeared where David Bowie had cut a song with… Queen? The hard rock/glam band had mutated over the years to the point where their previous album, “The Game,” flirted with funk and rockabilly and managed to mine gold from both disparate genres. Queen were never favorites of mine, to put it mildly. I never liked Brian May’s guitar tone, nor did I like how their records sounded. I heard this new song since it became a sizable hit, making number 29 in the US and number one in the UK. The stock footage video got a wide airing and I probably heard the song there since all I listened to that year was college radio. While I would not turn it off, it still had enough Queen DNA to be somewhat off putting to me.  I didn’t bother buying a copy of the single. I anticipated seeing an upcoming Bowie album sporting the song, but the honor went to the next Queen album; the divisive “Hot Space,” which needed all the help it could get.

Next: …Moroder

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9 Responses to David Bowie Memory Palace [part 6]

  1. Echorich says:

    Lodger is one of two Bowie albums I can’t do without – Stationtostation being the other album. As I’ve mentioned before, they bookend Bowies Continental exploration and fuller world view. Lodger puts all the experimentation of Low and Heroes to the test in a more conventional pop/rock format. This in itself is an experiment. Eno’s growing relationship with Talking Heads had to have also had some influence on where Bowie went next.
    I think the fact that Lodger didn’t receive the positive reaction that Low and Heroes did made it even more personal to me. Here was a Bowie album that divided opinion and didn’t immediately receive lauding from sycophantic fans and critics. This appealed to me and when critics and fans started reassessing Lodger well into the 90’s and 00’s, I was already there and fully prepared for those “I told you so moments.” Childish? maybe, but I like to think I connected with where Bowie was going with Lodger.

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  2. Taffy says:

    If you don’t like Queen, I can see why you wouldn’t warm to Under Pressure…it’s definitely more Freddie (et al) than Bowie, at least to my ears. But I adore Queen and found this duet very enjoyable. Caveat – I’m a sucker for campy, bombastic tunes, and Under Pressure is not short of bombast.

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    • postpunkmonk says:

      Taffy – According to scuttlebutt, Freddie brought the seed of the arrangement, that was jammed out by the band. Bowie hit the lyrics. Bowie was there to sing back up on a track he had his contribution to wiped later on. “Under Pressure” was unplanned. I remember reading about this before it hit the airwaves in Trouser Press, so the PR machine had time to prep the fans.

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      • Echorich says:

        I remember reading that there’s an issue with who came up with the bass line as well as if it was the original rehearsed bass line or was forgotten and then changed a bit once it was laid down.

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  3. Rob C says:

    Interesting reading this series so far. I’ve been listening to all of the albums (plus live LPs) back to back and am constantly rediscovering bits I missed in previous listens. I’ve had the “eureka” moments with the Berlin Trilogy – Low is majestic and worthy of it’s lofty status, “Heroes” is brilliant (completely agree with you RE: Beauty And The Beast and The Secret Life Of Arabia) but Lodger is a grower. Scary Monsters is a masterwork as well.

    I’ve always worshiped at the altar of both Station To Station and Aladdin Sane – those two are my absolute favourites, hands down. Both perfect albums in every sense. But it’s interesting how others grow in stature & standing over time – always loved Hunky Dory but now even more, but Space Oddity and Diamond Dogs have really grown with me. Even The Man Who Sold The World and Pinups (which I never cared for) have really resonated – there are some brilliant works on these albums. I still struggle with Young Americans – enjoyable but ultimately forgettable, if that’s fair to say?

    I’m looking forward to revisiting the 80’s and beyond albums again. I’ve always liked Never Let Me Down (probably in the minority here) and really cringe at Tonight (though Loving The Alien is one of my fave Bowie tracks) and really wish This Is Not America was appended to the album (it was in Japan for a version I have)

    I’ve always loved Reality and The Next Day was caned to death in my CD deck – and Blackstar is such a brilliant work of art and it of course takes on new meaning having listened to it a lot before and after the great man’s passing.

    So for me, most everything from Space Oddity to Never Let Me Down is fantastic – Pinups, Young Americans & Tonight are the weakest – and we were very lucky to have an artist like this during our lifetime.

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    • postpunkmonk says:

      Rob C – Yeah, I’d agree with your assessment of “Pinups,” “Tonight” and maybe “Young Americans.” Decades of exposure to “Young Americans” has gradually increased my appreciation of it. For a long time the title track and “Fame” were it, but “Win” and “Fascination” really cook for me now. “Right” and “Can You Hear Me” aren’t bad.

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  4. I have so much to say about Bowie and this period of his career in general that I hardly even know where to begin, but for the record I always like Lodger the best of the three Berlin works, though I thought all three were staggeringly daring and genius for a “commercial” artist like Bowie to do. Heroes has a special place for me because of several of the songs (and indeed on a song-by-song basis I think it’s the best one), but Lodger — as Echorich says — is showing off how much richer and more diverse an artist he’s become as a result of the time in Berlin, so it works better for me as a document.

    As someone who was already a veteran Bowie fan by the time these came out, I remember giving Low something of a miss at first. It’s a complex work and I was just looking for another single for a while there — which I got with “Sound and Vision” — but it didn’t take long for the rest of the album to pull me in.

    As for “Under Pressure,” I wasn’t mad it at first, but time has told me that the hook is infectious, the vocal performances are relentless, and the line “it’s the terror of knowing what this world is about” is utter genius (not to mention “turn away from it all/like a blind man/Sat on the fence/but it don’t work”!).

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    • SimonH says:

      Under Pressure was a shock to me in those post punk days, Bowie with Queen!? It seemed wrong to my year zero influenced mind, now not so surprising. Gradually though I came to like it, in particular for the reasons you’ve outlined. The ‘terror of knowing’ line is casually brilliant.

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