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December 28, 2016

Career Retrospective - David Bowie

Let's call it as it is: 2016 sucked. Not a good collection of months there.

We lost Prince, Maurice White, George Michael, Leonard Cohen, Keith Emerson, Glenn Frey, Gene Wilder, Carrie Fisher. We had earthquakes, US elections, escalating wars, Fifth Harmony, Global CO2 levels exceeding 400 ppm at times of year normally associated with minimum levels, more terrorist attacks than there are holidays in the NY state public school system and above all scourges,

We lost Bowie.

Where is the UNDO button? Why Bowie instead of Ted Nugent, for example? I can't think of one good reason. Besides the fact that losses like this are painful reminders to make everyday count, they are also opportunities to reflect on what makes an artist exceptional.

In Bowie's case, his ability to be musically active for decades and always be ahead of the currents and fads was quite stunning. Many generations of musicians, producers, and engineers discovered Bowie making the music of their times, no matter when their times were. Few other artists managed that feat. The Stones maybe, but one could argue that the recent albums have not been exactly life changing. Bowie kept innovating until the end.

In this much awaited end of year, much awaited besides the fact that Mariah Carey's "All I Want For Christmas" song is back on the Billboard charts, I thought it'd be fun to take a look at the Bowie time machine to try and reflect on what true artistry is.

Do you know David Bowie's first record is from 1967?

Probably not. It's quite the stunner. This is the first song on that album, it's called "Uncle Arthur"

Isn't that fantastic? Did you dig the drums on the left and renaissance fair on the right?

By way, there is a mono mix version of that exact take:

Go ahead and compare. Isn't stereo wonderful?

"Sell Me A Coat" is quite amazing too. Half Xmas carol, half "Eleanor Rigby".

The whole record is very much a reflection of its time and the times before it. Nothing ahead of anything there. Except that Bowie is already blending some theatrics ("We Are Hungry Men", "Join The Gang", "Please Mr Gravedigger") and letting his British accent come through which at the time was not done readily and probably took some negotiating with the record execs.

We can already hear some sparks of the future Bowie singing and writing touch in songs like "Little Bombardier" but overall Bowie was still learning how to write songs but was already thinking of going beyond the limit of what was possible within the era's music business.

And then just two years later this happened:

Boom. The drums are still on the left but the rest has jumped years ahead. One can hear some serious Sergeant Pepper influences but these a real peculiar and personal tone to everything. It's an odyssey with many parts and sections, wild stereo mixing, crazy sounds and ballsy moves like the fade in intro, multiple bridges, key changes, spoken word, groove changes, self-harmonizing.

Did you ever notice the saxophone held note under the lead vocal on the first verse? Or the flute flurries on the right and violin phrases on the left during the first bridge? The crazy Arp ensemble + sax pads in mono in the middle? And that guitar solo bridge with the guitar riff, how cool is that?

Some people would build a song on just that. (No names Justin). Notice the crazy boomy/close miked quality of the guitar. How about that ending?

This is is still playing on the radio everyday 47 years later. Talk about ahead. The rest of the record is not as achieved (Except maybe this) but one can hear the vision shaping up.

The year after, and those of us who make records on deadlines realize how involved that can be, especially pre-digital technology, Bowie gave us this:

Starting with an 8 min song (drums in stereo, yes sir) and going to experimental stuff like "All The Madmen" (seems it came right out of "Uncle Arthur" with more drugs and less corduroy, doesn't it?)

Check out the drastic change of presence in the drums on "Black Country Rock":

And the downright modern bass drum sound on "She Shook Me Cold".

All and all, 1970 was the year of Led Zeppelin and most of the songs on Bowie's third record went in that direction, albeit with his touch, except in my opinion, for this gem "The Man Who Sold The World"

It is the "Space Oddity" of that record. It sounds like they were supposed to be on the same record.

Check out the wild production tricks like phasers on vocals, uber fat ultra loud bass, reverb drenched Farfisa organs, crazy multitracked choirs. It's pure Bowie. And the drums are on the right.

And then one year (!) later, 1971, this:

And that's how a legend in made. Three completely exceptional songs three years in a row. Bowie could have stopped there and made a lasting impact on music.

Simple instrumentation and clean non-wacky production but the song is 100% Bowie and no-one could do anything like it after it without being branded a copycat. Notice the switch to the piano over guitar as the main instrument on a big chunk the record. And the drums are on the right.

Great song after great song, this is also one of my personal favorites even though it sounds like it was mixed by the piano player:

Keep "Sell Me A Coat" in mind and feel the continuity and evolution of his songwriting, love the delay on the snare too.

Speaking of ahead of its time. Play this intro to someone and ask them which year it was made in:

Isn't that awesome?

And then a year later because, you know, he could:

Back to guitars, characters and theater.

And this:

You can hear Elton John, Brian May, Led Zeppelin and other timely influences but mostly you can hear Bowie being completely unique.

Notice the incredible differences in tone from song to song on records of that era. They often mixed songs rapidly at the end of a tracking session with no references to what yesterday's mix sounded like. And, sometimes, they were not 100% conscious too.

And then a year later, 1973, not one but TWO full albums:

Aladdin Sane is more known for its cover art than for the songs on it, except maybe this one:

PinUps sounds markedly better but the songs don't have Bowie's particular touch. They sound like Bowie, they look like Bowie, but they don't feel like Bowie to me.

In my opinion (and I share it mostly with myself) besides "The Jean Genie", these records feel like really good discarded tracks from The Ziggy Stardust album. Could this be it? Was Bowie losing his magic vision for reinvention?

Nope. Not even close.

Being a big George Orwell fanatic, I'm particularly enamored with Diamond Dogs. Which was released, yes, a year later, 1974.

The whole record is worth checking out but you'll know this track:

If you can find the original master go for that. The 1999 master has a 3kHz push that definitely should not be there. Diamond Dogs is more of a deep cut lyric based album though.

Bowie was getting ready for this, guess what, a year later 1975:

Notice the amazing feature by none other that the second coming of Jesus Saxophone Christ: David Sanborn. I can't imagine what it was like for Bowie who is an alto player himself (remember "Space Oddity") to have Sanborn play on one of his songs.

Also notice the insanely out of tune guitar on the breakdown. Do you think that would fly today?

On this record, Bowie left the experimental rock and folk influences behind for good. Lots of gospel style choirs, lots of funk and 70's R&B.

And then, then, then there is THIS:

Enough said.

And then (a year later, 1976):

By the way, here's a version remastered in 1999:

Which do you like best?

Let me rephrase: Which do you like best when you listen at matched levels?

You should also check out the 10+ min "Station to Station".

And then, because he had extra free time on his hands, in 1977, Bowie released not one but two classics: Low and Heroes.

Of course you know this:

And this is very ahead of its time don't you think:

Sounds like something someone wearing a t-shirt with a sarcastic self-deprecating message made it in Brooklyn, in a coffee shop, last week, in Ableton Live on their laptop, while updating their many statuses (while drinking a cold brew coffee of course).

Except Bowie and Tony Visconti had a tape machine. And I feel they were drinking more than coffee. And the label put it out. And we still listen to it to this day.

Listen to it + "Moss Garden" + "Neukoln" in a row with the lights out.

Much has been discussed about the snare sound on "Low", check this out:

Made a lot of money for Eventide. Remember, no samples. Live drums. 1977.

When did David Bowie sleep? Where did the input come from? (Because that's a lot of output. Even Prince could not release an album a year for so long and stay fresh and keep thing moving)

I'm going to be honest. I have a couple dark Bowie periods. There is a suite of records I can't get with. I feel bad about it because as a fan I'm supposed to like everything Bowie did. But I don't.

1979 Lodger, 1980 Scary Monsters (Except for this which is absolute genius and will never get old), 1984 Tonight, 1986 Labyrinth, 1987 Never Let Me Down, 1993 Black Tie White Noise, 1993 Buddha of Suburbia, 1995 Outside, 1999 Hours (the bottom on this one is quite good though), 2002 Heathen, 2003 Reality.

I will forever live in shame but it is what it is. I never feel like listening to those records. If someone can help me see the value that I am missing in those songs, please send me a detailed postcard, I'm eager to learn. I feel Bowie also felt stuck, otherwise why Tin Machine?

BUT there are two albums that just are so amazingly good that I can only think of them as two big solid blocks of music.

1984 Let's Dance:

Just listen to the whole thing. Do it. It's perfect. Nile Rogers at his peak, even better than with Chic, which no one (no one in my chair) thought would be possible.

The 1999 remastered version hurts my teeth but it's what we got to share with you so wear a mouthguard and enjoy the writing, the production, the singing, everything. And Bowie plays alto again so it's all worth it.

In my opinion Let's Dance was so miraculously perfect that it hampered Bowie's ability to do anything else as good until the late 1990s (hence the dark period #2 in my book).

But then:

1997 Earthling

At the time it was impossible to do something like this. At least to me. I was making really intricate and complicated records with lots of layers, all with 1999 technology. When Earthling came out, I had to go lie down for a moment. It does not SOUND great to me (it's fine, just not great) but the production is so ridiculously ahead of its time (again) and the writing, the singing, everything. It's 1970s Bowie with modern tones and absolute freedom of movement again. 9 perfect tracks, no compromise, no apologies, no single. Except this maybe:

Definitely not Top 40 material but catchy as hell.

So here we are. Today.

Due to crazy schedule constraints and being forced to making more music than listening to it, I sadly did not notice this came out when it did:

I won't talk about it because I'm not familiar enough with it to be of use here. Maybe in a while after we are all done digesting this:

2016: Blackstar

Every morning before the day starts, I sit at my mixing position and I listen to something new. It helps stay out of one's own head and be inspired to try new stuff.

I was listening to Blackstar the morning of Jan 10th, the day he died just before I got the news, and I remember thinking that it reminded me of Mozart's Requiem. For no good reason. A very odd feeling for a piece of modern music.

And then I heard. And then I had to stop listening. Check out the lyrics on "Lazarus". Where does one find the energy to walk to the studio in NYC and do this when you know you're done? How many of us would stay in bed or go somewhere beautiful on the planet and look at the sunset or?

Nope, Bowie went to the studio down the street and made a 27th album. Amazing.

Blackstar is thick and lush, it's sad and hard to listen to, but it's wonderful and I think I hear David play alto on some tracks. What could be better?

Fab Dupont