Wilson and Alroy's Record Reviews We listen to the lousy records so you won't have to.

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David Bowie

Reviewed on this page:
Early On - David Bowie - Man Of Words, Man Of Music - The Man Who Sold The World - The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars - Aladdin Sane - Pin Ups - Diamond Dogs - David Live - Young Americans - Station To Station - Low - Heroes - Lodger - Scary Monsters - Let's Dance - Tonight - Never Let Me Down - Tin Machine - Oy Vey Baby - Black Tie, White Noise - The Buddha Of Suburbia - Outside - Earthling

For the defense:
Everyone agrees that David Bowie is one of the most interesting and theatrical of rock's living legends. After that, there's no consensus. At one extreme, Bowie is seen as a flashy, shamelessly commercial 70s pop singer whose knack for reinventing himself far outweighed his talent. But this is false on many counts. First, Bowie has a serious rock pedigree. He got his start way back in the mid-60s, working in the same London rock scene that gave rise to acts like the Kinks, Who, and Yardbirds. Second, Bowie always prided himself as an innovator, plunging into one experiment after another with seemingly little regard for the commercial consequences. In just his first ten years of recording, he shifted from being a mod rocker to a half-comedic pop singer to head-banging acid rocker to a bizarre space alien to a drug-crazed soul-singing disco dancer. These reinventions often were ahead or behind of the day's trends, not slavishly dependent upon them. And finally, Bowie had talent to burn. His unmistakable singing voice is an obvious gift, but there's a lot more to him: he's a talented multi-instrumentalist, being a fully competent guitarist and sax player; he's a prolific songwriter, pumping out album after album of new material; and his lyrics are clever, self-conscious, and completely idiosyncratic. Not to mention his non-musical talents as a mime, film and stage actor, fiction writer, and graphic artist. (JA)

For the prosecution:
Not everyone agrees that Bowie's one of the most interesting of rock's living legends: some of us find his work passionless -- flashy and relentlessly fashionable but ultimately meaningless. He's scrupulously insincere, that's his whole shtick -- whatever he does, you know he doesn't really believe in it. I'll agree that he's been very influential; I don't think his influence has been at all positive. (Of course, in the words of Oscar Wilde, "there's no such thing as a good influence" -- anything that induces artists to stray from their own path is negative.) (DBW)

I still think Wilson's missing the key point: Bowie's sincere artistic impulses are always apparent no matter how calculated and commercial his packaging might be. And that leads me to mention another myth in need of rebuttal - in spite of his continuing popularity with fans and critics, Bowie was not one of the most important commercial factors on the 70s rock scene. He did score a dozen gold records during the 70s, but he never topped the LP charts in the U.S., unlike such British competitors as Elton John, Led Zeppelin, Paul McCartney, and the Rolling Stones - not to mention Americans like Chicago, Bob Dylan, or Stevie Wonder - all of whom were able to do this on a consistent basis. But selling records isn't everything (just look at Chicago), and Bowie's a fascinating subject on artistic grounds alone. One should also remember that he's often more successful in the British and international markets than in the States.

One other minor point about Bowie: he has an odd ability to attract first-rate lead guitarists. His two steadfast guitar sidemen of the 70s, Mick Ronson and Carlos Alomar, both earned themselves strong reputations. And over the past 20 years, Bowie has somehow convinced Robert Fripp, Adrian Belew, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and Peter Frampton to each contribute at least one full album's worth of lead guitar work. Over the last decade he's stuck with avant garde metal merchant Reeves Gabrels, and although I and others find him overbearing, you've got to grant that the guy has impressive technique.

Kids of my generation grew up hearing Bowie's hits on the radio, and although my collection is pretty good I'm still missing a couple of records. Give me a break, I'm working on it. And I have, after all, reviewed both a performance from Bowie's 1997 concert tour and a recent David Bowie biography.

There is a really extensive David Bowie web site that's overcommercialized and massively overstuffed with graphics, but does include all the usual discographies, album covers, gossip, tour information, etc., and also lets the fans rate his records. I guess that gives me a run for my money, but if I were you I'd rather rely on one objective reviewer than a horde of starry-eyed fans.

Special thanks to Bowie scholars Philip Obbard and Dara O'Kearney for fact checking and general bitching. (JA)


The early 70s band (a.k.a. Hype or the Spiders From Mars; from The Man Who Sold The World on): Mick Ronson (guitar); Tony Visconti (bass); Mick Woodmansey (drums). Visconti replaced by Trevor Bolder (bass), 1971. Ken Fordham (sax) and Mike Garson (piano) added, 1973. Woodmansey replaced by Aynsley Dunbar (drums), late 1973. Bolder replaced by Herbie Flowers (bass), Tony Newman (drums) also used, 1974.

The late 70s band (from Station To Station on): Carlos Alomar (guitar); Roy Bittan (piano); Dennis Davis (drums); George Murray (bass); Warren Peace (vocals: a.k.a. George MacCormack, a childhood friend of Bowie's); Earl Slick (guitar). Bittan replaced by Roy Young (piano), Slick by Ricky Gardener (guitar), Peace dropped, Brian Eno (synthesizers) added, 1977. Gardener replaced by Robert Fripp (guitar), Young dropped, later in 1977. Fripp replaced by Adrian Belew (guitar), still later in 1977. Eno and Belew dropped, Fripp briefly returned, 1980.

The early 80s band (Let's Dance and Tonight): Sammy Figueroa (percussion); Omar Hakim (drums); Nile Rodgers (rhythm guitar); Carmine Rojas (bass); Stevie Ray Vaughan (lead guitar). Rodgers and Vaughan replaced by Carlos Alomar (guitar) and Derek Bramble (guitar, bass, synth), 1984.

Tin Machine: Reeves Gabrels (guitar); Hunt Sales (drums); Tony Sales (bass).

Early On (1964-1966) (rec. 1964 - 1966, rel. 1991)
This thorough Rhino Records package includes virtually everything Bowie cut before his 1967 debut LP, i.e., a string of flop singles and several previously unreleased, scratched-up, low-fi demos. The liner notes are outstanding, but, well, the performances are hit and miss. On early material like Paul Revere's "Louie, Louie Go On Home" and Bobby "Blue" Bland's "I Pity The Fool" (with Jimmy Page on first-rate guitar), Bowie's commanding vocals put most of his contemporary British Invaders to shame. Plus many of the tracks were produced by Shel Talmy (cf., the Kinks and Who), and it's not a coincidence that "You've Got A Habit Of Leaving" ends up sounding almost exactly like the incendiary "My Generation." However, by 1966 Bowie was heading in the kitschy pop direction that resulted in his bizarre debut album - it's entertaining, but keep your sense of humor handy (corny percussion, flute, backups, and 60s disco bass lines on "I Dig Everything" and "I'm Not Losing Sleep"). WARNING: there's another CD floating around under the name 1966 that includes only a small fraction of the 17 tracks on this one. Rhino got it right; let's support them by ignoring this rip-off. (JA)

David Bowie (1967)
Man, this is weird shit. Bowie was 20 years old and still a long way from any commercial success, and despite his prodigious songwriting, you can really see why. It ain't even "rock 'n' roll," but made-for-AM 60s pop music in the grand British music hall tradition. Even worse, Bowie's trying everywhere to be weird and hip, but most of the time he's just plain silly. Similar acts like the Small Faces at least had blues and R & B influences to give them some backbone. Still, the album is a goldmine of goofy juvenalia, with manic sound effects on many tracks ("Join The Gang") and even a bizarre a capella piece ("Please Mr. Gravedigger"). The lyrics are ludicrous, but clever and interestingly topical ("We Are Hungry Men," a snide, messianic take on the population explosion [!]); there's always a bizarre twist, like the hero of "The Little Bombardier" turning out to be a child molester. Fans also will be amused to find that the better songs sound agreeably like the mature Bowie ("Silly Boy Blue," a great ballad). Engineer Gus Dudgeon went on to become Elton John's loyal producer. (JA)

Man Of Words, Man Of Music (1969)
Bowie's first "normal" rock record (by his standards), it at first looked to be another flop. But after the album was re-released under the title Space Oddity in 1972, the single "Space Oddity" took off in a big way, eventually becoming Bowie's first American Top 40 hit. The song is a total masterpiece, with a creepy "ground control to Major Tom" lost-in-space lyric inspired by the Apollo program, loads of guest Rick Wakeman's mellotron, and a fantastic Paul Buckmaster orchestral arrangement a la "A Day In The Life." Gus Dudgeon produced the track, but elsewhere Tony Visconti is in command and doesn't have any ideas. So Bowie gropes around on his own for a new psychedelic rock formula that emphasizes his strummed acoustic guitar. It amounts to one other orchestrated number ("Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud") - the backing is florid MGM musical junk, and the lyrics are corny fairy-tale mysticism; a slew of more sparsely produced pop songs, few of which are memorable except the chipper "God Knows I'm Good"; and a long, experimental, and basically unoriginal "Hey Jude"-inspired hippy space-alien anthem album closer ("Memory Of A Free Festival"). The low point is the nine-minute "Cygnet Committee," with Bowie mumbling starry-eyed 60s philosophy over a plodding riff. There's no set band here, just drummer Terry Cox, two bassists (Herbie Flowers and Visconti), and a pile of guitarists like Tim Renwick. Bonus tracks include a much improved split-into-two-sides 1970 single version of "Free Festival" that features the Ronson/Visconti/Woodmansey band. (JA)

The Man Who Sold The World (1970)
This, the first appearance of what became the Spiders From Mars band, is very much a British 60s acid rock record - and it's a huge improvement. It owes a heavy debt to Pink Floyd ("After All"), Cream ("She Shook Me Cold"), late-era Beatles (throughout), and (dare I say it?) early Led Zeppelin (Ronson's lead guitar on "Width Of A Circle"; "Black Country Rock"; "The Supermen"; etc.). Plenty of screeching guitars, flaky percussion, drugged out lyrics, distorted vocals, gimmicky stereo effects, crashing drums, and psychedelic synthesizer parts courtesy of Ralph Mace. Bowie's usual cleverness and sense of theatre come through clearly, and it's a lot of fun; the sci-fi epic "Saviour Machine" and the riffy, off-kilter title track are good examples. Sixties music nuts like myself will get a big kick out of it all, despite the lack of a major hit song. Bonus tracks include the 1971 single by "Arnold Corns" (a band pseudonym) that luckily ended up being re-recorded for Ziggy Stardust ("Moonage Daydream/Hang Onto Yourself"). (JA)

Hunky Dory (1971)
I've got this, I've heard it several times, and I'm leaning to the conclusion that this is Bowie's greatest album - tuneful, innovative, and brilliantly performed. Practically every song is a landmark. The multifaceted Mick Ronson not only leads the band with worthy guitar parts, but arranges some of the best orchestrations in Bowie's catalogue. Meanwhile, Rick Wakeman's piano parts rank among the most tasteful and effective that he ever recorded (he joined Yes soon afterwards). A must-have for any fan. (JA)

The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars (1972)
Bowie's commercial breakthough record. Although he was still far from his peak of popularity, by now he'd perfected his unique glam rock blend of near-metal guitar crunchery, sneering camp vocals, giddily overblown orchestral arrangements, and drugged-out all-around hedonistic mania. At no point do you feel like he's merely aping some rock group rival. On the other hand, it's slick and conventional compared to Bowie's other early records - there's little experimentation here with either instrumentation, recording gimmicks, or song structures. Nonetheless, there are a bunch of classics like the warp-speed "Hang On To Yourself," a clever blend of 50s nostalgia vocals and frenetic, amphetamine-crazed instrumental tracks; the swaying ballad "Moonage Daydream"; the brassy, cleverly produced "Suffragette City"; and the heavy rock anthem "Ziggy Stardust." A quarter-century on they still sound fresh, exciting, and not the least out of date. The middle of the album is slower and not nearly as memorable, but there are enough must-have numbers to put this in the first rank of Bowie's recordings. (JA)

Santa Monica 1972 - The Album (rec. 1972, rel. 1995)
This long-bootlegged tape was finally given an official release after nearly a quarter-century. The 17 tracks are, I believe, stuffed onto one disc. It features the classic Spiders from Mars band with Mick Ronson, and seems to focus on then-recent album cuts apart from Lou Reed's "Waiting For The Man." I'm looking for this one. (JA)

Aladdin Sane (1973)
This was Bowie's biggest American success to date, breaking the Top 20. And it's damn good: Bowie rides the glam rock formula relentlessly, pounding out one foot-stomper after another - from the opening notes of the Chuck Berry-esque "Watch That Man" you know you're in for a fun ride. The high point is "Jean Genie," which starts out like a Yardbirds-ey blues and ends up as a swaggering glam rock anthem. But "Panic In Detroit" rises to the same level with a frenetic jungle beat and a blistering Mick Ronson guitar line, and Bowie's overdriven sci-fi cover of "Let's Spend The Night Together" seems like harmless entertainment in this company. Theatrical balladry is the other side of the coin: Mike Garson's lush piano noodlings carry the title track, and mannered Brechtian verses set "Time" apart. Despite all the pluses, some of the tunes do falter: "Drive In Saturday" and Bowie's old flop single "The Prettiest Star" are limp pop tunes with superficially inventive arrangements. And there's virtually no new ground broken anywhere, making the last studio album a better buy. (JA)

Pin Ups (1973)
Bowie's first serious misstep as a mature artist, this is a collection of tepid cover versions of mid-1960s British rock songs (the Kinks, Pink Floyd, the Who, the Yardbirds, etc.). With Bowie still in his glam rock phase, the emphasis is on style, not substance: great headbangers like "Can't Explain" are reformulated as languid sing-alongs, or at best reproduced note for note ("Shapes Of Things"; "Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere"). The good news is that the performances are solid, and there are occasional hints of cleverness like the string quartet fade of "See Emily Play." And the record's hit - the Easybeats' "Friday On My Mind" - is quite fun; one wishes Bowie had stuck with this sort of cleverly revitalized obscurity elsewhere, instead of pointlessly rehashing his predecessors' biggest tunes. Not surprisingly, Pin Ups didn't sell nearly as strongly as the previous two albums. Bonus tracks include an unremarkable version of Bruce Springsteen's thoroughly annoying hit "Growin' Up" (yeah, he was polluting the airwaves even back then). (JA)

Diamond Dogs (1974)
This Top Ten record evolved from a failed theatrical adaptation of George Orwell's 1984 ("Big Brother"), but it ended up being Bowie's own Sgt. Pepper's-style concept album, with ornate production, tracks that run into each other seamlessly, and a reprise of one song ("Sweet Thing"). Ronson, Bolder, and Fordham were all gone, making this essentially the first post-Spiders record (only Garson and Dunbar were retained). That makes it all the more interesting, because Bowie himself handles most of the guitars and all of the numerous sax parts - and he proves himself repeatedly in those roles. The tunes themselves are endlessly intricate, with weird melodies, crazily distorted guitars, sound effects, and of course some cool lyrics ("We Are The Dead"; etc.). The big radio hits include "Diamond Dogs," with watery vocals and a great guitar hook; the grinding, riffy "Rebel Rebel," and the anthemic, snappily orchestrated "1984." They're all amongst Bowie's most memorable work, and the crooning "Rock 'N' Roll With Me" also was a popular anthem. A near must-have. Herbie Flowers (bass) also worked with Elton John. CD bonus tracks include the pleasant, Stax-Volt flavored "Dodo," and a vastly superior 1973 version of "Candidate." (JA)

David Live (1974)
A double record, and it's a drag. If you're looking for live 70s David, this ain't the place - even though it was recorded when Bowie already had a rich catalogue. There are a lot of classic Bowie hits, plus a good smattering of album tracks through Diamond Dogs. But at this point Bowie was literally a lounge lizard act in concert ("Changes"); it's most obvious when he interpolates "On Broadway" into "Aladdin Sane." Track after track devolves to a tinkly piano, corny backup vocals, and a horn section that seems to be blowing solely for lack of any better ideas (the endless, listless "Sweet Thing"). All of this obliterates the dynamism and cleverness of Bowie's studio recordings ("1984"; "Jean Genie"). You could excuse the man, because he was after all at the height of his "soul" period - but why bother; you're going to want to skip this anyway. The band here is transitional, with Garson, Flowers, and Newman held over from the late-era Spiders, and Peace and Slick making their first appearances. Slick's loud, facile, and unfortunately rote rock guitar playing is practically the only excitement on the record ("Cracked Actor"). (JA)

Young Americans (1975)
Here's the good news: this is where you'll find the #1 hit "Fame," a surprising, mannered collaboration with John Lennon. In truth, it's one of the funkiest things Bowie's ever recorded. But the rest is a bummer. Still obsessed with supposed "soul" music, Bowie goes with the same unimaginative blend of R & B and light jazz on track after track: danceable, but low-key instrumental backing; super-smooth R & B backup vocals; and endless quantities of David Sanborn's slick-as-vaseline saxophone dribblings. Only the energetic, but slightly silly title track really does anything with all of this. Otherwise there's a forgettable orchestrated ballad ("Can You Hear Me"), and Lennon also appears on a sloppy, incongruous cover of his "Across The Universe." The three bonus tracks are more of the same, including the long, boring A-side "John, I'm Only Dancing Again." So unless you're big on Sanborn, you might not want to blow money on this just to hear the two big hits. Luther Vandross is among the backup singers and gets a co-write ("Fascination"); the rhythm section is Willie Weeks and Andy Newmark, whom Bowie apparently met while helping the Stones cut "It's Only Rock 'N' Roll." Carlos Alomar (rhythm guitar) makes his first appearance of many here, and ex-Spider Mike Garson (piano) his last for nearly two decades. (JA)

Station To Station (1976)
Wow, this is really good. Much of it was intended as the soundtrack to The Man Who Fell To Earth, but the music wasn't actually used. It was the first record to feature Bowie's late-70s, Carlos Alomar-dominated band, and his last gold record for a while. Practically every song got airplay - the proto-industrial "TVC15," the romantic, irresistable disco number "Stay," the lengthy "return of the Thin White Duke" title track, and the Top Ten hit "Golden Years." Alomar and Slick smoke, the rhythm section is mega-funky, the chord progressions are mind-boggling, and Bowie affects a cool, slightly dissonant vocal style that grabs your attention. With only a half-dozen numbers and most of them plodding on past five minutes, some of it drags (the semi-acoustic ballad "Wild Is The Wind"); but the high points make it a must-have for Bowie fans. The bonus tracks are contemporaneous live versions of "Stay," with just-filling-in-for-the-tour lead guitarist Stacey Heydon funking explosively, and "Word On A Wing." (JA)

Low (1977)
The first of three records that Bowie cut in Berlin while working closely with electronic music maven Brian Eno. All of them are important because they foreshadow the New Wave sound that arrived soon afterwards: spacey synth textures, disco-influenced rhythm parts more or less in the last record's style, and a generally more minimalistic approach that vaguely hints at punk ("Always Crashing In The Same Car"; "Speed Of Life"). All of this is easiest to hear on the concise, high-strung, and thin-sounding pop songs that fill side 1 ("Breaking Glass"; "Be My Wife"). They're not classics, but they're innovative and entertaining. Still, though, the closest thing to a hit isn't very substantial ("Sound And Vision," a dollop of synth-funk leavened with Far East flavorings), and lead guitarist Ricky Gardener doesn't get to do much except on the bouncy "What In The World." Worse, on side 2 Bowie and Eno run wild with a series of sci-fi movie soundtrack-style instrumentals that ooze hi-tech decadence. At first listen I thought they were formless and sluggish, but despite their maximal avant garde quotient they're actually cleverly composed, precisely executed, and creepily operatic ("Warszawa/Art Decade/Weeping Wall/Subterraneans"). The record is one of Bowie's most daring experimental efforts, but it's not for everyone - his American fans, at least, were not amused, and Bowie's US record sales plummeted until Let's Dance. The CD bonus tracks are two more experimental instrumentals and a remix of "Sound And Vision." (JA)

Heroes (1977)
If anyone wanted to argue that this was Bowie's best period, they could build a good case around side 1 of Heroes. Take one cup Bowie, add rubbery disco bass, electrify with brilliant Robert Fripp guitar parts, sprinkle lightly with Briano Eno sound effects, serve with occasional sax, piano, cheesy backup vocals, or whatever you find in the cupboard, and you've got the ingredients for a clever and entertaining record. Fripp's usual virtuoso mania is relatively minimal here, but it's enough to take the sugariness out of Bowie's usual pop pretensions - the longish hit title track and "Joe The Lion" are great examples. The only problem is that Bowie and Eno once again commit most of side 2 to a wordless, meandering, experimental sound collage/atonal jam. As on the last record, it's daring; but this time there just isn't as much musical substance. So when the pop song album closer "Secret Life Of Arabia" comes on, you feel like you're getting a surprise dessert after suffering through a long, bland, overcooked main course. This was Fripp's first appearance as a Bowie sideman; it's ironic given his lofty status as King Crimson guitar genius, but unsurprising given his close association with Eno throughout the late 70s. (JA)

Stage (1977)
This is a live double album recorded during the Heroes tour. It features Adrian Belew on guitar and includes a bunch of relatively recent tunes like "Fame," "TVC15," and "Beauty And The Beast." There aren't too many oldies, "Ziggy Stardust" being the most notable. I finally found a copy and I'm not terribly impressed with it; the material isn't very strong, the band's playing is pretty much rote, Belew isn't a major factor, and Bowie oddly decides to have them recreate the entire instrumental medley from Low, which doesn't leave much for him to do. On the other hand, it's a far better listen than David Live. (JA)

Lodger (1979)
Like Low and Heroes, this is a very odd record full of experimentation; unlike Low and Heroes, it mostly ditches both disco and sound collage in favor of an even more mechanical rhythm section (the silly single "Boys Keep Swinging"), extremely bizarre vocals ("Move On"), Mediterranean influences ("Yassassin"), and a lighter overall tone. It's true that "D.J.," whose "I am what I play" refrain makes it the record's most memorable tune, is as much of a disco song as anything Bowie ever did - but it's annoyingly thin anyway. And that's the problem with the whole record: Bowie just can't seem to find a good riff to hang his mannerisms on, and except for a few cool numbers like the head-banging "Look Back In Anger," most of the tunes are just plain listless. Adrian Belew replaced Robert Fripp on this album only; he's not quite as dextrous, but when Belew gets down and flaky they're very hard to tell apart ("Red Sails"). Lodger was the last of the Berlin Eno/Bowie collaborations, but Eno has co-writes on practically every tune. Tony Visconti also shows up often in assorted roles. Bonus tracks include a longer, louder, more danceable 1988 version of "Look Back In Anger" with Kizilcay and Gabrels. (JA)

Scary Monsters (1980)
The last of the Alomar-period records, with Robert Fripp back but Eno gone. It's respectable, with Bowie taking a more commercial approach but still experimenting with electronic effects, odd lyrics, and a neurotic disco-New Wave sound. The two infectiously danceable singles are career high points: "Ashes To Ashes" is coldly majestic; "Fashion" crawls with cool riffs and flakey sounds. Several other tunes are strong, including "It's No Game," which bookends the record in two versions and on the first one has a bizarre Japanese voiceover; "Up The Hill Backwards," with some interesting, Zen-influenced lyrics; the brooding industrial experiment "Scream Like A Baby"; and the title track, which features a wildly sputtering Fripp guitar part. Fripp's solos and Bowie's frequently bizarre vocal histrionics lift most of the tunes considerably, and lowpoints are few: the ballad "Teenage Wildlife" drags at seven minutes, and there's a pointless, glossy cover of Tom Verlaine's upbeat anthem "Kingdom Come." Tony Visconti co-produced with Bowie; Pete Townshend plays rhythm guitar on the drab, routine "Because You're Young." Bonus tracks include a couple of remakes ("Space Oddity" minus any orchestration; "Panic In Detroit"), a meandering synth experiment ("Crystal Japan"), and an elaborate, irritating cover of "Alabama Song." After this Bowie waited out the last two years of his record contract, but in 1981 he did team with Queen to record the Top 40 hit "Under Pressure." (JA)

Let's Dance (1983)
Bowie certainly helped his cause in the early 80s by touring, appearing in films, and jumping on the MTV bandwagon, but what really makes this Bowie's big comeback record is the quality of the music. To start with, there's the wildly popular title track - only Bowie's second #1 hit. "China Girl" (co-authored by Iggy Pop) and "Modern Love" also were major hits, and there's a re-recording of the previous year's soundtrack hit "Cat People (Putting Out Fire)." Plus there's more good stuff here like "Criminal World." All of it is powered by funky, up-beat bass lines in Bowie's late 70s style; an energetic R & B horn section; and famous dead bluesman/Hendrix imitator Stevie Ray Vaughan, who adds some brief but brilliant guitar solos that really lift the record. The down side is the lyrics - some of them are extremely clever, but elsewhere Bowie, often working with Pop, is either trite ("Let's Dance"), pretentious ("Cat People"), or obnoxious ("China Girl," a disgusting display of stereotyping). In sum, there are only a few new musical ideas here and there's a blatant emphasis on commercialized hedonism, but as long as you take it with tongue firmly in cheek, you'll enjoy the record thoroughly. Co-producer Nile Rodgers handled rhythm guitar and left his stamp all over the place. (JA)

Tonight (1984)
Bowie fans often rank this and the following record as his worst ever, but Tonight is notably better than Never Let Me Down; it's more stylistically varied and more clearly rooted in Bowie's signature sound. The Top Ten hit here is "Blue Jean," which has an entertaining marimba part, 50s-style rock 'n' roll horns, and a catchy guitar hook, but does get annoying after a while. The Leiber-Stoller number "I Keep Forgettin'" is similar, but elsewhere, Bowie leans toward light, up-tempo funk ("Tumble And Twirl"), 70s-style orchestrated pop ("Loving The Alien"; an unbelievably tacky cover of Brian Wilson's magnificent "God Only Knows"), and even reggae (title track). Iggy Pop shared many of the songwriting credits and appears on a couple tracks; Alomar is back on guitar, augmented by Derek Bramble, but the rest of the band is carried over from Let's Dance. The next year, Bowie had two collaborative hits: the movie theme "This Is Not America," with the Pat Metheny Group, and the charity single "Dancing In The Streets," with Mick Jagger - it originally was cut by the Motown act Martha and the Vandellas. (JA)

Never Let Me Down (1987)
Bowie sounds like Bowie, but one-man backing band Erdal Kizilcay drowns him out with 80s blandness: atmospheric synth, predictable funk bass, and robotic drums ("New York's In Love"). There's not much more to say, because every damn song sounds the same - sometimes a little slower (title track), sometimes a little faster ("Day-in Day-out"; "Bang Bang"), but that's it. The only real exception is the creepy spoken poem that begins "Glass Spider," a re-run of Diamond Dog's "Future Legend" with plenty of effects; other "experimental" tracks like "Zeroes," dressed up with crowd noises and Indian instrumentation, are just more of the same pablum. Bowie fans will enjoy this anyway, because the master's voice is in good form and the songs themselves are decent (the tuneful "Shining Star (Makin' My Love)"). The single is "Time Will Crawl," a danceable rocker with lots of clever riffs and a refrain that gets repeated endlessly. The generically snappy guitars ("'87 And Cry") are handled by Carlos Alomar (rhythm) and Peter Frampton (lead), and there are numerous bit players like actor Mickey Rourke. (JA)

Tin Machine (Tin Machine: 1989)
Everyone thought Bowie was nuts when this came out - he'd formed a full-scale band with guitarist Reeves Gabrels and the Sales brothers rhythm section (ex-Todd Rundgren and Iggy Pop bands), all obscure middle-aged musicians, and seemed determined to hide himself behind them. None of their records was a substantial hit and the band didn't last long. But amazingly, it's fun. Without all the usual distractions, Bowie just relaxes, going back to his 60s rock roots (title track), while Gabrels indulges his amusing heavy metal inclinations - he's got enough Robert Fripp-like chops to avoid the usual metal cliches. The combination is so weird it's guaranteed to make you sit up, and it's not really so far from contemporary highbrow, high volume heavy rock like Living Color that the critics did like. Apart from a cover of Lennon's "Working Class Hero," the material is entirely Bowie's, with the others often co-credited; and his lyrics are in top form, angrily political in some places, and running off on his warped, impressionistic love-song trip in others. (JA)

In 1990 Bowie appeared on Adrian Belew's Young Lions. (JA)

Tin Machine II (Tin Machine: 1991)
Featured the infamous Greek statue cover, which got censored in the U.S. It's definitely a step down from the band's debut - you can see why Bowie's record company didn't want to release it. The major bummers are a couple of Hunt Sales lead vocals and second-rate songwriting all around. On the other hand, there's no reason to avoid it if you really got something out of their first record. I'll get around to a full review some time, but don't hold your breath because I find the record really dull. (JA)

Oy Vey Baby (Tin Machine: 1992)
Just an oddly-titled live record. Because you can get all the tracks on the band's other discs, and because their studio recordings are stripped-down to start with, there's nothing here for the curiosity seeker. The uniformly frantic and overloud material is split evenly between the two studio albums, which highlights just how weak Tin Machine II really is. For example, Hunt Sales reprises his utterly uninteresting soul vocal on the leadenly paced blues number "Stateside." Worse, there are some sloppy, extended arrangements that border on jams - "Heaven's In Here," which at 12 minutes has you gasping for mercy, and a version of "You Belong In Rock 'N' Roll" that doesn't know when to start or stop. The only good news is a little of Bowie's vintage eeriness ("I Can't Read") and a few wild guitar solos by Reeves Gabrels that naturally depart from the studio takes ("Amazing"). But that's hardly any consolation unless you're a Gabrels junkie or a metalhead to start with. Oy vey indeed... (JA)

Black Tie, White Noise (1993)
Bowie goes solo again, and of course immediately jumps on the nearest bandwagon - a weird blend of computerized dance music, hip hop, and jazz. Talk about pushing a formula: practically every track features the same combination of shuffling, mechanical drums; jarring hiphop samples; single synth notes held through the measures; blaring, Arabesque horns; and funky, but totally uptight bass parts. It's fun, though, even when Bowie brutalizes Cream's old psychedelic chestnut "I Feel Free" and Morissey's bathetic gospel crooner "I Know It's Gonna Happen Someday," which fits in here like a sore thumb. Jazz legend Lester Bowie throws in some fine trumpet solos ("Looking For Lester"), and David gets in some wild sax parts of his own. Plus his voice is strong, and some of his original material like "The Wedding" is quite interesting. So this is a stylistically narrow and derivative effort, but an enjoyable and sometimes daring attempt to keep up - I can see why it was a flop in the States, but it did well elsewhere and deserved to. A few old hands are in evidence, like co-producer Nile Rodgers (guitar) and guests Mick Ronson (since deceased), Mike Garson, and Reeves Gabrels; the rest of the band is new. The CD includes the bop-till-you-drop anthem "Lucy Can't Dance" and a remix of the equally frenzied "Jump They Say." (JA)

The Buddha Of Suburbia (1993)
This one was reworked from a British TV serial soundtrack and is hard to get in the US, but it's really worth tracking down. There are a lot of instrumentals ("The Mysterie" and "Ian Fish, U.K. Heir," both in oozing, full-blown Eno style), and it's not very coherent. But it does show Bowie letting his hair down a bit, which is a good thing - his other late-period records have too often been woefully over-produced. Bowie does land one fantastic A-side in his late 70s "Heroes" style ("Strangers When We Meet"), which is so good it's hard to believe it was recorded during this decade. There's also some dreamy, psychedelic balladry (title track; "Untitled No. 1"), intelligently crafted techno ("Sex And The Church"), ominous funk ("Bleed Like A Craze, Dad"), and even early 80s-style disco ("Dead Against It"). It's a toss-off, but it has none of the serious problems that mar all of Bowie's work during the preceding decade. Oddly, Bowie went back to multi-instrumentalist Erdal Kizilcay here; they not only co-produced but between them played virtually everything. There are just a few guests: Mike Garson delivers a characteristic piano part on the interesting acid jazz instrumental "South Horizon," and Lenny Kravitz plays a rote rock guitar solo on the title track. (JA)

Outside (1995)
Bowie's best effort in two decades, this is a lengthy conceptual album with (surprise) a paranoid, Orwellian sci-fi plotline. It features a weird mix of players from all sorts of earlier eras - Alomar; Garson; Kizilcay, but only on bass and keyboards; Reeves Gabrels (guitar), from Tin Machine; and strangest of all, Briano Eno, who not only handled synthesizers, but co-produced and co-wrote almost all the tracks. As a result, it ends up being a pleasantly disturbing blend of super-trendy trip-hop ("Hallo Spaceboy"; the bouncy "I Have Not Been To Oxford Town") and Bowie's experimentalist late 70s period (title track). Most tracks are held down by a fierce, repetitive hip-hop beat, eerie, ephemerous synths ("No Control"), and Mike Garson's shimmering, cascading piano ("A Small Plot Of Land") - Gabrels' usual bombast is at a minimum. Everything's solid, but the high points are a bunch of funk-laden pop songs: "Strangers When We Meet" (repeated from the last record); the hyperactive, Eno-flavored techno-funker "We Prick You"; the 90s U2-ish "No Control"; and especially Bowie's dark and fiercely rhythmic "The Hearts Filthy Lesson." Bowie salts the stew with a series of in-character monologues based on the short story that comes with the liner notes. They're extraordinarily wacky, but his sense of theater sucks you in to the fantasy. All of this is hard to assimilate, but after a few listens any real Bowie fan will come around. (JA)

Earthling (1997)
Another year, another album. Almost everything here is self-consciously contemporary-sounding dance music with choppy samples, blazing power chords, doom-laden, bombastic arrangements, and shrill, fast-paced synth parts, not very different from the last couple of records ("Dead Man Walking"). Unfortunately, every tune gets blown up into a five- or six-minute epic, most often being served up with oppressively cretinous double-time hiphop beats ("The Last Thing You Should Do"). Worse still, guitarist Reeves Gabrels is mixed way too loud, even on the supposed down-tempo mood piece "Seven Years In Tibet." I can't help thinking that the problem is Bowie's lack of effort. Although the lyrics are all his, he hands over the production credit to Gabrels and engineer/programmer Mark Plati, who also have co-credits on most of the music. The single "Little Wonder" hardly stands out from the other tunes, and despite some earnest experimentation ("Telling Lies"; "Law (Earthlings On Fire)") the only really memorable effort is the exciting, unusually political rocker "I'm Afraid Of Americans" - not coincidentally the only tune co-authored by Brian Eno. Pretentious, indulgent, and oh-so-European, this ear-splitting, instantly dated effort isn't a career low like Never Let Me Down, but it's remarkably weak compared to Outside. The band again includes Mike Garson, who adds some characteristically interesting piano parts; there's also bassist/backup vocalist Gail Ann Dorsey and drummer Zachary Alford. (JA)

hours... (1999)
Have to keep mining the fans' wallets somehow. The band includes Plati on numerous instruments and drummer Mike Levesque, but not Garson, Dorsey, or any of the other veterans. Finally got a copy and I'm thinking it over; my first take is that it's as retro as could be, with Bowie unmistakably reviving the glam rock sound of his early 70s glory years. Guitarist Reeves Gabrels co-produced with Bowie and has co-writes on everything, but this time he's remarkably restrained. In a third of a century of recording Bowie had never shown a strong inclination to revisit his past glories, so all of this is really quite surprising. (JA)

Heathen (2002)
Apparently continuing the retro direction of hours.... I saw him perform a track from this on TV and it was as 70s as could be. (DBW)
Produced by Tony Visconti, who plays bass. Uncharacteristically, this time Bowie does some covers (including the Pixie's "Cactus") and enlists some superstar guests: Tony Levin, Pete Townshend, plus ex-Nirvana member Dave Grohl, who appears on a cover of Neil Young's "I've Been Waiting For You." There's a ton of other players including Alomar, Plati, guitarist Gerry Leonard, drummer Sterling Campbell, avant garde guitarist David Torn, and Lenny Pickett's Borneo Horns. (JA)

Reality (2003)
Coproduced by Bowie and Visconti, who's on bass again. The band is all either veteran - Slick, Garson - or recent collaborators like Dorsey, Leonard, and Campbell. (JA)

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