Thursday, 17 September 2015

David BOWIE: ChangesBowie

(#405: 31 March 1990, 1 week)

Track listing: Space Oddity/Starman/John, I’m Only Dancing/Changes/Ziggy Stardust/Suffragette City/The Jean Genie/Life On Mars?/Diamond Dogs/Rebel Rebel/Young Americans/Fame ‘90/Golden Years/Sound And Vision/“Heroes”/Ashes To Ashes/Fashion/Let’s Dance/China Girl/Blue Jean

(Author’s Note: In the fine tradition of the early Now series, you actually get less value if you buy the CD edition; “Starman,” “Life On Mars?” and “Sound And Vision” appear only on the LP and cassette editions, and their omission from the CD strikes me as being as ridiculous a move as releasing a Beatles compilation which left out “Please Please Me,” “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “I Am The Walrus.” Who on earth would buy that?)

The delay is because Lena was originally going to write this entry but found dealing with the masses of information available on Bowie stressful to the point where even the chance hearing of one of his songs induced a headache. So she has passed it on to me, and I have to say that listening to ChangesBowie is one of the strongest arguments in favour of paracetamol you’re ever likely to encounter.

As much as some of the number one albums of the nineties argue strongly in favour of a future, there was an equal and opposite reaction which heavily promoted the virtues of looking back. For the second time in TPL’s history, a generation was compelled, or persuaded, to re-examine its own memories, and so there are plenty of long-term hits compilations coming up, of which this is the first; a highly selective summary which includes nothing recorded before 1969 or after 1984.

The cover alone indicates that Bowie was as appalling a custodian of his own work as Apple were of the Beatles, featuring a photograph identical to that on the cover of 1976’s ChangesOneBowie but pasted over haphazardly with snippets of other Bowie album covers like a neglected advertising hoarding. Indeed, as far as the CD edition is concerned, its first eleven songs are identical to those on ChangesOneBowie, except that the latter included the original and immeasurably superior version of “Fame.” From 1981’s ChangesTwoBowie, only “Starman” and “Sound And Vision” reappear, although the “Ashes To Ashes” and “Fashion” on ChangesBowie are the full album versions, not the single mixes.

The compilation throws up the extremely important question of whether I have the energy to say anything new about these songs, which on the CD in particular seem sequenced in a way to make Bowie come across as bland and Radio 2-friendly as possible. This is the “classic” Bowie, the only one most people, if they are honest with themselves, give a damn about. It is the Ziggy crutch which leads to situations where Chris O’Leary’s Rebel Rebel, without a doubt the best, most informed and most trenchant book about Bowie that you will ever read, is not reviewed in broadsheets or magazines, cannot be found in bookshops, whereas cut-and-paste books of photographs or “In His Own Words” rush jobs are present in their abundance. Indeed it would not be hyperbolic to state that Rebel Rebel is vastly superior in intent and delivery to Revolution In The Head – the latter gives rise to a serious consideration of the worth of “good writing” since the twenty-one years since its first publication have demonstrated its author to have been wrong-headed about nearly everything that the Beatles did (and its preface and postscript now seem, more than ever, like extended cries for help); however, because it was well-written, it has acquired the status of a Bible.

Nevertheless, ChangesBowie simply leaves me exhausted. It paints a picture of a chancer who had a hit in the late sixties about drug addiction which everybody assumed was a moon landing cash-in and then progressed to boring, sub-Stones cock rock schlock before getting depressed but good in the second half of the seventies and the very beginning of the eighties, and emerging out the other side with boring, sub-Asia adult orientated rock schlock. Even the Aladdin Sane and Diamond Dogs singles sound shockingly anaemic out of their albums’ context, suggesting that some remixing had been done.

“Young Americans” is so good because it marks the moment when Bowie wakes up with a start from his romantic fifties greasy dreams and wonders aloud what all this bullshit has been hiding. “Golden Years” in conception, delivery, performance and production is about as perfect as pop songs get, even withstanding a Crackerjack assault. “’Heroes’” is meaningless in its single edit other than setting the stage for big eighties rock with its Big, Meaningful Statements; Live Aid proved how easily this pop Frippertronics could turn into standard stadium fare, but Bowie, Eno and Fripp all approach the full album version with a mortified exuberance which suggests that this might be the last song anybody sings (like its nephew, “Being Boring,” it did only modest commercial business but eventually evolved into one of his big crowd-pleasers on stage).

But the deathly hallow of the last three songs, from Bowie’s cleaned-up, corporate, forget-the-weird-stuff-please eighties, suggests that nothing was learned and most things that mattered were forgotten. Bowie is mainly interesting when whatever mask he is wearing at any given time falls. As a Rich Rock Tapestrian in the line of Rod, Elton and Sting, he might as well be a Hallmark Collectible Ornaments advertisement. The nadir of this album is the "Gass mix" (somebody called John Gass, under Bowie's supervision) of "Fame" which systematically strips out most of what was interesting, attractive and wrongfooting about the original, including most of the Lennon input. Did Bowie really feel a burning need to remind those Jesus Jones who was scratch n' mix boss?

Next: Some heavenly pop hits, if anybody wants them.


Robin Carmody said...

Elton, eh? Now *there's* someone on his way back to TPL, twice (initially with an album which had been released some time before this and largely been ignored).

I don't blame Lena for backing out in the way she did; I was expecting her to write this because it was taking longer and because so much of it had been on TPL before, but in some ways, this sort of packaging feels a lot worse than if it had been, say, a Howard Jones best-of. It was released to accompany the tour which was promoted as the last time he'd perform any of these songs (the one where the NME, fully into its Jolly Student Japes phase, tried to rig the phone voting so he had to perform "The Laughing Gnome") and presumably its appeal was strictly on a Not Like All That Tin Machine Crap level. I can imagine future Blair-era cabinet ministers owning it, certainly - maybe the lack of certain songs on the CD edition would even have made that format seem better for them.

The thing with the previous wave of old material anthologised on number one albums - the 1950s and early 1960s material which appeared at great length during the 1970s - is that a lot of it collated music which had sold principally on single when new, and hadn't been able to get past the Rodgers & Hammerstein dominance in an era with precious few number one albums, so had been absent from TPL before (Connie Francis, for example, had never had a UK Top 10 album before 1977). With 1990s best-ofs, you're on the whole more likely to be writing about material previously covered.

Robin Carmody said...

Only just realised that you're making a heavily sarcastic reference to entry #638 - an Alan Partridge album, indeed - at the start here (a tracklisting which had to do variously with the retconning of the Record Retailer chart and Billboard allowing double A-sides to chart separately).

Lena said...

I was requested to give my take on Bowie, and while it defeated me on the first try, I can try again, only more briefly...and since this is a secondary comment (ie I agree with the main one completely) I will do it this way:

The Cover: Looks like it was the "special" assignment done by someone in Grade 10 along the theme of "do a collage of your favorite pop star." The sort of thing done by someone with more fandom than sense. D

"Space Oddity" - The first proof of many that Bowie needs great production to pull things off; also, how far is 100,000 miles? I don't know if anyone's been out that far. Also, I'd rather listen to "Hilly Fields." B

"Starman" - I cannot help but think Bowie was sort of singing about himself here, really. Or that this is what he was to others, which in the 70s was about the same thing. C

"John I'm Only Dancing" - It could be wrong, but I still like this song as I heard it first, as a cover by The Chameleons. Also, "Michael" by Franz Ferdinand is actually sexier. B

"Changes" - Bowie is always best when he does things in a jazz style, with jazz changes. I like the fact he sings all over the place, like a saxophone. B+

"Ziggy Stardust" - Is it just me, or does Ziggy actually sound kind of repulsive? I get a whiff of decadence from this, and it's not pleasant. C-

"Suffragette City" - I'm sure this was all rad when it appeared, but I don't ever need to hear it again. Not quite as funny as it thinks it is. C-

"Jean Genie" - I wrote about this elsewhere - fine song, but "Blockbuster" is way better rock 'n' roll. I'm sure even Iggy Pop agree. B

"Life On Mars?" - I also wrote about this at MBSWT - again, great production and shows that when he's not trying to be all ROCK he is quite great. A

"Diamond Dogs" - So some feral youth are going to run things. So? Better Stones than the Stones, though that isn't really saying much. C-

"Rebel Rebel" - O'Leary says this inspired "Cherry Bomb" - but when I hear that, I just wish they had a better manager - I'm sure Bowie wished he did, too. Good grief, were there any good managers back in the 70s? This is where my headache really took hold. C

"Young Americans" - I like how Bowie is being mean about Americans, and yet he's surrounded by them and they pretty much make the song what it is. And no, we don't remember Nixon, because we're moving on. B

Lena said...

Part II:

"Fame '90" - This is so incredibly bad I had to go back and listen to the original to remind myself how great it is, how mean, how no one with any sense would want to become famous after hearing this song. More proof that people don't listen to lyrics. (F for remix, A for original)

"Golden Years" - It's perfect. I mean, that guitar sound! That whistling! Those handclaps! Unfortunately Bowie was out of it at this time, I say unfortunately as it may have caused others to think "well, shit, if Bowie can do that when strung out, so can I." Um, NO. A

"Sound And Vision" - There is nothing about this song that has dated since it came out, and it has so many punctum it's ridiculous. Hopkin's voice - Bowie's sigh - the DRUMMING - the use of the word "gift" - the saxophone - everything. A+

"Heroes" - Bowie is actually getting down with his bad self here, I mean this is actual soul singing. I like Eno in the background too. Climbs and climbs that mountain, and yet also hangs over the wall, somehow. A

"Ashes To Ashes" - More great production, from a great album, as you all know. One of those things that was strange at the time, yet inevitable, too. The 70s are over. A

"Fashion" - I can listen to this for Fripp's commentary alone the whole way through. Kind of like "Golden Years" in a way, sleek and shiny and its use at the Olympics ceremony in '12 was so literal. It's a political song, folks! Wake UP! A

"Let's Dance" - Literally gives me a headache. UGH. F

"China Girl" - Wherein Bowie tries to be other singers, including Chrissie Hynde, while giving Ol' Iggy a helping hand. I don't even want to think about the video. F

"Modern Love" - WHAT IS THIS SONG ABOUT? WHAT IS "MODERN"??? God, it's like Bowie's just trolling his audience now. The sound of nothing being done, busily. F

"Blue Jean" - The best part of this is the video, before the song starts. It was such a big deal when it was premiered, but my mom likes the song, so... C

keepsakes said...

This album felt very different if it (the full version on cassette) was your first exposure to Bowie as a child. Me, I was left staggered that one person could have had so many great hits that sounded so different from each other but were all so great. And that how all the different-looking spooky characters on the sleeve were all the same person.

Robin Carmody said...

I can understand that - I'm sure most of us have initially come across revered work (in all artforms) in a less-than-revered context.

"Changes" itself - maybe the ultimate example of a non-hit that eclipses many/most of the actual hits - has been rather *sandbrookised* in recent years, the centre of a rather obvious and questionable narrative (if, in its own way, a more internally logical one than some Leftist ones) and I'm not sure it entirely surpasses that to the extent that endless overuse over footage of Orgreave etc. has never dimmed the power of "Two Tribes". Mind you, it was already there by 1988 when it was used on the Hanson Group's rock-era-in-three-minutes break-filling TV advert - you definitely have to imagine a different latterday world for the song to retain its original meaning now.