David Bowie Album by Album: Self-Titled Debut and Space Oddity

David Bowie. What hasn’t been said and done and written and reviewed and ranted and loved and dissected about the man? Not a whole damn lot. But you know what? My turn! Bowie is my favorite musician; throughout his nearly fifty-year career, I can always find albums and songs that get thrown into my car player again and again, songs I’m humming any given day, never getting tired of hearing “Let’s Dance”, “Fame”, or even “This is Not America” (Though that’s Pat Metheny Group featuring David, mostly it’s mistaken as one of David’s own. Sorry, first of many tangents). I have the album image from Scary Monsters tattooed on my leg. I think that alone should suffice to say anything more I need to say about my adoration for the man’s talent. 

It’s been little over eight months since David’s surprise come-back album, The Next Day, and when the March day of release was announced I made a challenge to myself. I had listened to several of his albums, some of them over and over again; so much so I could sing entire albums start to finish. But I admittedly didn’t listen to all of them. There were 25 albums (not including The Next Day), 3 soundtracks, nine live albums, and a handful of EPs. Not to mention dozens of compilations, best-ofs, and other such collections. How could I call myself a true believer without listening to them all? How could he be etched permanently on my skin? Well, easily. That last part had been done for some time now. So I decided that up until The Next Day‘s release, I would listen to all of his main studio album releases. I successfully did so, though I didn’t go for all the live albums, compilations, and EPs. Just the major releases, and the three soundtracks (though Christine F is mostly tracks from the Berlin era). And then The Next Day dropped, and it floored me. I ate it up. The album, to me, was a smashing success, and a fantastic new addition to David’s vast discography. And having recently digested all his periods, all of his styles, I found it strikingly telling. Sure, it was new, but it took so much from everything else he had done, stretching all the way back to his 70’s releases, lovingly touching upon his time in Germany, but never pining for what was, always moving forward.

After all that, I decided I’d write a review of The Next Day, along with the million others being put out. Quickly I decided against it. What could I say that professionals hadn’t already said better? Instead, I came up with another idea. I had just listened to all of the albums, why not review them all? I mean, that’s been done too, but not as much. And I figured this would be more fun. And not just a review, but also a discussion on the history behind a lot of the recordings, an analysis on the time and mood of Bowie, and it’s overall quality compared to the other albums. So here I am, eight months later, finally getting ready to do so. I think the best way is to do two albums at a time, in chronological order, comparing and contrasting and allowing the music to do the talking. This is not a track-by-track review, but more of overall thoughts and assumptions. Let’s begin where it all began (kind of, I’m ignoring his few releases as a member of earlier outfits such as The King Bees and the Konrads, and also skipping some early singles of the same era). So for us, it begins with his solo debut album, aptly named David Bowie.

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This is not your Dad’s David Bowie. Or yours. Or most anyone’s. But it is Bowie, and an interesting piece of work. Released in 1967, around the same time as Sgt. Pepper‘s and other legendary albums of the time, Bowie’s debut didn’t leave much of a mark, at all. And listening to it, it’s hard to place it at all in the context of sixties rock and folk. Because it’s neither of those. The album is almost a vaudeville routine. The album is full of string orchestrations, tubas and brass instrumentation, and upbeat, musical-like tunes. Essentially, Bowie was the showman for a music theater that you only listened to. Tracks like “Buy me a Coat”, “Uncle Arthur” “Rubber Band” are up-tempo and peppy, almost to the point of being silly, but Bowie wasn’t trying to be a rock star. At least not yet. Just a folksy, hippie with a background of musical theater. But the voice is unmistakably his. Mostly the higher-pitched Bowie fans are familiar with from the glam-era, but one listen of “Silly Boy Blue”, and his unique baritone is all over the place. That track might be the most sixties rock of all the album, and probably one of my personal picks from the album. Big strings, sweeping chorus, and that unmistakable Bowie-vibe, even so early in his career. Lyrically, it’s all over the place, but familiar Bowie themes pop up, tales of messiahs and children in revolt are prevalent in “We Are Hungry Men” and “There is a Happy Land”, respectively. Again, this album is anything you’d expect from Bowie, but this is how he started his solo career. An oft-forgotten album, maybe for good reason, but it’s worth a listen, or watching some of the amusing video singles on YouTube. 

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Onward to Space Oddity. To be accurate, this album is also self-titled. But rather than called it David Bowie 1969, it’s easier to call it by it’s more common re-release name. (It was also released as Man of Words/Man of Music, but again let’s just go with Space Oddity) The title track is of course unmistakable, and remains one of Bowie’s most familiar, forty-four years after it’s release. But what about the rest of the album? Not one you’ll hear about often. But now’s the time to get into Bowie’s more psychedelic-folk stage. Space Oddity does indeed start with the famous track, recorded and released write around the time of Apollo 11’s famous mission. Easily a big reason why the song brought Bowie into fame, and why the song remains so poignant. It’s a beautiful song that clearly paints a picture of where the western world was in 1969. England and America and the space race. Dreamy, but also tragic and bittersweet, and how can you not clap along at those respective pauses? From there it gets rocking, quick. “Unwashed and Slightly Dazed” is a heck of a blues-rock song, full of loud guitars, harmonica solos, and some hefty shouts. The album, sounded almost completely unlike it’s predecessor (though a few nods can be found in “Letter to Hermoine” and “An Occasional Dream”), but like it, this album is varied in style from song to song. Blues-y Dylan-esque rock leads to a number of different ideas, but the album remains rooted in the sounds and ideas of the ending sixties and incoming seventies. Perhaps the most important and best track outside of Space Oddity itself would be “Cygnet Committee”, a nearly ten-minute opus that foreshadows a lot of what we would later see in Ziggy Stardust. A group of youth following a messiah-like figure, Bowie seemed to be critiquing the hippy community’s willingness to follow any figure that comes off with a seemingly radical message, mostly of peace and love. Bowie wasn’t quite ready to shed his folksy image yet, but you can tell he had some scathing ideas on it already, and had an idea that the seventies would be a different beast altogether, though it’s hard to say if it could be predicted that it would be one of his own devising. All that is certainly to come with his first release of that decade, The Man Who Sold the World, the album that really started inching towards to the androgynous, wild, glam-rock years. But that’s for the next post.

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Bowie’s early years are an eclectic one, to be certain, though far from his best work, it is worth checking out. David Bowie is an amusing and interesting start,  and Space Oddity is a pretty solid effort, with a few stand-out numbers beyond the title track. It only gets better from here (well, eventually it might get a little worse, but for the most part we’re going way past the moon and beyond Major Tom’s voyage).

Thanks for tuning in, many more to come!

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