Tuesday, February 15, 2011

How to Get Into Bowie

The other night, I was YouTube-ing interviews with Venture Brothers creators Jackson Publick and Doc Hammer. In one of them, Hammer advised a fan on where he should start if he wanted to get into Bowie's albums. Now, these guys are the biggest Bowie fans in animation*, but I found myself disagreeing with a lot of what he had to say.

Now, if I were trying to get someone into Bowie, this is how I'd do it. Before we begin, let's be clear on one thing: this isn't for someone who thinks of Bowie as "that old guy Lady Gaga's always talking about." Anyone going through this process should already be familiar with the greatest hits and should be wondering where to start on the albums. So let's begin.

Step 1: The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars and Hunky Dory

These are without a doubt his two best albums, so naturally they'd be the best place to start. But there are other good reasons to begin here. I'm having you initiates start with Ziggy Stardust because, after nearly forty years, it's his best known work. Despite the reputation of being "rock's chameleon," we still tend to characterize Bowie as that androgynous rock star from outer space. Next, go back one album and listen to Hunky Dory, which I think is the better (if only slightly) of the two. It's important to hear this one early not only because of its quality, but because, with its different musical styles, it's practically Bowie's career in microcosm. It's all about "Ch-ch-ch-Changes", right? And, also, "Life on Mars?" is made of win.

Like what you've heard so far? Be sure to pick up the highlights of the Ziggy period before moving on. Listen to Aladdin Sane (another strong album) and Live Santa Monica 72 and watch D. A. Pennebaker's documentary Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.

Step 2: Diamond Dogs

We've moved past Ziggy Stardust here, but we're still in our glam rock comfort zone. (You'll recognize "Rebel Rebel.") This concept album loosely based on 1984 should be a good introduction to a more soulful sound as well as heavier stuff to come.

Think you're ready to move on? Be sure to check out David Live and Young Americans so you can get a better sense of the whole "plastic soul" thing before you do so. And track down a bootleg of Cracked Actor for some cocaine-fueled craziness. Trust me, you'll need it for where we're going next.

Step 3: Station to Station

Experimentation doesn't get much more complex than on the epic title track, but this is a much more complex album than the one that preceded it. And hoo-boy is it dark! "It's not the side effects of the cocaine," he sings, but I'm thinking that it might be. This is a weird little (only six tracks) album, albeit a very good one. Seriously, don't skip it.

Not storing your urine in the fridge, are you? Good, then before you move on, listen to Live Nassau Coliseum 76 (available on the special and deluxe editions of Station and as a bootleg) and check him out in The Man Who Fell to Earth. Keep an open mind; it's "arty."

Step 4: Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps)

Note: If you feel you can handle more experimental stuff, by all means feel free to keep things chronological and skip ahead to Step 5.

This album emerged after a period of intense experimentation, so it's sort-of like he figured out how to use all the weird shit he and Brian Eno did in a way people would actually want to listen to. But don't think of it as an exercise in crass commercialism. It is as fresh and vibrant as and holds up very well next to all the stuff the New Wave kids were also doing in 1980. Many critics and fans alike call Scary Monsters Bowie's last good album, though that's debatable. Not that it's a good album, that it's his last good album.

Still with me? Iron your clown suit and watch a couple of his "better"** 80s roles--Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence and The Hunger (the first act, anyway--after that it pretty much sucks)--before we move back a few albums.

Step 5: Low and "Heroes"

At the time, these albums were considered highly experimental. Now that their electronic techniques have been widely adopted, they don't come off quite as shocking, though they are by no means dated. What might be a turn-off for some is that they both feature album sides that are almost entirely instrumental. But don't let that stop you from giving these two a listen. The Side 2's feature some very moving pieces, and there are great songs on the Side 1's, including "'Heroes,'" considered Bowie's best by everyone who doesn't favor "Life on Mars?"

Haven't gotten stuck on the wrong side of the Wall without a passport, have you? Then be sure to listen to Lodger and Stage (look for the version where the track order's been fixed) before continuing on to the next step.

Step 6: Heathen and Hours...

Stop! Those of you who skipped to Step 5, have you gone back to pick up Step 4? Okay, then you may proceed.

Next, we're going to move ahead to what likely is the end of Bowie's career. But, hey, it's not a bad end. First, listen to Heathen, which holds up well to all the albums I've had you listen to already while still being thoroughly modern. Next listen to Hours... which despite poor reviews when it came out, has grown on many fans with age.

Are you ready to retire? If not, listen to Reality (good songs, but not as coherent as the other two) and watch A Reality Tour and The Prestige.

Step 7: The weird stuff. This has two parts, which can be done in any order.

Step 7a: Space Oddity and The Man Who Sold the World

Bowie's psychedelic folkie period. Though the title tracks have become Bowie classics, some of the other songs are a bit of an acquired taste. Especially if, in the case of the latter, psychedelic folk/hard rock fusion isn't exactly your thing.

Step 7b: Earthling and 1. Outside

Bowie's 90s experimental phase. I'm having you start with Earthling, though it's not as strong an album as the other, because it's more accessible. Underneath all the drum 'n' bass stuff are some pretty good songs. 1. Outside, on the other hand, is a concept album, or, rather, a "non-linear Gothic Drama Hyper-Cycle." It's the first in a series of three albums about a detective looking into the disappearance of a teenage girl who's being murdered for Art... that's not told in any particular order... or finished, for that matter. But other than that it's really good! I'm serious. You've gotta hear it. Just... not at night. It's really creepy.

Are you now terrified of those citizens of the land between Canada and Mexico? Or ready to pack it all in and join a Buddhist monastery? If not, proceed to the next step.

Step 8: Let's Dance

The first time Bowie's music actually found favor with a mainstream audience. Much debate among fans and music critics over whether this is actually a good album or if its popularity was supported by a couple of hit singles with interesting music videos.

Do you find yourself forgiving Bowie his commercial sins, even after you've also watched Labyrinth and the Serious Moonlight tour documentary? Congratualtions, you are now truly into Bowie. And while you're at it, have a Pepsi.

Take a victory lap. Listen to some rare stuff like Sound + Vision or Bowie at the Beeb and check out some of his soundtrack work such as The Buddha of Suburbia.

Or, for the brave, check out the more dubious albums: David Bowie (cabaret???), Pin Ups, Tonight, Never Let Me Down, Black Tie White Noise (Okay, some people liked it), and the whole Tin Machine debacle. And there are plenty of really bad film roles to check out. (Absolute Beginners, anyone?)

*Bigger than the Sponge Bob people, you ask? Let's see... 1) The Sovereign, head of The Guild of Calamitous Intent and most powerful, least failure-prone character in the series, is none other than David Bowie. 2) The episode "Ghosts of the Sargasso" opens with characters basically acting out "Space Oddity," dialogue lifted straight from the song. 3) Tons and tons of other Bowie references. So, yes.
**Labyrinth rules!!!

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