Discog Fever - Rating and Reviewing Every David Bowie Album (Part 1)

by Jeff Fiedler

Discog Fever is a regular feature on thegreatalbums.com, rating and reviewing a band's entire catalogue of studio albums.

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David Bowie (1967, Deram)

C –

Like all of Bowie’s pre-RCA albums, this is a very difficult album to find an original American vinyl pressing of and is a much-sought-after collector’s item today, but the music contained within is easily obtainable via reissues and other compilations, namely the 1973 package Images 1966-1967 and the 1977 compilation Starting Point, both released on the London label, and the 1997 compilation The Deram Anthology 1966-1968. Be aware, however, that this album bears scarcely any resemblance to the ones that would follow it, as Bowie had still yet to find his niche as a performer. Many critics were quick to compare the newcomer with theater star Anthony Newley (a self-admitted early influence of Bowie’s), but the music in these grooves can be just as fittingly described as a vaguely vaudeville-tinged brand of pop that recalls a hybrid of Herman’s Hermits (“Mrs. Brown, You’ve Got a Lovely Daughter,” “I’m Henry VIII, I Am”) and late-‘60s Kinks with a touch of Syd Barrett-esque insanity thrown in for good measure. (Fittingly, Bowie would later both write and play piano on one of Herman’s Hermits frontman Peter Noone’s earliest solo singles.) The disc isn’t without its moments – “Love You Till Tuesday” being the catchiest in the lot – but, because it’s so vastly different from the glam-rock and plastic soul that would ultimately propel Bowie to superstardom, it’s also unintentionally hilarious at times, rendering the disc more of a curio piece than a truly essential listen. It’s wildly fascinating, of course, but it’s hard to imagine even the most diehard of Bowie fans listening to this album nearly as frequently as any of his later efforts. 

 Cover of rare original American vinyl release from 1969 on Mercury Records

Cover of rare original American vinyl release from 1969 on Mercury Records

 Cover of 1972 American reissue - complete with new album title - on RCA label

Cover of 1972 American reissue - complete with new album title - on RCA label

 Cover of original British version; this is the album art most frequently used on CD reissues of the album

Cover of original British version; this is the album art most frequently used on CD reissues of the album

Man of Words / Man of Music (1969, Mercury; released in the U.K. as David Bowie; re-issued in U.S. by RCA as Space Oddity, 1972)

B +  

Bowie’s second album – one of his most underrated – is both his first with producer Tony Visconti and the album that spawned Bowie’s breakthough hit, the swirling and atmospheric acoustic story-song “Space Oddity.” [Technically, the song didn’t become a bona fide hit until 1972 and missed the Hot 100 altogether upon its initial release.] But contrary to what most critics will tell you, there are actually several other good songs on this disc, and you can actually make a solid case for this being as good an album as The Man Who Sold the World. (Certainly, the songs are catchier, anyway.)  The stark “Wild-Eyed Boy from Freecloud” is one of Bowie’s best early folk ballads, while the chugging mid-tempo pop of “Janine” is both charming and infectious. Comedian Ricky Gervais has called the wistful “Letter to Hermione” his favorite Bowie song and for good reason: it’s arguably Bowie’s most criminally underrated song and ranks among the prettiest melodies he ever wrote in his lifetime. The disc also ends with the appealing and adventurous seven-minute epic “Memory of a Free Festival,” which vaguely recalls “Hey Jude” in its structure; the song can roughly be divided into two primary parts, the latter of which is an extended fade-out that just repeats the line “The sun machine is coming down and we’re gonna have a party” ad nauseum while continuing to build in intensity. The 2009 double-disc 40th anniversary edition (which uses the original British title and artwork) is absolutely fantastic, adding a second disc jam-packed with first-rate rarities, including both sides of the re-recorded single version of “Memory of a Free Festival” that split the song into two halves and also included Mick Ronson and Woody Woodmansey in Bowie’s band for the first time; the rare 1970 non-LP single “The Prettiest Star,” an early – and definitely superior – version (featuring T. Rex’s Marc Bolan on guitar) of a song that eventually appeared on Aladdin Sane in lesser form; and the fabulous, inexplicably shelved “London Bye Ta-Ta.” Should you ever run across an affordable copy of Man of Words / Man of Music while digging through crates of vinyl, snatch it up while you can because it is a terribly difficult album to find these days and routinely sells for three figures. 

 Cover of rare original American vinyl release on the Mercury label, 1970; despite common misconception, this was actually Bowie's original concept for the album art and was commissioned by himself, not by Mercury executives. Though this is the least-frequently-seen version of the album art, Bowie went on record in the late '90s as admitting that he "actually thought the cartoon cover was really cool."

Cover of rare original American vinyl release on the Mercury label, 1970; despite common misconception, this was actually Bowie's original concept for the album art and was commissioned by himself, not by Mercury executives. Though this is the least-frequently-seen version of the album art, Bowie went on record in the late '90s as admitting that he "actually thought the cartoon cover was really cool."

 Cover of the album's more easily obtainable 1972 American reissue on the RCA label

Cover of the album's more easily obtainable 1972 American reissue on the RCA label

 Cover of original British version; this is the album art most frequently used on CD reissues of the album  

Cover of original British version; this is the album art most frequently used on CD reissues of the album  

The Man Who Sold the World (1970, Mercury)

B +  

Fans of the wistful folk and mildly-psychedelic pop that dominated Man of Words / Man of Music must have been taken quite aback by this disc upon first listen. This album – Bowie’s first with Mick Ronson in the lead guitar role (Visconti and drummer Woody Woodmansey round out the backing band) – is both darker and much harder-rocking than its predecessor – almost hard enough to be called heavy metal, in fact. (Musically speaking, the snarling “She Shook Me Cold” could nearly pass for a Black Sabbath song.) It’s more focused than its predecessor, but that aside, this disc is a tad overrated and only moderately recommended to fans of Bowie’s more pop-oriented side, if only because Bowie isn’t terribly interested here in hooks – or even conventional song structures, for that matter – and very few of the melodies here take hold on first listen. But while this certainly isn’t one of Bowie’s catchier batches of material, it’s a very fascinating and adventurous disc all the same: the opening cut, the heavy “The Width of a Circle,” is an eight-minute epic that ranks as one of the most complex songs in all of Bowie’s catalog, while the lone single released from the disc in America, “All the Madmen,” isn’t exactly natural radio fodder, the song being a dark, haunting song written from the perspective of Bowie’s schizophrenic half-brother who was living in a mental institution at the time. But, lest the album sound completely uncommercial, there is one well-known Bowie classic here – one that Mercury inexplicably bypassed as a single – in the album’s excellent title cut, which would go on to be a minor British hit for Lulu in 1974 and a posthumous Top 40 hit for Nirvana in 1995. Overall, the disc is a wildly intriguing album piece; just bear in mind that this is a very hard-rock-tinged and not especially hook-laden disc, and you won’t be disappointed. [Collector’s note: original American pressings of this oft-bootlegged album – the cartoonish cover of which was actually Bowie’s original idea for the album art; the sofa picture used on the British edition was actually a last-minute and much more controversial substitute – can be verified by looking for matrix numbers etched into the trail-off area at the end of each side.]

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Hunky Dory (1971, RCA)

A +

Ever the chameleon, even from the very onset of his career, Bowie radically changes styles for the fourth album in a row, this time presenting a lo-fi brand of mostly piano-centered pop that even dips into cabaret territory at times (never more so than on the cover of the Biff Rose tune “Fill Your Heart”), so there’s little of the rock sound remaining from the previous disc. Bowie’s songwriting has improved greatly since his last album, however, and he seems to realize it, too, since he sounds more confident here than ever before. Visconti has been replaced as producer with Ken Scott, and Bowie brings in Trevor Bolder as his new bassist, while Yes keyboardist Rick Wakeman sits in for much of the album and handles most of the piano duties. The album gets off to an eye-opening and unforgettable start with the career-reviving piano ballad “Changes,” an enduring radio classic which subtly but playfully satirizes nightclub-lounge-pop in its musical arrangement, complete with Bowie ending the song with a brief, slick saxophone solo. Other highlights of this magnum opus include the oft-covered melodramatic ballad “Life on Mars?,” which similarly makes great use of Wakeman’s piano chops and features one of Bowie’s most powerful and impassioned vocal performances yet; the hooky, tempo-shifting pop of the stomper “Oh! You Pretty Thing,” bypassed as a single only because Bowie had already given the tune to former Herman’s Hermits frontman Peter Noone for release as a solo single; the far-out, acoustic-guitar-driven tribute to “Andy Warhol”; and the chugging rock of “Queen Bitch.” This is the disc that truly began Bowie’s golden period.

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The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1972, RCA)

A +

Quite possibly the most famous glam-rock album of all-time and deservedly so, this concept disc was yet another radical makeover for Bowie, the rocker and his full band reinventing themselves – practically even disguising themselves, really, Bowie himself essentially becoming Ziggy Stardust, leading to an inevitable identity crisis later on – as a glam-rock outfit akin to T. Rex or Sweet. Remarkably, the makeover is just as effective as that of Hunky Dory, and the album proved to be Bowie’s commercial breakthrough, leading to a flood of reissues of his prior material, “Space Oddity” belatedly reaching the Top Ten in America four years after its original release. Nearly every last song on this album is a Bowie classic, particularly the driving rock of “Suffragette City” and the nearly-manic “Hang on to Yourself,” the biographical ballad “Ziggy Stardust,” the groovy “Moonage Daydream,” and the sweeping “Starman,” which became a massive British hit following Bowie’s now-legendary, career-making performance of the cut on Top of the Pops. Even the lesser tunes, like the near-R&B of “Soul Love” and the theatrical piano-pop of “Lady Stardust,” have killer hooks throughout. Bowie even works in a cover of “It Ain’t Easy” by the fairly obscure former A&M recording artist Ron Davies that surprisingly fits into the album quite well. Even better than Hunky Dory, this was without a doubt Bowie’s best album yet, and one he would subsequently have an extremely hard time topping. This is a must-own even for the most casual of Bowie fans.   

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Aladdin Sane (1973, RCA)

A +

Bowie’s third bona fide classic in a row, this is generally considered to be an inferior album to Ziggy Stardust, but if it is, it’s not by very much. Since it’s not nearly so conceptual and doesn’t have a storyline that carries over from cut to cut, it might not make nearly as obvious an album piece as its predecessor or cohere quite as easily, but taken on a song-by-song basis, this is nearly every bit as solid a batch of material. The disc gets off to a fun start with “Watch That Man,” while the oddly titled “Aladdin Sane (1913-1938-197?),” featuring some extremely inventive piano playing from Mike Garson, is an amusing, if strange, blend of cocktail-lounge pop and avant-garde jazz. “Panic in Detroit” plays like a glam-rock equivalent of Bo Diddley, while “Drive in Saturday” is an equally warped doo-wop pastiche of sorts. The highly infectious “Cracked Actor” is as riff-heavy and as unapologetically sleazy as your average Rolling Stones side from around this time, so it also makes sense that Bowie also covers a tune from that band here, offering up a sped-up and completely over-the-top cover of “Let’s Spend the Night Together” (culminating in a breakdown that even works in a brief monologue and deliciously dramatic stabs of guitar from Ronson) that makes the Stones’ original seem completely lethargic and dull by comparison. As if that weren’t enough, you’ve also got an enduring Bowie classic in the foot-stomping glam-rock of “The Jean Genie.” The only real flaw of any note is that the gorgeous ballad “The Prettiest Star” is included not in its original 1970 single form with Marc Bolan guesting but as a weaker re-recording; had Bowie instead included the original recording – or, alternatively, simply recorded a new vocal over the original instrumental track, this would be a near-perfect album. 

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Pin Ups (1973, RCA)

C +

One of the earliest all-covers discs issued by a major rock star, Pin Ups (which is devoted exclusively to covers of songs by British acts from the era roughly spanning 1964 to 1967) is an interesting disc that ultimately still feels like little more than a stopgap project. [It also had the misfortune of coming out mere weeks after Bryan Ferry’s all-covers solo debut These Foolish Things, which takes more chances and is easily the better album of the two.] Most of the covers are reasonably good – highlighted by a weird-but-effective reading of Pink Floyd’s “See Emily Play,” a slowed-down take on the Who’s “I Can’t Explain” and a spacey version of their “Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere,” and fine faithful renditions of the Merseys’ “Sorrow” and the Yardbirds’ “Shape of Things.” There are also few missteps of any note, the most glaring being the reworking of the Easybeats’ “Friday on My Mind” which changes the tempo of the chorus and consequently makes the song much less dramatic and energetic. But there’s also nothing here that could truly be called essential, either, and even Bowie’s personality isn’t enough to truly catapult any of these covers into the canon of Bowie classics. This is easily the weakest of Bowie’s studio albums from the ‘70s. Reportedly, Bowie had initially planned to do a sequel that would focus on covers by American recording artists, but that project was ultimately shelved before anything was recorded and, thankfully, Bowie would quickly return to writing new original material.