Wednesday, August 26, 2009

David Bowie - "Heroes" (1977)

Somewhere in between the preparation for my review of The Who's A Quick One and now my fiance Shelley and I came up with the idea of the artistic spectrum of style versus substance. There isn't much science to it, in fact it's highly subjective (hey! just like this blog!) and based off of a very cliched phrase.


Anyway, the question of "who/what next" for this blog came up. Two (already?) weeks ago, I had my heart dead-set on doing Re-Ac-Tor (1981) by Neil Young, mainly because I couldn't fathom why the reviews I've read are so damned indifferent towards it. However, I also promised myself to cover all bases before I began re-treading on certain artists. Yes, there will be plenty of Kinks. There will be a good amount of Zappa (85 albums and counting? The guy's been more prolific in death than Tupac!), Beatles, Stones, Neil, Dylan...but then I thought of David Bowie.

Bowie is one of those artists I've always liked, yet I've never been absolutely obsessed with. On this made-up spectrum, he's always struck me as someone with plenty of style...but what about substance? I'd never really thought about it. I realized I'd never given much thought to his lyrics. And even when I did, it was his glam stuff, which is either telling a story - The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars (1972) and Diamond Dogs (1974) - rather meaningless, deliberately cut-up lyrics on Aladdin Sane (1973), or someone else's tunes on Pin-Ups (1973).

Then again, I never really went through a David Bowie "phase." I tended to pick his stuff up sporadically. (Kind of like how I've been meaning to pick up Lou Reed's Transformer album for almost seven years.) In 2003, I picked up Aladdin Sane and Diamond Dogs, a year before I'd copied Ziggy Stardust from my local library and put it on a CD-R alongside Electric Warrior by T. Rex, in late 2004 I bought Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps) (1980) on a whim along with Black And Blue by The Rolling Stones (ugh.), and in early 2005 I bought Low and "Heroes" together. Near the end of that year I'd come into a bit of extra money and bought eleven CD's, including The Man Who Sold The World (1970), Hunky Dory (1971), Pin-Ups (1973), and Lodger (1979).

Is this normal for you, the reader? Because when I got into The Kinks, I GOT INTO The Kinks. I saved my lunch money, ventured to 13th Floor Music, and did my business about once or twice a month. Same with Zappa: I trudged on, buying all his budget releases (the ones with the "Cheap Thrills" sticker, priced at $11 where most of his stuff was $17) until...I don't really know. I guess fatigue? I got into American punk music in a big way, then Cheap Trick...

Enough of this nostalgic codswallop.

Something had to be the key to his success beyond his ability to project a series of iconic images. There had to be some reason Charles Shaar Murray, a UK music critic whose judgment I trust - a LOT - is as big a Bowie fan as he is Zappa or The Kinks, right?

After kicking around what was little more than a four-year old mental image (image? Let's go with aural footprint...), I did what I should have done: I re-listened to him. Don't get me wrong, I still find Pin-Ups to be laughably bad for the most part, though a really tight EP could have been culled from it. (One song that would make my cut would be his treatment of a Kinks gem called "Where Have All The Good Times Gone?") I still turn seasick green every single time I hear that plasticine close-miked sax on the awful title track from Young Americans (1975). And dear God, don't get me started on that video for "Dancing In The Street."

But then I hear him on a good day, as with this album - the second of two he did in 1977, a year of great albums all across the board unless you were Ringo or Keef - I feel like an idiot for ever doubting his capability of greatness. Is he a god among men? No, that's why I put that little qualifier at the end there. After his "Berlin Trilogy" of Low, "Heroes", and Lodger - some making an extension with Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps) - that was pretty much it, until Earthling in 1997, helped in no small part by Trent Reznor and the fifty-eight different remixes of "I'm Afraid Of Americans" he put out.

Of course, every artist has hit the skids. At least once. If they didn't, they either died (you seriously want me to name names? Jimi, Janis, Duane, Buddy, Sid...), broke up (The Beatles), or were able to triumph over their struggle to make a great album (less common, but The Kinks, with the case of the Lola album and its leading single's success saving their career). In his course on The Beatles, at least twice (before the Get Back sessions and before the lawsuit fest that was the break-up of the band) Glenn Gass would joke, "...and after that they all moved to an island somewhere and are still making great music!" Then he would realistically counter that with, "Look, we should be grateful they broke up when they did. It had to happen, and sure, certain things may have sped it up [Apple, Allen Klein, Yoko], but could you imagine The Beatles' disco album?"

He has a point. Neil Young revived his career in the late 1970's with this very notion - "It's better to burn out / Than it is to rust" - but they'd run their course. As a collective, they weren't able to agree on much, except maybe wanting to lynch Paul. Other than their immediate solo releases, I don't feel any of them recaptured their former glory (and even then, I have to say All Things Must Pass is a rockist's Viagra, bloated, overproduced, and what was up with the third disc?). Bowie has gone in and out of vogue a few times. Given his later start, and his intermittent hiatuses from recording (it's been six years since his last album, Reality), he doesn't quite have the borderline unapproachable juggernaut discography of Neil, Dylan, or Zappa.

Yet he's just as legendary, and rightfully so. He's rock and roll's great chameleon, visually and stylistically. Sure, Zappa bounced around rock, jazz, and classical like it was a game of Pong, and Dylan's gone through more phases than the Soviet government, but Bowie kept it accessible, appealing, and endlessly fascinating. Glam Bowie, for me, is hit and miss. I love side B of Ziggy Stardust plus "Starman" and "Five Years," but Aladdin Sane doesn't do too much for me. At all. Pin-Ups is a very bumpy covers album. His "I Can't Explain" is brittle and slow, his vocals on "Friday On My Mind" waif-like, but his version of "See Emily Play" thumps along with the kind of swagger the rest of the album tries for, but fails.

It's not a requirement, but I really do feel one has to approach glam with - there's no way to say this politely - part of their brain shut off. What I mean is that it's fun, campy, often funny...but don't expect Dylanesque portraits, Daviesian commentary, or Zappaesque humor. It's fun to listen to and play along with, but the real draw, as for its cultural relevance, was the outright willingness to do a piss-take on gender roles. Mick Jagger was, at one point in time, considered macho - this was before the studded velour jumpsuit he donned on their 1973 tour - and guys like Robert Plant, Roger Daltrey, Rod Stewart, and on down the line were the beautiful faces of the men of rock and roll.

Then came this weirdo with a permanently dilated pupil, a shocking red mullet, no eyebrows, and...he - or she? - is kinda cute. Or handsome. Cute? This mysterious person is wearing makeup...

Alice Cooper wore makeup, too, but he went for the schlock horror look after a glam image for his first three albums (none of which garnered attention commercially, though they are pretty good). Even then, there's no doubt - in spite of the name - that Alice Cooper was a dude. Pretty manly-looking fellow.

But this scrawny little humanoid with the makeup and the mullet? And what's this business of singing about being an alien? Is he/she/it an alien?

I don't mean to belabor the point. You get it, I hope. It was all Bowie's concoction, that it would garner a bunch of interest if he donned this mysterious persona and said he was gay at a time where it really was shocking, in spite of what the religious right may suggest these days. But it was an artistic phase. He grew out of it, with the terrific Diamond Dogs (1974) marking the midpoint in his shift from glam-rock to soul/funk. This marked what's called his Thin White Duke phase.

Though I can say I hate what I've heard off Young Americans, which gave him a hit with "Fame," a song co-written with John Lennon (and as far as I'm concerned, the only reason it got attention), I did enjoy Station To Station (1976). The soul (technically blue-eyed Philly soul, merging two of my least-favorite musical sounds together) of Young Americans was *sniff* heavily dusted with *sniff* some sort of *rubs nose frantically* magic white powder, giving *nose begins to bleed* a mysterious, darker, avant-garde edge to the music. It was actually the influence of German acts like Kraftwerk, NEU!, Can, and Faust, though I'm sure doings lines of Bolivian marching powder helped to bolster the almost sterile - in a good way, not a Dark Side Of The Moon way - sound of Station To Station.

Living off of cocaine and red peppers - and little else - Bowie got skinny, moody, and super paranoid. Convinced occultists wanted to perform rituals on his excrement, he collected his piss in mason jars, which he stored in the refrigerator. He famously declared England should have a dictator. He rather infamously got his picture taken while standing in the backseat of a Mercedes giving a Hitler salute outside Victoria Station.

Not the best time in his personal life. He may have had his big United States breakthrough (commercially, though he had his Stateside admirers since Ziggy), but if he'd kept it up he would have gone the way of so many.

It came to a head one day, when as he delicately put it in a not-at-all-disgusting way, "I went to blow my nose and half me brains came out." He, musician pal Brian Eno (ex-Roxy Music), and producer Tony Visconti (who deserves to be in the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame, but no, we'd rather lobby for Brian Epstein coaxing The Beatles into Pierre Cardin suits) went to Europe to record the three albums now called his "Berlin Trilogy," consisting of Low, "Heroes", and Lodger. I consider these to be Bowie at his best and his most experimental (anytime you've got Brian Eno on board, it will be so-and-so at their most experimental, and that's a great thing). One of the truly great trilogies of rock and roll, right up there with electric Dylan, Neil's trip to the ditch, The Kinks' "British" albums from the late 1960's, you name it.

Though the introspective therapy would come with Scary Monsters, the album after Lodger, Bowie is certainly shaking the specter of drugs off his back. Parts of Low and all of "Heroes" were recorded at Hansa Studio in Berlin, which just happens to be adjacent to the Berlin Wall. The tension of the location - and the politics of the region - seemed to manifest itself in the music. Side A of Low consists (almost) entirely of lyrical pieces, all relatively short...and side B is four of the gloomiest instrumentals I'd heard until I discovered there was an entire genre based off of this sound. (Meaning, naturally, in the 30 years since then there's only been gloomier, creepier sounding shit, and it's brilliant - I recommend Veil Of Secrecy for some great, dark ambient music.)

"Heroes" isn't unlike Low, though the differences are obvious. Both still have the same lyrical/instrumental divide, though the second album closes with a lyrical track (while the first album begins with an instrumental). It may be less dark - though "Sense Of Doubt" shows it wasn't all flushed out of the system - but I think it's the artier of the pair. The musical palate is broad, especially on side B. Given everything else that came out in 1977, including this album's older brother Low, it was pretty bold for the New Musical Express to give this record "Album Of The Year."

Do I agree with that honor? Eh...not quite, but it's pretty stiff competition with Cheap Trick's first (and best) album, the rise of UK punk, debuts from Peter Gabriel and Talking Heads, oh, yeah, and The Kinks returning from Preservation land and putting out their first non-conceptual or thematic or operatic album in (literally) a decade. (Sure, they're my favorite band, but I won't deny their occasional inaccessibility! See also: Zappa, Frank.)

These albums showed Bowie was more than just an image. There was always a bit of substance beneath that style, he just seemed too busy reinterpreting the Christ myth on Ziggy Stardust, Orwell on Diamond Dogs, or using a lyrical technique pioneered by William S. Burroughs on Aladdin Sane. There's plenty of references to the Bible and the Occult on Station To Station, but here on the Berlin albums it's obvious for everyone to see.

The weirdo with the dilated pupil shed all exterior personae and gave us the weirdo with the dilated pupil, the artist. I can forget about his crap-tastic duet with Mick Jagger on "Dancing In The Street." I can forgive him for Labyrinth. At his best, he's more than just a performer. He's a composer, the writer of one of the greatest rock anthems ever, and - after a closer examination - a terrific poet.

Style over substance, my shiny metal ass.

01. Beauty And The Beast [10]
An excellent opening track, with a tense build-up of an intro. The resulting release of tension doesn't lose a drop of momentum. Its lyrics, about Bowie's split personality as a result of his drug use, are matched by the savagery of Robert Fripp's scorching guitar leads. The robotic drums do fills only when absolutely amazing track.

02. Joe The Lion [7]
I like the dueling lead guitar parts throughout the song...but it's only listenable on headphones. Otherwise it sounds like you're listening to two songs at the same time. Musically, I would say this song meanders a little too much. Very danceable beat, but what's with the spoken intro in the middle? The lyrics are apparently about Chris Burden - hence the "nail me to a car" line - the performance artist who was nailed to a Volkswagen in 1971 and for another display was shot in the arm. With a gun.

This one is just a little too sloppy, not one of the best here. Of course, there is a Bowie fan out there who will bite my head off for putting this one just isn't memorable to me.

03. "Heroes" [11]
And all is well. A truly perfect song, with three different synthesizers chugging and puttering along to create the foggy, train-station like atmosphere, some wonderful lead guitar, and Bowie giving the vocal performance of his career. His voice was recorded from three different microphones, one up close - heard in the first part of the song - the second twenty feet away - added in with the reprise of "I, I will be king" - and the third fifty feet away, heard on the remainder of the song. This is a masterpiece production-wise, and one of the great rock anthems of the 1970's. Never mind its place as the story of lovers meeting at the Berlin Wall, that chorus of "We can be heroes / Just for one day" means something, even today. I'm surprised this song hasn't been given more airtime politically.

My fourth favorite Bowie song, behind "Suffragette City," "1984," and "Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps.)"

04. Sons Of The Silent Age [8.5]
The dichotomy of this song is a pain in the ass. On the one hand, there's those gorgeous verses, the beautiful harmonies in the chorus...but then there's the cheesy crooning on the chorus, and the anticipated key change that comes right as the song winds down. It pains me to give this one an eight, but it's so lopsided - to my ears - that it should probably actually earn a five were it not for the sheer beauty of the verses. Take note of the drumming, with the sizzling rolls on the hi-hats at the start of the verses, then the sixteen-beat pattern, emphasizing the slow tempo (perfectly) of the song.

Who am I kidding? The chorus is a minor setback for a song that could have been a ten. Extra half-point because I can do this sort of thing.

05. Blackout [9]
I knew the first four tracks of this album by way of, in this order, *gasp* an illegal Internet download, disc three of the Sound + Vision boxed set I picked up for four dollars at a CD store, and the 2002 Best Of Bowie compilation. Until I re-listened to this album for its review, "Blackout" was sort of an afterthought to me, the closer of side A, off in its own dark corner, as the "other" song on the lyrical half.

It's aged better than two of its comrades. With its stomping tempo, the manic vocals and the return of the wild guitar we heard on "Beauty And The Beast" and "Joe The Lion" - with a vengeance - this song sounds like it could go off at any second. But that's the idea.

06. V-2 Schneider [8]
The instrumental half of the album kicks off with this song, with its catchy bass line, marching drums, and a tuneful (and off-beat) sax part. When the drums switch to a standard 8-beat pattern, the off-tempo sax is made apparent to us. The influence of Kraftwerk is at its most obvious on this song, with the "Schneider" of the song's title a tribute to the band's co-founder Florian Schneider. Nice heavy guitar at around 2:40 in the song...but then it's over. It sounds like there should be more, like it's the first movement of an avant-Krautrock modernist piece. Oh, well.

07. Sense Of Doubt [10]
The darkness so obvious throughout Low returns on this song. Bowie biographer David Buckley describes it as "an eerie synth line like a scrap of sound from a silent expressionist-era soundtrack," which is perfect. I can picture this song accompanied by the visuals of The Strange Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari, or something by F.W. Murnau. It's gloomy, chilling...and perfect.

As the b-side of the "Beauty And The Beast" single, Roy Carr and Charles Shaar Murray joked that it "must have been good fun on pub jukeboxes." Funny enough, I've heard a similar quip from my father regarding "Don't Worry Kyoko (Mummy's Only Looking For Her Hand In The Snow)" as the b-side of "Cold Turkey."

08. Moss Garden [9.5]
Beautifully atmospheric, this song is given an extra swathe of color with the use of a Japanese instrument, the koto. Surrealistically Oriental-esque, this song segues out of "Sense Of Doubt" like a transition in a dream, where suddenly everything is gentle and peaceful. Listen closely for the sustained synthesizer notes, sounding to me like a flowing stream, and the occasional chirping synth-bird. A great song, the influence of Brian Eno at its strongest - it's perfect ambient music, something you could do yoga to - and it eventually segues into the next song, like a brief meditation, and we're back in the gritty reality of the world with track 9...

09. Neuk├Âln [9.5]
Imagine the first few minutes of "Echoes," specifically the piano tinkles from Rick Wright, but with Ian Underwood of The Mothers Of Invention honking away on his sax. That's this song in a nutshell, a neo-noir piece inspired by a street in Berlin. The solo parts from the synth, sax, and guitar all sound so lonely, like they're being played by buskers alone under the blinking neon lights of Berlin...a terrific song.

10. The Secret Life Of Arabia [9]
Though this song has lyrics, and it's got a danceable tempo, it sounds nothing like the material on side A. No maniacal guitar leads from Hell courtesy of Mr. Fripp, no choruses of echoes, phasing, flanges, etc. It's still adorned with a bit of production, though, its lonesome acoustic/percussion intro made to sound like it's being played in the middle of a desert night. Beautiful song, and a great way to close out, though a little too short. Again, though, maybe that's the idea, a way of snapping us out of the trance of side B.

Subtotal: 91.5% A-

Replayability Factor: 2
I have to be in a mood, yes, but I can have side B of the record on in the background at any time. Side A is a bit too wild for dinner music. How schizophrenic do you like your music to be? For me, I don't mind, but each half of the album is like hearing music from Venus and music from Mars.

Consistency Factor: 2
Pursue glam Bowie first, I say, as a way of getting acquainted with his voice. Get Ziggy, get Diamond Dogs...but then get this one and get Low. If possible, get them both at the same time. This album is definitely the leader of the pack in the "out there, to be purchased once you've gotten familiar with his 'classic' works" category.

External Factors: 1
The point is a plus and a minus to the album: the roles of Tony Visconti and Brian Eno. Would these albums have been possible without Eno's arrangements or Visconti's production? There's plenty of places to look in Bowie's discography that suggest that no, they would not have been what they were. He did his best work with a collaborator, one who helped define the sound and keep Bowie close to Earth, whether it's Visconti, Ziggy sidekick Mick Ronson, Eno, Carlos Alomar, or Iggy Pop.

Total: 96.5% A


Shelley said...

Bowie is difficult for me. I have to be in the mood for Bowie, but I find myself never in the mood for him, but it doesn't mean I don't like his work, I do.

I like Heroes a lot. But I LOVE the instrumentals. I usually am not a huge fan of instrumentals, but these 4 tracks are beautiful, eerie, and surreal. Especially Neukoln. Those saxophones give me the goosebumps - and I agree, there is a loneliness tact onto the solos, something we all could relate to at some point in our lives.

Andrew said...

Great review as always.
I wanted to pick up the Berlin trilogy more ever since seeing Inglorious Basterds. Tarantino uses Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) in the film. I didn't recognize it at first due to not listening to my Best of Bowie that often.

Glad you like Bowie, I figured you might not care for him that much. I do like Young Americans, but I can see why the sax on that pisses you off. I'm not a huge fan of Philly Soul, but I do love the lyrics of that song.

What blue eyed soul do you not care for?

I enjoy it in small doses, but it's not my favorite.
Take Alex Chilton, I'd rather listen to him sing power pop in a thinner, more vulnerable voice than belting out blue-eyed soul in a deep voice.

For my money, Big Star > The Box Tops.

Alex said...

Amazing review, love the depth. Just wondering what Neil's Trip to the Ditch means. Thanks!

Leo said...

So I'm bouncing around on the net looking for info on Bowie's Thin White Duke phase. Slog through a pile of Wiki mumbo jumbo, a few reviews of crappy Bowie bios, and then landed on to your blog. And the heavens opened before me and many were much amazed and did vow oaths and did rend their locks in much amazement at these things!
Dude! This is one of the best blogs I've ever read. Your analysis of Bowie's career and your take on his songs is masterful. I gave up arguing the meticulous pros and cons of classic British rock decades ago because you can only watch your friends' eyes glaze over so many times before you realize, um, turn "Friends" on and pretend you aren't still a music nerd. But here I find a stalwart soul still manning a post and taking no prisoners (metaphorically meaning you're still passionately discussing transcendent music that others have long since kicked to the curb, and God bless you for that.) And a fellow Kinks fanatic into the bargain! Sir, you have renewed my faith in my fellow man, or at least in a guy named Alex. Killer review, killer blog and well worth the trip. Bookmarked for the duration.
PS: Met Ray at a book signing in Maryland in the 90s. Shook his hand, mumbled something about "Waterloo Sunset" keeping me sane and floated home. Yeah, those guys haven't gotten the cred they deserve, but we proud few are forsworn to change that fate! (I know, fat chance, but still...)