By the 1990’s radio and MTV had long passed on playing David Bowie’s new stuff. Despite being light years ahead of contemporaries, apparently Ziggy was a fading star.
As the fan base dwindled and failed to replenish, only true Bowiephiles remained in on the secret.
It took the great man’s shock passing in January to jog the world’s memory of what must be regarded as one of the most incredible artistic careers of the past century. A career that radiated with incomparable brightness before fading from sight, only to recharge with the intensity and finality of a supernova.
The good news for lapsed fans is a hefty back catalogue of unpublicised treats. And delving deeper into Bowie’s prolific heyday uncovers as many easily missed or forgotten. Beyond that is an array of unreleased material that will no doubt see the light of day over the next twelve months.
For what it’s worth, here’s a short list of my favourite ‘off the beaten tracks’. I could easily add another dozen. Enjoy.
12. Lady Grinning Soul
She’ll come, she’ll go. She’ll lay belief on you
But she won’t stake her life on you
How can life become her point of view
This incongruous final track from Aladdin Sane (’73) is Bowie’s Bond theme that never was.
Vocals dipped in honey are lead by Mike Garson who tinkles the ivories in masterful fashion. Beetle cars, cologne and canasta… ‘She will be your living end’, somewhere in Monte Carlo one can only imagine (before clicking repeat again).
Lady Grinning Soul would eventually see its day in the cinema via The Runaways – a movie about Joan Jett and a Bowie obsessed teenager who joins her band.
11. It’s no Game Part 1
Draw the blinds on yesterday
and it’s all so much scarier
Put a bullet in my brain
and it makes all the papers
Bowie wrote the guts of this song when he was just 16. An unreleased demo (Tired of my Life) was recorded in 1970 before it was parked again in the recesses of his mind. Ten full years later It’s no Game kicked off Scary Monsters in unhinged fashion with Peter Fripp’s lead guitar complimenting a Japanese woman’s (Michi Hirota) desperate ranting. Nor does a bewildered Bowie seem remotely sane in his translation (‘as if he’s literally tearing out his intestines’ according to NME).
The parody of a protest song (engineered so well by producer Tony Visconti) ends hysterically with DB screaming ‘SHUTUP… SHUTUP!’
The rejoinder (Part 2) at the conclusion of Scary Monsters is a considerably more tempered affair, the protagonist resigned to the chaotic world around him. And ironically that world would soon be all the more chaotic with the tragic murder of his good friend John Lennon, whose Instant Karma served as an inspiration for It’s no Game.
10. Black Tie, White Noise
Getting my facts from a Benetton ad
I’m lookin’ thru African eyes
Lit by the glare of an L.A. fire
Black tie, white noise
I’ve got a face, not just my race
After a five year solo hiatus Bowie reunited with Niles Rogers (the groovy guru behind Let’s Dance) and returned with a fresh new sound following his nuptials with Iman. The title track of Black Tie, White Noise is one of several worthy to be considered for this list, being underrated at as it was at the time.
Bowie was never viewed as overtly political, though his strong views on racism are plainly evident here – as they were in an awkward MTV interview in 1983. Black Tie is not only a response to the LA riots but laced with sarcasm at simplistic interracial-brotherhood songs such as We are the World, Ebony and Ivory and most of all Michael Jackson’s Black or White.
All that aside, this funky track revisits an American R & B fascination that peaked in the mid 1970’s with Young Americans.
9. Be my Wife
Sometimes you get so lonely
Sometimes you get nowhere
I’ve lived all over the world
I’ve left every place
In the midst of Bowie’s Berlin cleansing and estrangement from wife Angie came this single from Low – not exactly the most commercial of albums. This was probably the nearest thing to a radio friendly track and it bombed like no other had for several years. From the honky tonk piano intro to the detached vocals and guitar solos, this works for me though.
Bowie’s unnerving look and mannerisms in the minimalist video are every bit as odd as his most heavily made up characters. Is it David Bowie as David Jones impersonating David Bowie, or the other way round?
8. Thru’ these Architects Eyes
All the majesty of a city landscape
All the soaring days of our lives
All the concrete dreams in my mind’s eye
All the joy I see through these architect’s eyes
Only Bowie could base a song around architecture and give it the depth of emotion found in this track from Outside.
‘Stomping along on this big Philip Johnson‘, Bowie’s character name drops an acclaimed post modern architect and another in Richard Rogers. I love the double meaning of ‘through these concrete dreams’ and the ambiguity inspired by the simple lack of apostrophe. Is the protagonist jealously observing life through the eyes of the aforementioned, or is he a frustrated architect himself who’d astound everyone but for his pesky day job?
7. Never Get Old
I’m screaming that I’m gonna be living on till the end of time
The sky splits open to a dull red skull
My head hangs low ’cause it’s all over now
Fans could be forgiven for believing Bowie would be around forever but sadly he proved mortal after all. Perhaps ‘never seem old’ better encapsulates the way Bowie conducted his life and untimely exit.
The opening chord progression ingeniously draws you in. This is Bowie’s way – expect the unexpected. As a child the off kilter nature of Gustav Holst’s The Planets drew young David Jones to music in the first place. And stumbling across these glorious ‘mistakes’ in the composition phase is what he – and his great collaborator Brian Eno – relished.
6. Sons of a Silent Age
Sons of the silent age
Pace their rooms like a cell’s dimensions
Rise for a year or two then make war
Search through their one-inch thoughts
Then decide it couldn’t be done
Q. Back in the day when crafting a whole album seemed important, how does Bowie, even at the peak of his powers, follow up a track like Heroes?
A. By laying down sonic candy like Sons of the Silent Age, that’s how.
Don’t ask me to decode what it’s about – just close your eyes and let the lush production, harmonics, soaring vocal and obscure lyrics take you wherever they take you.
5. I’d Rather Be High
I’d rather be high
I’d rather be flying
I’d rather be dead or out of my head
Than training these guns on those men in the sand
Bowie once said conjuring a unique, compelling song texture was as important to him as the writing. This has both working in its favour. From the get-go the video’s old war imagery combines beautifully with the lyrical sentiment, backed by a terrific riff. The lament of the soldier – whether it be in Gallipoli or Gaza – who wants out of the reality he’s consigned, and the ‘generals full of shit’.
4. Station to Station
Here are we, one magical moment, such is the stuffFrom where dreams are woven
Bending sound, dredging the ocean, lost in my circle
Here am I, flashing no color
OK, so Station to Station is widely regarded as one of, if not the best album of Bowie’s career. But the 10 minute title track opener mightn’t be so well known to casual fans. As per Blackstar (of equal length), Station to Station is an elusive, gear shifting epic filled with dark symbolism and literary references.
Beginning with an old locomotive cranking up speed (a nod to Kraftwerk), the Thin White Duke eventually announces his arrival with great gravitas, ‘throwing darts in lovers’ eyes’. At the half-way mark the song suddenly picks up pace and continues to do so all the way to the finish line.
If ‘it’s not the side effects of the cocaine’, what other explanation was there for the Duke’s aloof ‘ice masquerading as fire’ persona? After playing an alien in The man who fell to Earth, an alienated, virtually anorexic Bowie was holed up in Hollywood (a place he came to despise). Besides coke he consumed diverse books on the occult, defensive magic, fascism, numerology, Christianity, UFOs, the Kabbalah and political conspiracies. Amid the search for a lost sense of self Bowie somehow connected all these wild tangents.
3. Dollar Days
I’m dying to
Push their backs against the grain
And fool them all again and again
I’m trying to
It’s all gone wrong but on and on
The bitter nerve ends never end
I’m falling down
Don’t believe for just one second I’m forgetting you
I’m trying to
I’m dying to
Bowie’s swansong Blackstar pushes some hefty emotional buttons. The artistry of his farewell to fans and the world at large is surely unprecedented. Lazarus and Blackstar and their accompanying videos are confronting, though the struggle for survival evident in Dollar Days‘ and word play hinting at his awful secret (is it ‘I’m dying to’, or ‘too’?) is no easier to bear. Despite age and illness, Bowie’s phrasing and voice are immaculate. The sax solo is sublime, as is the build to a churning crescendo.
There was no video released for this song but hats off to the fan who produced this. Keep a Kleenex handy.
If I never see the English evergreens I’m running to…
2. New Killer Star
First a horseback bomber
Just a small thin chance
Like seeing Jesus on Dateline
Let’s face the music and dance
Supposedly a jibe at George ‘Dubya’ in the wake of 9/11 (new killer – nuclear), the opening track off Reality (2004) is choc full of hooks and snappy lyrics.
An inconceivable lolly pop in the eye incident whilst performing a concert in Norway, a subsequent heart attack and a shift to family priorities all but ended Bowie’s career after this – until the shock comeback in 2013. The extended hiatus was a shame for tracks like this demonstrated there was plenty left in the tank. See also Never Get Old, Pablo Picasso and the Sinatra-esque Bring me the Disco King.
1. I have not been to Oxford Town
Toll the bell
Pay the private eye
20th century dies
So far as choruses go it may not look much on paper but this track from 1995 concept album Outside contains an ear-worm that couldn’t be extracted by six inch tweezers. Outside’s narrative is essentially encapsulated in this tune.
Baby Grace is the victim
She was 14 years of age
The wheels are turning and turning
For the finger points at me
It may be the protestations of an accused murderer but this jaunty masterpiece is a joy from go to whoa. How this was never a hit, let alone a single, well… No matter what he produced, by 1995 Bowie found himself on popular music’s outside.
And that was probably a good thing after his self-proclaimed ‘Phil Collins period’.