Ten Songs That Made Me Love...
published: 5 /
In our series, in which our writers write about ten songs that made them love a particular band or artist, Mary O'Meara reflects on her favourite David Bowie songs
I've worked out that I must have been twelve years old when a being called David Bowie first crashed into my psyche leaving me in wide-eyed wonder and in love with rock and roll forever (though I think I was born that way). Born or did he drop to earth? Well, this man, this boy, this creature called Bowie most certainly may have. Seeing him for the first time on ‘Top of the Pops’ performing 'Boys Keep Swinging' was my awakening to his magic. Nobody introduced me. I found him all my myself and I didn't know who to ask or to explain "What IS this?" Looking back on his history and discography now, it seems I'd stumbled upon him after a brief lull in the stream of singles he'd gifted us with during the early, mid and later seventies, so although the name David Bowie was in my consciousness the experience wasn't until that fateful encounter via the family TV screen on a regular Thursday evening. Except this was anything but regular. This was extraordinary and I was left changed and charged but also baffled. "What WAS that?"
A day or so later I was checking out the stalls in a Saturday morning market and I spied a rectangular mirror badge with his image and name on it. I couldn't afford much else at the market but I had enough to make the badge mine and I wore it with pride, like I'd been admitted to the coolest club in the world, even though I was woefully ignorant of the story or back catalogue of this most exquisite rock star. I just knew he was immensely important and whatever the magic ingredients that exploded from the 'TOTP' performance the other night were, they hadn't faded. They never did. It was as though I hoped by wearing the badge I could carry it with me and in the drabbest, mundane of days it could shimmer in the sun, it could remind me there was more to life and there COULD be life on Mars. There could be a star-man waiting in the sky. And in a way that's still what David Bowie represents to me thirty something years later - the door to another place, a place far more exciting than most of us can even imagine and though, like most people I'm sure, I found it upsetting to watch the recent video to 'Lazarus' and watch him disappear into the wardrobe in the corner, I also know there has to be a passage to Narnia through that wardrobe. The fact that he's wearing his 'Station to Station' costume strengthens this feeling for me - he's transitioning, travelling to another dimension rather than closing the lid.
There's no way he's not going somewhere exciting...and although this world will sorely miss him, as well as the music, he's surely left us that invitation - to explore, to time travel, to experiment, to question the status quo and have some fun while we're at it.
The task of picking my ten favourite Bowie tracks truly proved impossible but I have chosen ten tracks that are a big part of why I love him, though they are by no means the only ten!
1. 'Boys Keep Swinging' ('Lodger', 1979)
Had to start with where I started! I love this song for the swagger, the bass line, the way it manages to both celebrate AND poke fun at being a boy at the same time! It's ironic but it's also sincere, a contradiction - something Bowie is so good at! Any of the so called boyish attributes and ambitions mentioned could just as easily be applied to a girl if you think about it. Yet, he's clearly and amusingly parodying clichéd masculinity "You can wear a uniform!" "Learn to drive and everything!" But on some other level, there is a real sense that it truly can be fun being a boy - or being a boy that "heaven loves" where life is easy because "the clouds part for ya". I found an interesting quote from Bowie from 'Bust' magazine where he says:
"I do not feel that there is anything remotely glorious about being either male or female. I was merely playing on the idea of the colonization of gender." At the end of the day, the song to me is about being comfortable in your own skin and refusing to conform to stereotype. "Clothes (can) always fit you" if you carry it off with confidence, whether you're a boy or a girl. There's a suggestion that gender roles are just masks and this is reinforced by Bowie in drag singing backing vocals on the video. And the guitar solo by Adrian Belew at the end is priceless, like some crazy machine hoovering up all the debris left on the cat-walk, while that slinky bass keeps chugging along and all seems to end in happy, confused chaos.
2. 'Suffragette City' ('Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars', 1972)
This has to be the most contagious, sexiest, glam rock record ever made. The pace, the punctuation, the phrasing, the frazzled confusion just tear along and there's no choice but to jump right in - if you can - if you can afford a ticket. The lyrics are all over the place and it's hard to know what's going on but that's all part of the appeal of the record. It's compulsive, it's crazy - and I won't pretend to totally understand it. The name 'Suffragette City' sounds like a cool, comic strip location full of liberated feminists, and the singer is in hot pursuit of one of them but is being dragged down and delayed by a character called Henry (which could simply be a drug reference) or could be some guy who's getting in his way and cramping his style. Like so many Bowie songs you get the feeling this song wrote itself. It's so on target, so instant - and the energy crammed into those three and a half minutes creates total exhilaration. The only space to breathe is the perfectly positioned pause before the "Wham! Bam! Thank you, Ma'am" and then off it roars again....
3. 'Life on Mars' ('Hunky Dory', 1971)
That over-used to the point of meaningless word epic springs to the forefront of my mind when 'Life on Mars' is mentioned - but it is the correct word. It's almost about the search for the epical that the central character ("the girl with the mousey hair") seeks on the silver screen to escape her banal surroundings and disagreements with family, disappearances by friends. Yet, the sadness seems inescapable because the images she watches are disturbing. Yet, the song is still about escapism and the melody and orchestration can't help but carry you someplace else. The piano paints the picture, each keystroke like a tear-drop trembling on the edge of an eye until the strings and guitar sweep in and lift you out of your seat and hurl you into the kind of world that cinema, and art in it's broadest sense, can so easily take you. For so many alienated teenagers art is the only refuge, the comfort, the inspiration.
The question of whether or not there's life on Mars is never answered and that is kind of the point, because it's the possibility that keeps us searching and art offers that possibility. You know that sense of everything having a new sheen around it when you re-emerge from the cinema/theatre/venue? Your senses are enhanced and sharpened from the journey you've just experienced and you can view things differently, wrapped with an inner warmth, the glow of the screen or the show still in your heart, the songs still in your head. But how long can it last? The final seconds of the song where Mick Ronson's haunting piano resurfaces are genius. It departs like a memory that's slipping out of your fingers and earshot, elusive and enchanting and enough to keep you forever searching to find it again...
4. 'Wild is the Wind' ('Station to Station', 1976, and single, 1981)
It seems strange in a way to choose a cover as one my ten songs, seeing as Bowie wrote the vast majority of his material himself but the truth is this IS one of the songs that makes me love him, so here it is. Apparently he chose to record it after meeting Nina Simone and being so taken with her version.
The sheer beauty and emotionality of the vocal is one of the most spine-tingling pieces of vinyl ever pressed. Listening to the wind is a very emotional thing. Perhaps, more than most other types of weather the wind seems to be alive - it sings, it cries, sighs, whistles and makes other things move (gates creak, bins tumble, debris clatters). Bowie’s vocal truly inhabits the spirit of the wind and every breath trembles and caresses until it soars and lifts, coming close to gale force at times. The vocal alone could sweep you away but combine it with the gentle, plaintive guitar and the soulful drums and the breath-taking movement between major and minor and there's nothing to do but swoon. I could listen to this forever.
5. 'John, I'm Only Dancing' (Single, 1972)
That short, raw, slightly jarring but super vibrant acoustic intro sets the tone for this strange but irresistible song. I say strange because it’s intrinsically quirky and ambiguous lyrically yet the music is pure rock and roll at its finest – belting, insistent, truly compelling you to dance. Whether John is the singer's lover or partner of the woman he's dancing with is unclear, whether he is "only dancing" is unclear. It's simply a perfect dramatic slice of passion, intrigue and conflict – the stuff of snatched glimpses and speculation that can fuel so many emotions but are rarely sung about as frankly as this.
6. 'Ziggy Stardust' ('Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars', 1972)
The legendary opening riff announces the dramatic entrance of Ziggy and his band. In my mind, they tumble stylishly out of a car or tour bus. Like many great David Bowie records, this is sung as a story, a glam rock narrative that paints a vivid picture of life as a member of the Spiders (or one of his fans?). What’s interesting is that even though Bowie clearly IS Ziggy he chooses to sing in the third person, almost as a spectator of himself, watching himself on stage, exploring the weird and wonderful mind-set of Ziggy Stardust. His ability to do this hints that he didn’t entirely become the character, that he had another part of him that was observing and commenting even though there is confusion at the heart of it all. The song celebrates the mythological allure and power of being a rock star but also the destruction inherent in the extremes some musicians take themselves to. It’s an extraordinary record that almost critiques itself – a bit like a dream within a dream, living it whilst telling and analysing it.
7. 'Sound and Vision' ('Low', 1977)
Sound and vision! Can you have one without the other? Most sounds, but specifically music, tend to conjure up images (as well as emotion and sensations naturally) but having said that, this delightful track has an almost abstract quality. There's a kind of vacancy, a spaciousness in the middle ("waiting for the gift of sound and vision"). There are few lyrics and the few that are scattered throughout are bitty and vague. It's almost like there's nothing to latch onto - "Don't you wonder some times?" - and the vagueness is actually part of the wonder of the song, the undefined, the freedom of largely non-verbal existence, just immersed in the senses. It would seem that to try and pin down what the song is about would be the wrong thing to do so I would just say it's broadly about the creative process, the freedom of the blank page (though that can also be a frustration) but in this case it doesn't feel that way. The tone is upbeat, the sound is crystal clear, each note feels clean and new and the quality of "electric blue" is something which you can almost hear as well as visualize. This electric impulse is where inspiration strikes, from the leftfield, out of the blue.
In some ways, perhaps this song could represent the opportunity Bowie's move to Berlin offered him, a chance to get out of the limelight, to rekindle his creativity and experience new sounds and visions and this track exudes that exciting sense of a new things about to manifest, dreams germinating and finding expression.
8. 'Space Oddity' ('David Bowie', 1969)
Arguably Bowie's most famous record, and certainly his breakthrough record, it's easy to lose sight of how good and how unusual a record it is due to the familiarity most of us have with it. It's another of his narrative records and he does tell a good story encompassing the trivial ("The papers want to know who's shirts you wear") and the dramatic ("Your circuit's dead/ There's something wrong!") along with the pensive ("And the stars look very different today..."). The character of Major Tom returns, of course, in another chapter of Bowie's recording career, which, yes, is another thing I love about him - his ability to weave and crossover characters almost like the happenings that occur in comics and science fiction novels. There's something so fluid about his work that it allows this. Just as he dips in and out of so many genres musically, he also has the kind of vision that can cast the same character in a different scene, travelling across time and no one bats an eye-lid. In the world of David Bowie, anything is possible and we believe it or at the very least consider it ("Is there life on Mars?").
But back to this track which ranges from eerie in the introduction - the countdown sounds decidedly sinister - and the music matches - to the triumphant "I'm stepping through the door...". There truly is lift off in this record. We can't help but turn our eyes skywards and we too start floating along with Major Tom. You don't have to listen to many Bowie records to discover a theme of outer space and extra terrestrials but I think ultimately this is just his search for and expression of wanting something different, being something different, constantly pushing the boundaries.
9. 'Ashes to Ashes' ('Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps', 1980)
When an artist creates so many masterpieces the very word masterpiece becomes redundant but there's something about 'Ashes to Ashes' that sits on a pinnacle of greatness and completion. I recall this record being number one and again, like 'Boys Keep Swinging', being sucked into the TV screen when the video was beamed into our homes at the start of the eighties. So, hypnotic and impressionable a visual it was that I clearly remember dreaming of it at least once in the weeks that followed - that strange, slow procession of Bowie and assorted characters being trailed by a bulldozer along a shingle strewn beach was haunting and it looked like a beach I knew (though it wasn't).
It's a song about addiction and mortality (and morality) but at the core of it is a desire to live ("Want an axe to break the ice/Wanna come down right now."). The notion that Major Tom's a junkie that's been floating around in space since 1969 is sad and disturbing and could be seen as a metaphor for the singer wanting to live a normal life, wanting to come back to Earth rather than escape it, to come clean, to live without artificial highs. Although the ending becomes almost a cautionary tale ("My mother said...") to warn of the dangers of drug use or messing with undesirable characters, it's more complex and bigger than that. Just like 'Space Oddity' there's a feeling of floating away, being untethered as the outro continues to swirl into the distance it feels as though everything is simply unravelling. Many streams are running together spanning other lives and times, like all the junk of the collective unconscious is being washed up on that beach only to be carried away by the tide again - but this song is like the moment the tide is out and we can see the mess and with this epiphany, we have an opportunity to clean it up - or be swallowed up again. It's such a powerful song with that distinctive and strange instrumentation - a sound that's like a hybrid between a guitar and a synthesizer - I couldn't tell you quite what it is - it's futuristic but also melancholic and of the past. There's a dilemma between wanting to escape and wanting to face up to reality here but the over-riding tone is that none of us can ultimately escape as we all return to dust eventually....or at least our human form does.
10. "Heroes" ("Heroes", 1977)
From the very first note, this track ushers in a beautiful and dignified energy. It's one of Bowie's most uplifting records. It's noble, it's precious, it's the sound of hope. The guitars criss-cross and bounce off the vocal in a fantastic sympathy and they just keep working and re-working various riffs the whole way through, which reflects the determined nature of the song. The word heroes is enclosed in quotation marks which can be interpreted in many ways but I see it as both a dismissal of his own very real status as hero to his fans and a suggestion not to take it too seriously, but also opening the door for any "ordinary" person to crown themselves a hero - even if it's just for a moment "I, I will be King/ and you, you will be Queen" has a beautiful child-like simplicity to it. In our childhood we could play make believe and adorn ourselves with any titles or characteristics we wanted and in a way, this song is about giving yourself permission to do just that, to recognize our sovereignity and live our lives according to our own values and beliefs, despite the restrictions others try to impose on us ("We can beat them - just for one day"),
It's impossible not to sing along with this record, not to rise to the occasion on some level, particularly the repeated lines "I, I can remember (I remember) Standing by the wall (by the wall)"...it's a kind of re-enforcement of the sentiment, as well being an being an almost communal sing-a-long. It's notable that repeated lines are a feature of many of Bowie's tracks and they serve different purposes at different times but none of them are accidental or unimportant. The repeated lines in 'Ashes to Ashes' ("I've never done good things)" fall away like a troubled echo, somebody trapped inside their own head, having a dialogue with themselves...whereas these repeated lines in "Heroes" function very differently, joyfully in unison, all singing out of the same heroic hymn sheet, so to speak. The "wall" reference we know or assume to be locating the song against the backdrop of Berlin but it can also be seen universally, a wall simply representing division - us against them, which is the central struggle in this song.
So, that's where I leave you...David Bowie is multi-faceted, multi-dimensional in terms of art and music but in terms of the human spirit I think that's his greatest gift of all. He inspires people to be all that they can be, to reach for the stars, no matter how unlikely it seems that you'll get there. You will, at the very least, feel a sprinkle of stardust if you follow his trail...something that's all yours, something he gave so many.
791 Posted By: Melanie Smith, Newton le willows on 05 Feb 2016
This is fantastic Mary, your sentiments about Wild Is The Wind is entirely what I think of this son. Really excellent piece.