Tag Archives: David Bowie

Aladdin Sane Vs. Ziggy Stardust

There’s no doubt that David Bowie is one of rock’s most influential artists. Anybody who has taken odd detours, and even remotely strange owes a huge debt to Bowie. Glam rock would not exist without him. Bowie was also one of the first artists to bring sexual ambiguity to his performances. And while The Who may have invented the Rock Opera, Bowie took rock theatrics to a new height – something that Queen would try to emulate throughout their entire career.

But which of Bowie’s incarnations is more culturally significant? Ziggy Stardust or Aladdin Sane?

The obvious choice would be Ziggy Stardust. It is constantly ranked as one of the greatest albums of all time and its influence is undeniable. Musically the album covers proto-punk, glam-rock, soul, and folk-rock sing-alongs. At least three of its songs are classic rock staples – “Starman”, “Ziggy Stardust” and “Suffragrette City.”

For lack of a better, term The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders From Mars is epic. It sweeps and moves you along. Yet for all its grandiose ambitions, it also retains its cool. “Moonage Daydream” opens with a fierce riff courtesy of Mick Ronson which Bowie showing his teeth declaring, “I’m an alligator/I’m a rock and roll mama coming for you.” As the song draws to its conclusion, Ronson takes the song to outer-space with one of the era’s best guitar solos. Elsewhere, Bowie offers up some of rock’s best descriptions of Ziggy with his “screwed-up eyes and screwed down hairdo, like some cat from Japan.”

Ziggy Stardust proved to be a huge record for Bowie – it sent him into superstardom. While promoting the album, Ziggy and Bowie were one and the same. It was hard to tell the two apart. Ziggy allowed Bowie to indulge in his deepest rock fantasies.

Its follow-up, Aladdin Sane (intended pun: a lad insane) while containing some stellar material, finds Bowie taking on yet another persona. Although the album differs from Ziggy Stardust – the science fiction elements are gone and replaced by New York cool – it still treads much of the same territory.

Yet, Aladdin Sane has penetrated pop culture in a way that Ziggy Stardust failed to do. While the character of Ziggy may have embodied Bowie for several years, for many casual fans (and even those unfamiliar with Bowie) the iconic cover of Aladdin Sane has become the image of Bowie. (Though it could be argued that for many people of my generation, he still remains the scary dude in Labyrinth. Ziggy Stardust, it seems for many only exists in song form. Bowie may stopped being the character, but the character has become him.

The image is striking. His eyes are closed. There’s the famous rainbow lightning bolt slashed across his face screaming to be heard and seen.

If there’s any doubt about the picture’s cultural affect, you only need to go to an MGMT show. Dozens of girls in the audience had make-up on their face complete with lightning bolts, no doubt mimicking MGMT themselves. But it was all Bowie, even if the girls didn’t know. On a recent episode of Glee, Sue Sylvester disguises herself as the character. A couple weeks ago, at Baltimore’s Artscape Festival, I saw a t-shirt combining Harry Potter’s face with the iconic Aladdin Sane make-up.

 

“Did you see the Harry Potter t-shirt?” A friend asked me later that day.

“Yeah, the Aladdin Sane one?”

“Yeah, the Bowie one.” She replied. I felt weird for knowing the image by its actual source. For her, it was Bowie. Not just a character.

As for Bowie himself, you really got a good thing going here.

 

 

 

 

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Songs About America: “Old Old Woodstock” – Van Morrison

For decades Woodstock, New York has been something of  a safe haven for many musicians.  Famous residents have included Jimi Hendrix, Theonius Monk, and David Bowie, Bob Dylan, and The Band. It’s a secluded area, yet only a two-hour drive to the city.

Away from the busy lifestyle the city breeds, creativity was reaching new heights. The sounds coming out of Woodstock reflected the easy-going lifestyle.  Bob Dylan and The Band’s home-recordings were loose and fun. The Band became equally inspired, and their debut became one of the cornerstones of what would later be called Alt-Country. New life was breathed into American music through this small town and the nature surrounding it.

For these musicians, work and domesticity were one and the same in Woodstock. No one knew this better than Van Morrison who retreated there in the early 1970s.

He was recently married, and enjoying his new bride and young daughter.  The songs he wrote during his time reflected a happiness not normally found in Morrison’s works. It was a time of joy and inspiration.

Like his contemporaries in this upstate hamlet, Morrison looked to the past for musical inspiration. His mix of soul and Irish mysticism has been dubbed “Celtic Soul.”  His lyrics may state closer to his Irish roots, but his voice was more like a white Sam Cooke.  At Woodstock, Morrison adopted country and folk to his already wide ranges of influences.  His original idea was to record an album full of country and western songs that was eventually scrapped.

As a result, Tupelo Honey ends up being one of Morrison’s most relaxed affairs. Gone are the sonic Impressionistic styles of Astral Weeks.  Gone are the grand statements like “Into the Mystic” found on Moondance. Instead, Tupelo Honey is the soundtrack to happiness in the simple life, with touches of country, jazz and soul.

“Old Old Woodstock” is the song that best exemplifies the sounds of upstate New York and Morrison’s carefree attitude with its gentle piano and jazzy rhythms. It starts off slow and unassuming – just like Woodstock itself.  Yet the song pulls you in with its cymbal washes and light snare by Connie Kay. “Feel the breeze blowing through your coat,” Morrison croons.  His voice opens up like trail leading into the forest.

It’s Morrison’s voice that truly makes the song.  His voice is powerful, but restrained.  It’s full of joy, but never lazy.  He whispers through the verses, slowly building in the chorus when he announces that he will “give my child a squeeze”.   His voice is full of love and simplicity.  Nothing else matters in that moment, except this embrace, and the natural surrounding.  He’s found a new beginning both creatively and personally. “Going down to old, old Woodstock,” Morrison sings in the chorus.  “Feel the cool night breeze.”  The musical past of America is conjured up as the bridge opens up to a lengthy jazz-inspired piano break.   Halfway through Morrison lets out an exuberant shout.  His “Hey!” is off the cuff, but is commanding.  If you haven’t listened earlier, you should.  “Listen,” He sings at the beginning of the next verse, which is a repeat of the first verse reinforcing his love for his child.

“Old Old Woodstock” can easily be overlooked as a small ditty.  But like Woodstock itself, the song captures a lifestyle at ease.  Work isn’t a chore when inspiration is right outside your doorstep.

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The Top 10 Post “Blood on the Tracks” Bob Dylan Albums: 4. Infidels

I recently read Bob Dylan considered Elvis Costello, David Bowie and Frank Zappa to help produce Infidels.  Costello would be the most interesting to see at the helm – he might have given Infidels a more folk-style approach.  As such, Infidels holds up extremely well in large part due to the addition of Mark Knopfler – whose tasteful production and guitar work are everywhere throughout the album.

For the 80s it was contemporary sound – but it doesn’t hold itself as an 80s album (something that can’t be said of some of his other albums from that era.)  Dylan reportedly hired Knopfler, in part because he didn’t know the new production technology.  Still though, its an album that has been trimmed of the fat and excess. “Jokerman” might be the most well-known song, but its reggae isn’t not representative of the album. There’s a punch on many songs – “Man of Peace” “Neighborhood Bully” – and Dylan lashes out the lyrics with a renewed vigor not seen since Desire.

Infidels might be Dylan’s first secular album after a trio of Christian inspired albums, but the Bible and its themes are everywhere.  Interestingly though, it’s the Old Testament and Judaism that occupies his thoughts.  “Jokerman” name-checks Leviticus and Deuteronomy, Sodom and Gommorah.  Elsewhere, “Neighborhood Bully” has often been interpreted as Dylan’s support of Israel, due to the inclusion of Israeli historical events.  The penultimate song, “I And I” borrows its title from a Rastafarian practice of saying “I and I” when referring to one’s self to include the speaker with the presence of the Almighty in every day situations.  Taking this as cue, Dylan uses the song to refer to the Hebrew God, whose name can’t be uttered by the observant.  It’s also worth noting that the front cover photograph was taken by Sara Dylan, at a hotel in Jerusalem.

Among critics, Infidels has been seen as something of a lost opportunity for Dylan.  The exclusion of “Foot of Pride” and “Blind Willie McTell” has left many shaking their heads for decades.  The familiar demo version of “Blind Willie McTell” (though apparently there’s a full-band version that was recorded) while brilliant, probably would have overshadowed the rest of the album’s quality.

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5 Classic Best Of Collections

I’ll be the first to admit that Best Of Collections are usually a terrible representation of an artist’s catalog. As a general rule, I usually try and stay away from them, preferring to check out the classic albums instead.  Have you ever checked out a collection from an artist you absolutely love, and been horrified at the song selection on their collection? In some instances, key songs are missing.  Or, in other cases a ban has several Hits Collections and you have to buy the separate packages to get everything you want.  (Of course, maybe this isn’t so much of a problem for those who use Itunes religiously.)

Too often, these collections tend to gloss over an artist’s evolution or focus on a singular period.  Van Morrison’s Greatest Hits, while containing some of his most well known songs, is actually a pretty poor depiction of his forays into what can be dubbed Celtic-Soul.  Occasionally though, there are some collections that are absolutely essential, that actually get the story of the artist right – as opposed to just compiling a bunch of songs together in a neat little package.

Sly & The Family Stone – Greatest Hits

Originally released in 1970 to fill the gap between Stand! and There’s a Riot Goin’ On, this set is mind-blowingly good containing the best of Sly & The Family Stone’s hits in the late 60s.  Every single track is a explosive fusion of funk, R&B, rock, and soul that tons of bands have tried to emulate, but none have perfected the way Sly & The Family Stone did.  Greatest Hits is a non-stop party that never lets up particularly on “Sing a Simple Song” and the absurdly titled “Thank You (Falentinme Be Mice Elf Agin”).  As a blend of party-music and socially consciousness anthems, it doesn’t get any better than this.

James Brown – 20 All-Time Greatest Hits

James Brown has a lot of hits collection, but this is the best singular compilation containing the early R&B hits (“Please Please Please”, “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World”).  There’s also the the cultural touchstones of “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” – which almost single-handily invented funk.  More than just a collection though, All-Time Greatest Hits captures all of Brown’s energy and passion from the sex-induced singles  – “Get (I Feel Like Being) A Sex Machine Pt. 1” – to the African American empowerment anthem, “Say It Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud)”.

Talking Heads – Sand In the Vaseline (Popular Favorites)

If you ever needed to know anything about The Talking Heads, this is a great place to start.  It encompasses the big songs (“And She Was”) with fan favorites (“Heaven, “Psycho Killer”). If you listen to their early records, it can be hard to comprehend how the hell they got so big.    Without a doubt, Talking Heads remain of the oddest bands to ever chart a hit (and they had numerous hits).  But Sand in the Vaseline shows a natural progression of art inspired new-wave to pop oddities they would have in the early 80s.  It also doesn’t gloss over their strangest efforts either – the African music inspired “I Zimbra” with nonsense lyrics from Dada artist Hugo Ball is also included.

David Bowie – Changesonebowie/Changesbowie

Changesbowie was released in 1990 to replace Changesonebowie so it would include some songs from the late 70s and the early 80s.  This collection holds a special place for me, since it was my first introduction to Bowie.  My older brother used to play on his car cassette player while picking me up from school.  I was probably 12 or 13 at the time and mostly listened to R.E.M., U2 an whatever was on the radio.  Bowie seemed so far out and exhilarating.  Not one song sounded the same.  There was the neo-soul of “Young Americans” to the glam-rock of “Rebel Rebel”.  The lyrics were similarly mind-blowing.  Did he really just sing, “well hung with snow white-tan?” on “Ziggy Stardust”.  It’s a good place to start obsessing over Bowie.  I’ve always considered Bowie to be the gate-way artist to much weirder stuff, and this is a collection which leads you down that path.   The only complaint is the really awful remix of “Fame”.

Bob Marley – Legend

An absolute classic of a collection.  Bob Marley’s work is universal but also varied.  Legend does a great job of collecting the love songs (“Stir It Up”, “Waiting in Vain”) songs of protest and social injustice (“Buffalo Solider”, “Get Up, Stand Up”).  It truly captures the spirit of Bob Marley.  As for many I’m sure, this was my first introduction to Bob Marley (and also reggae) and left me wanting to know more about Jamaica, Marley, and reggae.  Kaya, Exodus, and Catch A Fire are great albums, but for some reason I find myself listening to Legend more.

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Videos For The Weekend: 3 Different Versions of David Bowie’s “Heroes”

I absolutely love “Heroes”.  Apparently, so artists love to cover it as well.  Here’s three different artist putting their spin on the Bowie classic.

TV On The Radio:

Arcade Fire:

The Wallflowers:

While all of them are good, I prefer TV On The Radio’s the best – I think it captures the experimental feeling of the original the best.

 

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Great Songs With Horns

A friend of mine suggested a while ago that the use of horns in rock and roll is very under-rated.  While a horn section is certainly a staple of soul and old school R&B, it’s not an instrument that comes directly to mind when you’re thinking of rock and roll.   So for this blog post I’ve decided to list some of my favorite rock songs that make full use of horns.

The Rolling StonesRocks Off

I could probably list about 15 different songs by The Rolling Stones alone for this.  The obvious choices would be “Waiting on a Friend” with the saxophone solo by the great Sonny Rollins.  But I’m going to go with Rocks Off for this.  For starters, it’s one of the Stones’ best rockers.  It’s messy, and the harmonies on the chorus don’t entirely sync, and the horns nearly drown out the vocals.   Yet they all carry the same melody and somehow it works – you get the horns stuck in your head.  After the final chorus Mick Jagger lets out an exuberant, “Wooo!”.  It’s as if even he knows it can’t get any better than that.

Bruce SpringsteenThunder Road

I’m sure lots of people will read this post and suggest that I choose “Jungleland” – The Big Man’s de facto anthem.  Truth is, I don’t rank Jungleland as highly as one of Bruce’s best as other people do.  But on “Thunder Road” rarely has a saxophone solo sounded so triumphant as it does here.  “Thunder Road” is as perfect rock song as they get, but the entire song rests on Clarence Clemon’s saxophone at the end.  The open road would not sound as as convincing without it.  The song may be about getting away, but the saxophone represents the possibilities of the destination.

U2 – Angel of Harlem

One of my favorite U2 songs, and one of their best.  Bono name drops Miles Davis and John Coltrane, and A Love Supreme on a song about Billie Holiday which would almost be unbearable if it weren’t for the sheer joy he shows in the song.  But it’s really the brass that makes the song.  The horns weave in and out between Bono’s lines during the verses, adding extra life to his ode to Billie Holiday.  In concert Bono has often declared that “the goal is soul” – they achieved it in spades on this song.

The Beatles – Penny Lane

An obvious choice, but you could also pick about a dozen or so other Beatles songs just like The Rolling Stones.  I’m going with Penny Lane, because the trumpet is so an integral part of the song.  It’s a song about childhood, and like the flip-side of the single Strawberry Fields which saw Lennon experimenting with both lyrics and music- Penny Lane is also experimental just not quite as extreme.  The trumpet solo is in fact in a mock-Baroque style, which also fits the over-all sound of the song extremely well.

George Harrison – What Is Life

Without a doubt, George Harrison’s best song as solo artist.  The use of both the saxophone and the trumpet elevate this song right as soon as the drums kick in.  Thanks to Phil Spector‘s wall of sound, the horns almost completely take over the chorus which is one of George’s catchiest.

David BowieYoung Americans

I couldn’t make this list, without listing this one.  It’s Bowie during his “plastic soul” phase.  It’s borderline campy, which is kind of the point.  The saxophone is one of the trademarks of the song – it’s trying to keep up with Bowie’s fast vocal delivery, and it’s a close call over who actually wins until Bowie delivers the famous “ain’t no one song” line near the end.

The Clash – The Right Profile

Just like Montgomery Clift (who the song is about) this song nearly veers out of control several times.  The horns seem to be the only thing actually anchoring it down.  The horns blast around the band and Strummer who delivers one of his best vocal performances describing the destruction of the life of Montgomery Cliff sometimes in horrific detail.  The saxophone solo in the bridge provides some added weight, and lets Strummer breathe for a few moments.

 

 

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Bowie Collaborations: “Wake Up” With Arcade Fire

Back in 2005, Arcade Fire was your favorite artist’s favorite new band.  U2 regularly played “Wake Up” as the song they walked on the stage to during their Vertigo Tour.  Not only did they also open for U2 as the tour progressed, they also came on stage with the band to play Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart”.   David Bowie regularly talked Arcade Fire up as his favorite new band, and Funeral’s sound owed a lot to The Thin White Duke.

Songs such as “Neighbor Hood # 1” and “Rebellion (Lies)” reminded me structurally of “Heroes” when I first heard them.  All of those songs start out slow, and slowly build into a crescendo – but there’s never a specific moment when you can pinpoint exactly where this takes place. The songs take you for a ride, and before you’ve even realized it you’ve hit 90 mph.

It’s little wonder then that Arcade Fire would actually team up with Arcade Fire for a few songs.  At the Fashion Rocks show in 2005, Bowie and Arcade Fire performed two Bowie classics (“Five Years & “Life on Mars?”) along with Arcade Fire’s de facto anthem, “Wake Up”.

While it’s clear that “Wake Up” is Arcade Fire’s song, Bowie isn’t just guesting on this version.  The way he takes on the chorus, and much of the lead vocals suggests that he is taking this song back from Arcade Fire, and making it his own.  The version of the other songs aren’t nearly as energetic – Arcade Fire plays the songs well – but Bowie seems to really take on “Arcade Fire”.  It’s almost as if he was suggesting that even Bowie imitators can’t out-due the real thing, even with original songs.

Bowie & Arcade Fire: “Wake Up”

 

 

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