Bowie. And as mentioned, it’s fandom as complex construct (part one, featuring tracks #10 to #6, being here). For reasons never fully understood, I’ve a track record of surrounding myself with those who view Let’s Dance as the high tide mark. The point where dispensing with all that outsider art-rock freed him up to channel a pop most pristine; clean and shiny and slick.
That there’s nothing from Let’s Dance in this Bowie top ten; well, you’ll be arriving at your own conclusions as to the legitimacy of this, such exclusions considered. Because pop is frequently and incorrectly perceived as lacking nuance and complexity, there’s a perception that any old trumpet wielder, keyboard shuffler or jazz hands fanatic can slip effortlessly into the genre, and whilst it’s probably a debate for another time, I’m far from certain that’s always the case – particularly where credibility is concerned. And whilst it’s fascinating to watch an artist hit a florid vein of transformation, an actor is still an actor, however cracked.
In other words, don’t be expecting ‘Absolute Beginners’ here. No ‘China Girl’ or ‘Modern Love’ or the risible creature lurking under the banner reading ‘Fame ’90’. Bowie buried the allure – some time during the recording of Baal, his 1981 Bertolt Brecht EP, I suspect – and he’s only dug it up for brief glimpses of sunlight since, before wielding the shovel all over again. Tracks #5 to #1…
#5 – Queen Bitch (1971)
As much celebration of the interplay between Bowie and Mick Ronson as it is ode to Lou Reed; should that famous photo of Bowie fellating Ronson’s guitar onstage encapsulate their bond in visual terms, then ‘Queen Bitch’ does similar on aural wavelengths. Ronson’s lead hook is joyously slutty, aping the acoustic riff like some tarty pastiche, Eddie Cochran on a construction site in too much Max Factor. It’s artist and foil at their most waspish, flaunting a (now lost) Upper East Side sentiment, but never any of its sentimentality.
In many respects a compact song, it nonetheless channels a vague, ‘I’m Waiting For The Man’ feel to the verses before opening up to a chorus that’s silly and throwaway and roughly coloured-in around its lines, the sandpaper harmonies, taut rhythm section and louche guitar a precursor to the bolder androgyny of Bowie’s ramped-up glam rock period (it’s also the only song I’m aware of to feature a “bipperty-bobberty hat”, which for some reason I find inordinately pleasing). The highlight of the Hunky Dory album without ever drowning its comrades, it’s a track of lick and shine, sleek in the half-light – a statement of “yes, please”.
#4 – Suffragette City (1972)
Should ‘Five Years’ – the track at number #6 in this silly little list – act as the counterpoint to all else that Ziggy Stardust has to offer (albeit it a weird counterpoint, buried up top), then ‘Suffragette City’ is the acme of that antithesis. A glam-rock stomp of buffed-up swagger, ploughing through the suburban streets, car windows wound down, whooping on the leopard-print seats as the needle slips over the speed limit again.
The lyrics don’t mean a great deal because they don’t ever need to; it’s a track all about posture. Of how it looks (and you can look but never touch). A popinjay get-up that works in two distinct fashions, both seguing with the overarching themes of its parent album, the titular alter-ego the medium through which Bowie explores plastic modern life, as well as operating as a distinct entity, beyond Ziggy’s counternance – this was, after all offered to Mott the Hoople to record, his patronage the glue that kept the band together.
Mott never recorded ‘Suffragette City’, apparently (or maybe just apocryphally) rejecting it as not good enough – not an opinion they held towards ‘All The Young Dudes’, the track Bowie gifted them subsequently. And despite Mott the Hoople being one of my favourite bands of the period, I doubt they could have matched the élan of Ziggy’s penultimate track, and that “Wham Bam Thank You Ma’am” climax it wears like seven inch stilettos. ‘Suffragette City’ – just make sure you’re wearing your seatbelt.
#3 – Panic In Detroit (1973)
“He looked a lot like Che Guevara, drove a diesel van. Kept his gun in quiet seclusion, such a humble man.” 70’s scholars will recognise how such a couplet reflects the era’s insecurities. Urban guerilla as loose metaphor, let loose within a crisis of confidence; whilst other Bowie discs wrap the particulars of their social commentary in ambiguity or introspection, Aladdin Sane is more overt, as if the commercial success of Ziggy Stardust begat both empowerment and contrast within a timezone most grey and strange and awkward.
‘Panic In Detroit’ – never released as a single – is yet another track with Ronson on axe duties, but there’s a detectable progression from the themes and interplay of a ’71 or ’72 to this. Street corner rhythms and tumbadora percussion provide a choppy, almost Latin backdrop – one foot in Michigan and another in Havana. And whilst the fretwork struts about with its usual primary coloured enticement, it’s placed slightly lower in the mix than we’d previously been used to, forced to compete with Linda Lewis’ vixen backing vox.
It’s a musical context that frames the storyline, Bowie’s narrative linear. Cute, passive observation, turning a neat phrase or two – the reluctant revolutionary, laughing at accidental sirens as they break the evening gloom. Cops warning of repercussions – they followed none too soon. In other words there’s a texture to this – interplay that works over and beyond what could have been expected (were we buying records in 1973 instead of overthrowing the government by force).
#2 – Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps) (1980)
And I’ll let you into a secret; I’m not entirely confident I’ve got the right order here. A flickering appeal; there’s #2 and then there’s #1, arousing completely different receptors, hence regularly trading places were I sad enough to carry around a Bowie top ten in my back pocket. Which I probably am.
#2 – which is #1 on alternate days – appeals to all that craves immediacy. The visceral, and the sensuously blasé. ‘Scary Monsters’; catchy, wearing its New York new wave influences proudly, but without aligning itself completely with the transiencies of fashion. It’s dark, celebrating its undertone of abrasiveness, Robert Fripp’s guitar prowling wild-eyed across the contours in liberal quantities. It’s a track whose parent album intelligently and tenderly parodies the Bowie back catalogue, but the LP’s title track sidesteps this dynamic, instead focusing upon a sly gratification, heightened by the claustrophobic intent to the lyrics. There’s something sinister abound – “I looked in her eyes, they were blue, but nobody home. She asked for my love and I gave her a dangerous mind. I love the little girl and I’ll love her till the days she dies” – but it’s an elusive threat, rubbing up against that aforementioned immediacy, creating a chemical reaction that’s quite intoxicating.
Yup; ‘Scary Monsters’ is one of those significant moments, encapsulating the inherent iconicness of Bowie fandom. It explains why, as an artist, I find him so attractive – and you can’t ask for much more in a track.
#1 – V-2 Schneider (1977)
I still recall first hearing ‘Lay Back In The Sun’ by Spiritualized (from 1995’s Pure Phase album). Two thoughts: “wow”; and “this is ‘V-2 Schneider’, right down to the sax breaks.
Not identical, of course – no accusations of plagiarism from this commentator – but the reflections within the musicality are strong, and in a way highlight how ‘V-2 Schneider’ functions across its own web of cross-pollination. Possibly the most overtly Krautrock track in the Bowie repertoire – the title alone gives offers two big clues – yet it’s the artist’s slant upon the oeuvre rather than pastiche or a day trip to Kosmische Musik.
There’s something sly and enigmatic to this, eschewing the rush of immediate fix for nuance. A shade over three minutes in length, it manages to feel far longer, such is the method through which the detail expands. Eno’s opening synth chord is one, long, phased wail, a plane in distress against train track percussion. Fripp’s guitar refrain is repeated stabs (a style J Spaceman is oh-so familiar with), before Bowie’s off-the-beat sax motif give proceedings a seedier, less devout sheen.
What particularly appeals about all this is the deceptive angles it deploys; a track that never feels busy, or rushed, or full to brim, but nonetheless fosters depth. It’s in the way Bowie’s vocal – nothing more than the title, repeated – is fed through the production desk in swinging arcs. It’s how the shards of each instrument play off against each other, crafting slanted momentum. And like all great tracks (cue my third gratuitous Spiritualized reference), it’s something the listener can dive into. Become subsumed by. To experience its contours brush against your face…