Friday, 25 May 2012

Pin Ups (1973)

I always liked the idea that Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars was supposed to include the Chuck Berry number 'Round and Round' as an example of the sound of the 'real' Ziggy and the Spiders. And one natural progression from that is that Ziggy and the Spiders ended up as a fifties and sixties covers band, and this album is a compilation of their live favourites.

That approach certainly fits with the quality on offer here.  I wouldn't go as far as some fans who have described the album as weak and individual tracks as 'failure[s] by any reading' but neither would I go with Iggy Pop's appraisal of it as 'tight as a bitch from the bottom up on every cut'. It's undeniable, I think, that some of the tracks on Pin Ups add very little to the original versions, which is the aim of a cover, to my mind (though, again, I wouldn't go as far as the Rolling Stone reviewer who, ungramatically, claimed that 'none stands up to the originals').  It's also an album where Bowie is very obviously trying out new vocal styles and voices, which some people see as a weakness. That said, Bowie apparently looked on the LP as a way of shaking the dust of Ziggy off his shoes, which it certainly does, so from his point of view (and whose else really matters?), it was a successful release.

Part of the problem for people who are not David Bowie is an obvious one.  If these are all songs Bowie loves from the period, then he's bound to approach with a degree of respect which prevents a really experimental approach.  So he either has Mick Ronson outplay the original guitarist, camps things up a bit or simply copies the original almost as is.

One thing which is immediately evident is that the originals are largely far more trebly than the remakes, with the result that listening to the original then the cover lends a murkiness to the Bowie versions.  On the first track, The Pretty Things 'Rosalyn', this has the added effect of drowning the great bassline of the source single, which is particuarly unfortunate.

Track two, Them's 'Here Comes the Night', is more successful for exactly opposite reasons.  Where 'Rosalyn' loses a key component as Bowie adds layers to his version, the Pin Ups version of 'Here Comes the Night' is infinitely preferable to Van Morrison's pretty weedy vocal and his band's dated, country-style guitar work.  From Mick Ronson's first screeching guitar note (my phone ringtone for long enough!) Bowie's version is beefier musically and if the vocal is typically mannered, I far prefer DB's emotional exaggeration to Morrison's dry intonation.  To be honest though, the version by Lulu is the best of the three, veering from resigned drawl to a near stacatto spit of anger and ending like an impersonaiton of Roy Orbison's 'Running Scared' (listen out for the weird backing vocals towards the end though).

'I Wish You Would' by the Yardbirds is virtually the definition of a UK garage band track - simple, circular guitar progression, harmonica in counterpoint, very basic lyric and the entire thing sounds like it was recorded by dropping a mic into a metal cow churn. Bowie tidies things up a bit and Ronson tries to do something interesting with the guitar line, but it's all a bit by numbers, even when Bowie attempts a bad boy growl.

Whereas Bowie's 'See Emily Play' manages to sound awesome even when compared to the brilliant original.  The best song recorded by Syd Barrett's version of Pink Floyd, 'See Emily Play' sounds like a child's song in Floyd's hands, with carnival organ sounds breaking the song in two, and lyrics which recount a small girl playing dress up, failing to understand the adults around her and getting lost in the woods.  Bowie's version, on the other hand, makes the line 'You'll lose your mind and play' the centre of the song, and as a consequence produced a more perverse song entirely, in which the adult Emily is insane, double and treble layered vocals shout at her like monsters, and the guitar is an assault on her health not a comfort.  Mike Garson hammers a single key on his piano as the song approaches its end, then starts interposing little runs as violin, guitar and drums create a dischord around the suddently silent singer.  The only genuine triumph on the album, but worth the cost of the whole just for this one track.

The next track up, 'Everything's Alright' by the Mojos is a rotten original, and a pretty bog standard cover which at least manages to make the song listenable.  That's more words than the track really deserves.

I'm starting to flag a bit now, so let's do both Who covers at once.  Both of David's versions of 'Anytime, Anwhere, Anyhow' and 'I Can't Explain' appear to get a bad press from fans of both Bowie and the Who but I don't see what's so wrong with them myself.  Which version you prefer largely boils down to a single question - Pete Townsend or Mick Ronson, and it'll always be Ronson for me.  I've seen 'I Can't Explain' described as 'an act of vandalism' but that, if you ask me, is due to a hagiographic attitude to the faintly unpleasant Townsend rather than any inherent weakness in either song as covered by Bowie.

For the rest, 'Friday on my Mind' is competent and no more, while Don't Bring Me Down' has a subtle reworking of the song's opening line so that Bowie has 'nowhere to roam' rather than 'just want to roam' and a peculiar bur effective near-spoken line towards the end where Bowie puts on his best drawling American accent to good effect.  Nicholas Pegg isn't wrong, too, when he says nowhere are Bowie's most basic influences more obviously on show than here.  'Shape of Things' and 'Where have all the Good Times Gone', om the othe rhand, are pretty decent originals given nothing extra by Bowie and his band.

Which leaves 'Sorrow'.  I love this song, but even I'd have to admit that Bowie's version doesn't really add all that much to The Merseys version (even if David Buckley described it as the album's highlight).  What it is though is MILES better than the Status Quo version below...

Great Lost Track

There's not one really, as evidenced by the way that Rykodisc padded out the 90s reissue with two covers not from the Pin Ups sessions - a note perfect cover of Springsteen's 'Growin Up' and the brilliant but utterly unlike Pin Ups cover of Jacques Brel's 'Amsterdam', at one point planned for Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.

I suppose the best we can do is this - the instrumentation for a cover of the Velvet Underground's 'White Light/White Heat' was recorded but not used by Bowie, eventually ending up on Ronson's second album Play Don't Worry.

Compare and Contrast

And finally, have a listen yourself - a Spotify playlist with every Bowie song on Pin Ups alongside the original version...

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

Interlude: Bowie with Dick and Cher, 1974/75

1974 and The Dick Cavett Show. 

Bowie swaggers on stage with an orange quiff and DA, wearing what appears to be a brown Balero jacket, and dances like a rubber legged spastic attack throughout 1984, like a drunk man bouncing off hedges as he staggers down the road only just in control of his limbs. The voice is still fine and he exudes confidence, but close ups on his sweaty, skull like face and his half forced shut eyes tell a different story - any brash self-confidence is obviously based on false, coke fuelled self belief, the thinnest layer of ice over the deepest, coldest lake. How the fuck he didn't end up dead is quite miraculous based on this and the interview that follows, which is filled with Bowie misunderstanding and avoiding questions, laughing at the wrong point, wittering about black noise and even getting words wrong, all the while sniffing constantly. Cher wouldn't have touched him with a stick...

Skip forward a year or so to late 1975, and Bowie dueting with mine host on the Cher Show.

They appear, one after the other, head shots floating in clouds of gender specific colour and croak their way through their opening lines.  Cher, in Una Stubbs' stolen hair (possibly literally) and wearing what - in the fuzz of a fiftieth generation tape - appears to be a black kimono, serenades Bowie in grey slacks and blue blazer; he dressed like the secretary of his local bowling club, she like the Oriental trophy bride of some fifties US executive, as they torch at one another in a studio filled with orange smoke.

But above the collar is the all that matters with Bowie, and above his light blue shirt there's the head of a full on degenerate, drops of pale sweat and slicked back dyed blond hair like straw, Draco Malfoy all fucked up but having the time of his life.Bowie has never looked so close to Nosferatu as this.  If Cher, in her Good Life frock and Charlie's Angels bob, values her life she best not get too close, frankly.

Usually the song itself wouldn't matter at all - see the medley with Cher later on in the show for sheer fun where the song is immaterial - but in this case the song is the perfect complement to the murky, dirty visuals; it's that rarest of things, a genuinely sensual performance.

Even in '75 Bowie's still messed up and you doubt he could even see the corner he needs to turn, but rest assured, Berlin's just over there...

Friday, 18 May 2012

Aladdin Sane (1973)

In a recent interview, Bowie described this album as 'Ziggy goes to America', and as a bit of a filler - a semi-Ziggy album droppe dinto his recoridng schedule almost as a placeholder for a different, non-Ziggy album. He's uner-playing the quality of the songs on offer but he's not wrong about the American influence.  At its most obvious - the very title 'Panic in Detroit', the flirtation with doo-wop at the start of the same track, the Muddy Waters steal for 'The Jean Genie' - it works very well, even if at the lower end  -  filtering the States via a Rolling Stones fixation, the chugging rock of 'Watch That Man' - it comes across as a mildy (if appropriately) schizophrenic mix of the sort of straight-forward US rockers not seen since 'Man Who Sold the World'  and slices of weird Americana, science fiction and even a smattering of torch song.

Side one
No. Title Length
1. "Watch That Man"   4:30
2. "Aladdin Sane (1913-1938-197?)"   5:06
3. "Drive-In Saturday"   4:33
4. "Panic in Detroit"   4:25
5. "Cracked Actor"   3:01
Side two
No. Title Length
6. "Time"   5:15
7. "The Prettiest Star"   3:31
8. "Let's Spend the Night Together" (Mick Jagger, Keith Richards) 3:10
9. "The Jean Genie"   4:07
10. "Lady Grinning Soul"   3:54

This album was banned in Rhodesia as 'undesirable', you know.  They musn't be big Rolling Stones fans is my theory, because that band pops up all the bloody place on Aladdin Sane.  For a start 'Watch That Man' is like a Stones song if anyone in that band had any genuine imagination, and 'Let's Spend the Night Together'. while being my second least favourite Bowie cover (see a few hundred words below for anyone desperate to know what track I think is even worse), is a considerably better version of the Stones' original.

Ignore those two, however, and concentrate on the great bits on this lp.  Mike Garson's wonderful trails of piano, Bowie's fragments of lyrics and his voice, moving from wavering insecurity to bellowing grand-standing - and back again - in the space of ten songs.

The title track in fact contains my favourite piano playing of any song ever.  Garson starts off letting runs of notes tinkle up and down, then throws in some dischordant chords, as though he's just thumping his hands on the keys, before launching into a long, mad, rocking piano solo described by one very good Bowie blogger as the best such solo of the decade.  Afterwards he combines with Bowie on sax for a while, like geese farting the fog, before that brilliant ending of little trills and single thumping notes.  It's the end of the world, just as propheised in the dates in the song title.

'Drive in Saturday', in contrast, is the first really American song on the album.  True, it first name-checks Mick Jagger, but other than that this is one of Bowie's very best stabs at sci-fi pop.  Ostensibly a song about two lovers (one more keen than the other, but isn't that always the way) and their attempts to 'get it on', but it's peppered with the same sort of post-apocalyptic lyrical asides which make the song come across as a musical accompaniment to the movie 'The Man Who Fell to Earth'.

Perhaps the strange ones in the dome/ can lend us a book we can read up alone
And try to get it on like once before/When people stared in Jagger's eyes and scored

Mentions of the Astronette and fall out saturation (treading similar territory to Kate Bush and 'Breathing' a few years later), cement the science fiction disaster setting but at heart this is still a pop song about a young American, taking his car and his lover to the drive-in, hoping to take things further, but she's not sure whether she should let him, for all that she tells herself she loves this latest Buddy in a long line of nameless lovers.  Ooh, even as I type that ridiculously unpunctuated sentence out I'm gobsmacked that Bowie fits quite so much into lyrics which I've heard described as meaningless by some people. Bizarrely, it's long been rumoured that Bowie offered this song to Ian Hunter, but the Mott the Hoople frontman turned it down.

Whether 'Panic in Detroit' is actually about the Detroit Riots of 1967, thugs that Iggy Pop knew as a kid or something else entirely, it remains the most amazing b-side to a genuinely crap a-side of all time.  Bowie's cover of 'Knock on Wood' remains his only real creative mis-step of the seventies and backing it with a track voted Mick Ronson's greatest guitar masterpiece serves to highlight that fact something awful.

'Cracked Actor' is vile.  Probably Bowie's most unpleasant lyric of all time.  No, not probably - definitely.  Did he ever again write a line as brilliantly horrible as

Forget that I’m fifty/Cos you just got paid

 or create a character as revoltingly self-obsessed and grubby as the eponymous actor, stiff on his legend, a few years from his Hollywood highs, coked up and looking for cheap sex?  That the description (if not the loss of fame) could, in part, equally apply to Bowie himself a mere year or two later is the world's least surprising irony - a lack of surprise made concrete by the title of 1974's Alan Yentob helmed documentary on the man himself...

The second side kicks off with a song which is less unpleasant, but not by a lot.  In fact, the first few verses would work just as well if you took them as descriptions of the cracked actor himself.  Probably not, though, because that character would still be wanking now, still be buzzing on Quaaludes and red wine, still be looking old.  Whereas by the end of this the singer is crooning that perhaps Billy Murcia (recently decased New York Dolls band member, the Billy Doll of the second verse) is in a better place, smiling now.  It's been described as  'terrible' lyric, and it's certainly lacking in subtlety, but that doesn't seem out of place to me on this album and besides, even when the lyrics aren't perfect, this is an track where the music is always interesting.

I like 'The Prettiest Star' a lot, especially in single format, backed by the original (and best) version of all but forgotten classic 'Conversation Piece'.  But it's the cuckoo in the nest on this album.  Where 'Watch That Man' and 'Let's Spend the Night Together' out-Stones the Stones, and 'Cracked Actor', 'Time' and 'The Jean Genie' are by turns brutal and nasty, 'The Prettiest Star' is a slight, pretty, love song showing its roots as a song from three years previously, when 'Letter to Hermoine' and 'Memories of a Free Festival' were ideal examples of Bowie's work .  True, Bowie and Ronson coated the original in more Aladdin Sane style instrumentation, beefing up the guitar, adding horns, throwing in some backing vocals but for me this attempt to shoehorn the track into the album ends with it being less than it was, like a young girl trying to put on her mum's makeup, or a nice fresh piece of steak slathered in BBQ sauce (or some other strained simile of your choice).

Anyway, in both forms I like it better than 'Let's Spend the Night Together'.  Yes, it out-rocks and is in every way better than the Stones' version but since I could barely fill a double album of great Stones' tracks, even using their entire sprawling back catalogue, that's not exactly the biggest and proudest boast ever.

Rolling Stone's review at the time only mentioned 'The Jean Genie' in its final paragraph, dismissing the track as one of the three weak ones on the album.  But as the reviewer was also apparently under the impression that one of the tracks was called 'Pretty as a Star', I think we can ignore his opinion! Apparently arising from a jam on a bus trip by Ronson and Bowie' equipment manager, Will Palin where the lyric was 'Bus, Bus Bus, - we're going 'Busin'!', the track is now thought of as a Bowie staple, on a par with 'Rebel Rebel' and similar rockier Bowie numbers from the period (Bowie has claimed, incidentally, that the harmonica in the song was a deliberate attempt to ape the Rolling Stones).

(Want to hear a lovely, Dr Who related story from Kevin Cann's 'Any Day Now' regarding Bowie playing 'The Jean Genie' on British chart show, Top of the Pops?

Wednesday 3 January 1973

Dressed in their unusual stage outfits, The Spiders spend time between takes in the BBC bar. "An episode of Doctor Who was also being recorded, so there were actors in futuristic costume drinking there", said Trevor Bolder. "People were approaching us asking what parts we were playing.'

Sadly, Bolder was probably wrong and these were people recording somehting else - no Doctor Who was being filmed at the Beeb that day, so he's either mis-remembering or it was another show entirely. Ta to Jim Smith for the Dr Who info.)

And finally, 'Lady Grinning Soul', the lushest, most sensual song Bowie had written to that point - possibly the lushest and most sensual he's ever recorded (and in another Stones' reference allegedly about the same person as the Stones' 'Brown Sugar').  Hearing it for the first time as a thirteen year old, busily buying every Bowie album I could this was the track that I kept putting on, over and over again, flipping the needle up and back a bit every three minutes, doing my best to make sense of the lyrics - what's an Americard? (a credit card, I discovered years later).  And canasta? (a card game not played very often in Wester Hailes in the early 80s).  

And as for the mention of breasts...well I was thirteen...

The Great Missing Track

Has to be Bowie's version of 'All the Young Dudes'.  Written - allegedly - while sitting cross-legged on Ian Hunter's living room floor, this ode to glam and side-swipe at the rock 'n' rollers of the previous musical generation is, to be honest, better when done by Mott the Hoople but it's no slacker when Bowie has a go either.