There are rich pickings when it comes to choosing a musician from the UK to cover for the blog. You didn’t think I was going to miss out my home country, did you?
I’ve gone for the only one that I love to the extent of buying books about them – where my curiosity about the artist has been as all-encompassing as my enjoyment of the music. (Though I have at one point or another owned both a biography of Freddie Mercury and Debbie Harry’s excruciating autobiography – great photos though, she was so astoundingly gorgeous.) And I don’t just own one Bowie book, I have a whole heap, some of which are pictured here.
Bowie’s manipulation of his own image was fascinating, and has been over-discussed everywhere already. Even when he didn’t look classically good-looking (when, say, wearing a one-legged knitted romper, or while alarmingly thin in the mid-70s), his outfits, flare and magnetic stage presence meant that you couldn’t take your eyes off him.
Post-coke Bowie was all gloss and suntan, shades and a hint of athleticism, before coming perilously close to uncool in the 90s, then disappearing altogether for a decade after his heart attack. His two late albums, the last coinciding with his death from cancer, sealed his reputation as king of enduring cool, and as a risk-taker, a charmer and someone who was doggedly persistent in following up on his ambitions, influences and inspirations, whether dueting naffly with Lulu or touring incongruously with the Nine Inch Nails.
Here are my 10 favourite Bowie songs, in order of release:
- Five Years from The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1972). This classic dystopian, and as the ‘Bowieologist’ David Buckley has pointed out, somewhat hysterical track never becomes boring.
- Time from Aladdin Sane (1973): “Time, he flexes like a whore, falls wanking to the floor” – a brilliant song, with a lyric that always make me snigger, and, as Chris Leary writes in his book Rebel, Rebel, suggests “a mime sequence blessedly never performed”. Lots of lovely Mike Garson piano.
- Lady Grinning Soul also from Aladdin Sane: A nape-tinglingly gorgeous, epic movie-soundtrack of a song (and not very typical of Bowie), with beautiful twiddly piano from Garson. Purportedly written about Bowie’s lover at the time, the enigmatic, reputedly transsexual model Amanda Lear, who was muse of Salvador Dali and appeared on a Roxy Music cover.
- Sweet Thing – Candidate – Sweet Thing from Diamond Dogs (1974): Amazing lyrics, and a bit of faux Lou Reed-style growling (“If you want it, boyz, get it here thing”) make this a winner for me. “We’ll buy some drugs and watch a band/And jump in a river holding hands” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vrfc8c6VkTA
- Win from Young Americans (1974): a breathy and haunting ballad, a lovely record: “someone like you should not be allowed to start any fires”.
- Sound and Vision from Low (1977): a brilliant track from Bowie’s slightly sulky post-coke Berlin exile years. “Blue, blue electric blue/That’s the colour of my room/Where I will live”.
- It’s No Game (Part 1) from Scary Monsters (1980): fabulously screamy track, featuring Japanese female singer Michi Hirota.
- Fashion from Scary Monsters (1980): the video is excellent, with its sneary dancing, and the ever-catchy “Fa-fa-fa-fa-fashion” lyric. The lyrics satirise the world of which Bowie was very much a part, “It’s loud and it’s tasteless and I’ve seen it before”.
- Where are we now? from The Next Day (2013): his best song for 33 years and an instant classic, laden with nostalgia and a poignant reflection on the passing of time: “As long as there’s sun/As long as there’s rain/As long as there’s fire/As long as there’s me/As long as there’s you”.
- Lazarus from Black Star (2016): valedictory, beautiful and self-referential memento mori from Bowie’s final Black Star album: “Look up here I’m in heaven”.