The Lesser-known Bowie: 19 Gems and Deep Cuts
One of the most accomplished and dynamic popular artists of the last century, the late David Bowie produced an unbelievable number of enduring classics. But beyond the hits, Bowie’s varied catalogue represents one of the great treasure troves of rock and pop music. Find a playlist of the tracks here: http://avc.lu/1SqLLBc
- •“Look Back In Anger,” Lodger (1979)“Look Back In Anger” is one of Lodger’s boldest statements, slapping the title of a classic British kitchen sink drama onto an incongruously fantastic scenario, describing a visitation by the Angel Of Death. The music, meanwhile, is as driving and soaring as nearly everything else on Lodger—as befits a record partially about traveling.
- •“Strangers When We Meet,” Outside (1995)Serving as a romantic counterpoint to Outside’s cut-up paranoia, “Strangers When We Meet” finds his voice effortlessly gliding between seduction and sorrow over howling guitar, piano textures, and a simple, driving beat. Though it barely charted as a single, it remains one of the most gorgeous songs of Bowie’s under-appreciated ’90s period.
- •“Without You,” Let’s Dance (1983)A simple, slight love song, “Without You” takes full advantage of the performing and production team David Bowie put in place for Let’s Dance, with Nile Rodgers’ booming dancefloor-ready sound and Stevie Ray Vaughan’s melancholy blues guitar establishing the track’s two emotional poles.
- •“Andy Warhol,” Hunky Dory (1971)The song is stripped bare, only a flamenco-laced guitar and later, some hand-claps, to depict this sing-song anthem to the pop artist. When Bowie sings, “I’d like to be a gallery / Put you all inside my show,” he could be referring to Warhol, or himself: He often blurred the line between art and music, and this cut is a prime example.
- •“Teenage Wildlife,” Scary Monsters (1980)If there’s such a thing as a definitive, fan-favorite David Bowie deep cut, it’s the sprawling, textured “Teenage Wildlife,” which serves as the centerpiece of Scary Monsters. It's a poison-pen letter to the New Wavers and synth-poppers who were imitating some of the sounds Bowie had pioneered (specifically Gary Numan), set against a gorgeous Robert Fripp guitar line based on his earlier work on “Heroes.”
- •“Memory Of A Free Festival,” David Bowie (1969)With big hair and hippie-friendly attire, Bowie was still of the moment rather than ahead of it, and the original version of “Memory Of A Free Festival” is lovely and acoustically based, conjuring a Wordsworthian moment of recollection about when the drugs go right, making the field and sun look lovely.
- •“Panic In Detroit,” Aladdin Sane (1973)Here the backup singers are meant to evoke the Motown side of Detroit, as Bowie describes riots in the streets, sparked by a celebrity revolutionary. Funky bongos and Mick Ronson’s thick guitar riff evoke a chaotic America—possibly in some near future, or possibly smack dab in the middle of 1973.
- •“Weeping Wall,” Low (1977) / “Sense Of Doubt,” Heroes (1977)The first two chapters of the so-called “Berlin trilogy” immediately set themselves apart by restricting the use of Bowie’s most powerful instrument: His voice. Low opens with the wordless mutant disco of “Speed Of Life”; Heroes gives over most of its second side to a suite of atmospheric compositions aided by ambient pioneer and Berlin trilogy collaborator Brian Eno. Yet even as they pay tribute to their predecessors in the field, Bowie’s particular set of skills shows through.
- •“Slip Away,” Heathen (2002)The third track on Heathen is the first to relax. Following the paranoid build-up of opener “Sunday” and Pixies cover “Cactus,” Bowie slips into less-stressed nostalgia. Reworking “Uncle Floyd,” a track from 2001’s ultimately unreleased Toy, Bowie takes a song that originally stitched together disparate parts and luxuriates in a sustained elegiac mood from start to finish.
- •“Win,” Young Americans (1975)Young Americans’ title track is its masterpiece, and “Fame” was its smash hit, but the best example of what the misunderstood album had to offer is “Win,” a sultry R&B slow-jam that’s just abstract and arty enough to be recognizable as Bowie. The song has the basic form of a seductive ballad, albeit unusually deflated for one with a chorus that advises “all you’ve got to do is win.”
- •“The Bewlay Brothers,” Hunky Dory (1971)Hunky Dory’s closer is virtually lyrically unparsable on a literal level, a series of private allusions making sense to the singer but perhaps none to the listener. After the album’s cycling through one persona after another, “The Bewlay Brothers” ends Hunky Dory in a place of internal reflection so opaque as to be another mask, a mood of reverie interrupted by a chorus of grotesque Cockneys “starving for me gravy,” whose schizoid disruption warns listeners never to get too comfortable.
- •“Baal’s Hymn,” In Bertolt Brecht’s BAAL EP (1982)Bowie’s longstanding interest in theater and the German art song tradition culminated in BAAL, an EP released to promote the BBC production of Bertolt Brecht’s play, in which he played the title role. An avid reader, Bowie had by this point become something of an amateur scholar on all things Brecht, and “Baal’s Hymn”—which combines several poems from the play into one song—is one of the finest showcases of his gift for interpretation and his sense of phrasing
- •“Station To Station,” Station To Station (1976)Often overlooked, Station To Station is the transitional album to beat all transitional albums; a seamless fusion of Bowie’s immediate past and immediate future, it combines the “plastic soul” of Young Americans with the Krautrock influences that would inform Low. The epic, terrifying title track chugs along for over five minutes of incantatory build-up before exploding into an incessant and energetic occult pop song.
- •“The London Boys (Alternate Version),” unreleased (2001)There are two Toy-era versions of the song in circulation; the less well-known “alternate version,” arranged as baroque pop, is superior and more poignant. It’s the sound of the older Bowie traveling back in time; if the original sounded like it was addressed to a peer, the later version’s second-person “you” is Bowie’s younger self.
- •“Heroes (Aphex Twin Remix),” 26 Mixes For Cash (2003)In remixing Philip Glass’ 1996 symphonic riff on Bowie’s big Berlin staple, Richard D. James showed an uncharacteristic amount of reverence toward his source materials. He slaps Bowie’s original vocals back on over Glass’s churning strings, stripping out the iconic original guitars entirely. There’s a little distortion and electronic cracking added, pointing out the strain Bowie was putting on his vocal chords.
- •“Tumble And Twirl,” Tonight (1984)There are a ridiculous number of candidates for Bowie’s most underrated album, but the one that’s maybe slept on the most is Tonight, the Let’s Dance follow-up that even the man himself dismissed as more commercially motivated than creatively vital. The record’s at its best when it’s at its most off-handed—as on this giddy tour through Borneo, which could be dismissed as a throwaway were it not for the energetic horn arrangement, Mark King’s thumping bass, and Bowie’s vivid imagery.
- •“Everyone Says ‘Hi’,” Heathen (2002)Upon Heathen’s release, the song was udnerstandable as a plea from father to estranged son. Zowie Bowie (a.k.a. film director Duncan Jones) was born in 1971, growing up when the Thin White Duke was often in drug-possessed control of the artist’s often-absent body, and the lyrical offer “you can always come home” to someone permanently away from home comes with the knowledge that the agency for reconciliation lies with the other person.
- •“Quicksand,” Hunky Dory (1971)Among the most lyrically knotty of all of Bowie’s songs, “Quicksand” is like a glimpse into the mind of a philosophy major driven to madness. ll that swirling, existential bewilderment is buoyed by the song’s gorgeously simple melody. It recently achieved new life thanks to the line, “I’m not a prophet or a stone age man / Just a mortal with the potential of a superman / I’m living on”—as fitting an epitaph for Bowie as any.