It was VERY, VERY hard for me to pinpoint my top 10 Bowie songs. I had to think about which songs gave me goosebumps the first time I heard them. I didn't necessarily pick the most popular or crazy songs, but rather, the ones that will always stick with me (awwww!)
1) Life on Mars?
This one is obvious, considering "to my mother, my dog, and clowns" is taken directly from it. I love EVERYTHING about this song: the piano part (which I've memorized), Bowie's soaring vocals, the fact that he looks similar to Ronald McDonald in this video, etc. Nothing about this song makes sense and I don't think anyone will ever know the true meanings of the lyrics. He sings about "sailors fighting in the dance hall" and being "hooked to the silver screen." I particularly love the line where he says, "Now the workers have struck for fame/ Cause Lennon's on sale again." How ironic is it that in 2 years time, Bowie would record a song called "Fame" with John Lennon? The answer is, "Yes, k-money, that is sooooo ironic!"
His makeup for the video was done by Pierre Laroche, who also did the makeup for The Rocky Horror Picture Show, which only gives "Life on Mars?" brownie points. Also, apparently Bowie went to the store to buy shoes & came back with "Life on Mars?" in his head. Craziness.
Bowie has continued to perform this song throughout the years -- it's a fan favourite, obviously -- but he doesn't always aim for the high notes. But I still get chills every time I hear it.
2) Aladdin Sane (1913-1938-197?)
This song, although not a smash hit like many of his others, tops my list because of the ridiculous piano solo performed by Mike Garson. He supposedly did the solo in one take, which absolutely BLOWS MY MIND. The song also represents Bowie's Aladdin Sane character, which in itself is great because of the pun of "A Lad Insane." The song itself is haunting, especially because of the dates in the title, which are the years preceding the world wars. It looks like Bowie was predicting that another world war would happen in the 70s. The lyrics are also extremely poetic -- I would love to paint lyrics like "swinging an old bouquet of dead roses," "sadden glissando strings," and "battle cries and champagne just in time for sunrise" in the blank border spaces on my wall.
Okay, this song does sound kind of cheesy/nursery-rhyme-ish, but I love it. It represents the moment when the character of Ziggy Stardust was revealed to the world. You can tell that Ziggy is still in his early stages, however, because his makeup is not super crazy...yet. The chorus is also modeled after "Somewhere Over The Rainbow" -- Bowie admits this -- and was the first single released off The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. Plus, I LOVE watching the awkward 70s dancing audience members in the video. Also, when Mick Ronson (Bowie's super-awesome amazing guitarist) creeps up beside Bowie to share his microphone, and Bowie doesn't notice for a split second, you literally go, "ohh, poor guy!" Then Bowie acknowledges his presence, puts his arm around Mick, and they share glorious harmonies together. It makes my heart melt every time.
4) The Width of a Circle
This epic 8-minute track is my favourite from The Man Who Sold The World. Not only is this Bowie's most metal-sounding album, but he is donning his hippie hair & a dress (which was apparently quite controversial at the time) on the album cover. This song is practically 3 songs in 1. It's as though Bowie is telling a very nonsensical story, with random guitar parts & vocals all over the place, but it somehow works. When Bowie performs this song in Ziggy Stardust: The Motion Picture, he is wearing a skanky body-suit covered in woodland creatures and does a miming bit towards the end of the song. He pretends that he is stuck between some kind of walls/cavern, musters enough miming strength to free himself, and does this eagle-soaring bird-type mime move. Love it.
5) Boys Keep Swinging
"Boys Keep Swinging" is ridiculous, to say the least. It's a bunch of stereotypical and also random things that boys apparently are/like, such as "Life is a pop of a cherry when you're a boy," and "You can buy a home of your own/Learn to drive and everything." I particularly love, "When you're a boy, you can buy a uniform/Other boys check you out." The video is so interesting to analyze because he performs some quite hilarious dance moves/facial expressions as a "man"/"boy" which hearkens back to the 50s. The rest of the video is Bowie in 3 different drag outfits -- one young-ish, one middle-aged, and one old. By the end, he yanks off his wig in a very dramatic way and smears his makeup across his face, except as the old lady (he blows a kiss instead!). The guitar at the end sounds like it's being murdered, and sometimes I can't stand it when I listen to this song, but it's still wonderful.
For the record, I think Bowie makes a horrible-looking middle-aged woman. But an AMAZING grandma with a cane.
6) Letter To Hermione
This song is from Space Oddity. I love it because it's one of the few love songs the Bowie has ever written (and one of the few songs that actually makes sense). It's about his girlfriend in the late 60s, Hermione Farthingale, who lived with Bowie & was in his miming troupe, but left him for another man. It's such a sad, honest, and heart-breaking song with lyrics like, "I care for no one else but you/ I tear my soul cease the pain" and "But when he's strong he's strong for you/And when you kiss it's something new/But did you ever call my name just by mistake?" Oh man! It's my belief that Hermione shattered his heart so fiercely that Bowie completely lost his mind and chose to marry the most annoying woman on the planet, Angie Bowie. It's all your fault, Hermione.
7) My Death
"My Death" is Bowie's cover of the Jacques Brel song (he also covered Brel's "Amsterdam"). Bowie's version, performed at Ziggy Stardust: The Motion Picture is by far my most favourite song performed on the film. He is dressed in full Ziggy attire, and yet performs it so real & full of emotion. This song has many chord changes & key changes that it keeps escalating until the end, where it slowly "dies" down. Clever, I know. Especially since this is the last concert that Bowie puts on as Ziggy, before he "kills" him off. Aha. Watching Bowie's facial expressions & pronunciations is amazing & you can tell that this song is really important to him.
8) Station to Station
This is another super-long epic song, totaling just over 10 minutes. Like "Aladdin Sane" and "Starman" which introduce 2 new Bowie characters, "Station to Station" introduces us to The Thin White Duke. Although the first 2 minutes of the song is comprised of simply helicopter noises, the rest of the song makes up for it, especially with the repetition of "It's not the side-effects of the cocaine/I'm thinking that it must be love." And on cocaine, he was. Station to Station is the album that Bowie has practically no recollection of recording. It was the year where Bowie was his skinniest, craziest, and most creative. He apparently survived on nothing more than milk and red peppers, and according to a bio I read, kept his own semen in the fridge because he was scared that witches were going to steal & and do horrible things to him...or something. If you watch the documentary called Cracked Actor on YouTube which was released around this time (and is very appropriately named), you'll see that Bowie is NUTS. He is being interviewed in the back of a car and in the background you can hear police sirens. He all of a sudden starts snorting like mad & wiping his nose (clearly paranoid that cops might see the cocaine residue). At a different point in the documentary, he is being interviewed in the back of a car whilst crossing a desert & drinking a giant carton of milk. He is jittery, distracted, avoids answering questions and starts talking about a fly in his milk, and relates it back to him feeling like a foreigner in a America..."just like the fly" in his milk...
Although Bowie is absolutely crazy during his coke-fueled years, I still think he's super sexy as The Thin White Duke. Yum.
9) The Drowned Girl
This song is from the EP of Brecht's Baal, that Bowie performed on a BBC television version. "The Drowned Girl" is so haunting & mysterious. The black & white video only accentuates this. When Bowie aims for the high notes and reveals his creepy/wonderful teeth, he seriously looks like a HOT EVIL GHOST. Plus, the background instruments -- especially the clarinet -- remind me of something from the BBC's The Chronicles of Narnia (another guilty pleasure which I will post about...someday...). Plus, this song perfectly showcases Bowie's various voices -- the low deep one, the powerful vibrato one, the soft sad one, the crazy/drunk one, etc.
10) Rebel Rebel
"Rebel Rebel" is a classic Bowie song that everyone immediately recognizes from the opening guitar riff. This is the very first song that I learned on the guitar (probably THE song that made me want to learn the guitar in the first place), so of course it has a special place in my heart!! This song is a true "rock" sounding song which signifies Bowie's departure from the Ziggy Stardust/Glam Rock era & his progression towards the Diamond Dogs era. Ziggy's bright red hair still remains, but Bowie's pirate-like style in the video is definitely different. Apparently, he is only wearing the eye-patch because he had pink eye, but he totally rocked the look. The lyrics certainly echo gender ambiguity ("Got your mother in a whirl/She's not sure if you're a boy or a girl"), which always makes me happy.
Things to notice in the video:
a) Bowie's tight tight red pants (it echoes his Labyrinth look that would come 10 years later, no?)
b) The fact that he sometimes plays the guitar (without a strap) and gets tired, so instead uses it as a prop
c) The many many Bowie faces in the kaleidescope-looking mirrors (who doesn't like many many Bowie faces?)
My close runner-up songs were:
- "Quicksand" and "Changes" from Hunky Dory
- "Time" and "Lady Grinning Soul" from Aladdin Sane
- "Soul Love" and "Five Years" from The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars
- "Cygnet Committee" from Space Oddity
- "The Man Who Sold The World" and "All The Madmen" from The Man Who Sold the World
- "Sweet Thing" from Diamond Dogs
- "Fame" from Young Americans
- "Word on a Wing" from Station to Station
- "Heroes" from Heroes
- "Teenage Wildlife" from Scary Monsters
- "Can't Help Thinking About Me" from David Bowie and the Lower Third