Rose Elinor Dougall: Stellular review (2017)

Bigger, better, more beautiful – it’s the perfect second album, and well worth the wait.

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Rose Elinor Dougall’s new, appropriately titled album Stellular is spectacularly great. Honestly, it’s the best extended pop rush I have heard in absolutely ages. You know when you’re worried that you might actually be playing a particular album (or song) too much and end up not liking it (it’s happened before, I just don’t know when to quit!), so you actually consider refraining from putting it on? Right now that’s how I feel about this album. I’m not going to stop listening to it though – I’ve had the bloomin’ thing on rotation these last few weeks and I bloody love it! Frankly, Stellular is an embarrassment of riches – there are so many joyous, sad, exciting and dazzling moments, with far too many to list here, but I’ll do my best.

Ever since departing The Pipettes around a decade ago, Dougall has slowly but steadily been delivering all kinds of musical and vocal treasures, such as on her debut Without Why (I mean, ‘Start/Stop/Synchro’ and ‘Fallen Over’? Wow!!) and the dazzling Future Vanishes EP, but this is a whole new level of special. The seaside town melancholia and melodic loveliness from before is still here, but there’s an even greater vivacity and confidence that is knock-you-off-your-feet stunning. I was partly reminded of David Holmes’ sorely underrated, oceanic pearl The Holy Pictures from 2008, as well as some early Felt (the Maurice Deebank years), a bit of motorik, but most importantly, this 1980’s essence that I can’t quite pin down. I’m not talking 80’s in the obvious sense, but something more spectral, difficult to grasp.

‘Colour of Water’ is a great primer for what’s to follow – dreamy vocals (Dougall’s thoroughly engaging and expressive voice is better than ever), sharp, hypnotic guitar hooks, gorgeous electronics, captivating lyrics and intoxicating production from Oli Bayston (aka Boxed In, who also duets with Dougall on ‘Dive’) that aims for the senses and gets ‘em tingling. First single ‘Stellular’ is magnificent – a delectable riff, icy/warm synths and an insistent groove all make for a serious adrenaline rush. ‘Constellations burn brighter’ indeed. ‘Closer’ is a sultry, tightly-coiled slice of pop that blends quotidian references to ‘shady pool halls’ with otherworldly, atmospheric musical touches. The album’s first out-and-out heartbreaker arrives in the form of the beautiful ‘Take Yourself With You’ (first released via Soundcloud back in late 2014 – how time has flown!), an impossibly moving and almost unbearably pretty lullaby of a tune, arguably Dougall’s sweetest confection to date. There are melodic changes in this song that are so stupidly wonderful that I’m likely to end up spluttering nonsense trying to put in words my precise admiration for it, so I’ll shut up.

So, we’re at that stage where the album’s going for a perfect run. Will it succeed?

Spoiler alertyes it will.

The dance-infused, instant satisfaction surprise of ‘All at Once’ is quite a swerve, delivering a stomping, funky treat with a seductive chorus, whip-crack beats and monster bassline (there’s some really fine bass on this record) – there’s a great extended remix of this on the Rough Trade exclusive bonus CD that plays out like a wonderful 80’s-era twelve-inch. Seek it out if you can. ‘Answer Me’ is an aching, towering ballad that swirls its way towards a truly ghostly, shivering conclusion. Some glorious piano and a terrific chorus on this one too. ‘Dive’ picks up the pace – serene but with a beat, it brilliantly conveys that feeling of being bowled over by a sheer panoramic scale of emotions.

What’s possibly the best song follows. Well, it’s my fave song at the moment. There’s a few others on this LP that are closing in. For the mo though, my #1 is the jolting ‘Hell and Back’ – it’s truly wrenching and intensely melancholic, yet head-dizzying and cathartic. The glorious ascension that is ‘Space to Be’ is tremulous but never overwrought, ascending melodic heights in its chorus and especially during its guitar-fuelled finale. The concluding ‘Wanderer’ is an exquisite love-letter that sees the album out in a lovely glimmer, and almost unfairly, the album’s over – gone in a moment, a deliriously fleeting, motion-blur experience, nicely encapsulated by the album’s artwork, a portrait of Dougall that catches her image twice.

Stellular hits the heart, pulse and feet in the way the best albums that first overwhelmed you as a teenager do. You may wonder where Dougall will go after this but don’t think about any of that at the mo. Right now, this is all you need. It’s a promise fulfilled and it’s right here, right now.

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David Bowie: The Gouster (1974)

Bowie’s ‘lost’ album – aka Young Americans: The First Attempt. It’s brilliant.

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The second in a series of box sets covering the career of David Bowie has just been released, and this time the focus is on ‘The American Years’ – that’s Diamond Dogs, David Live, Young Americans and Station to Station, a formidable selection of albums I’m sure you’ll agree. Well, maybe not David Live – appreciation for that album is mixed to say the least. We also get the Station-era Nassau ‘76 gig that was doing the bootleg rounds for years and which finally got an official release when Station was re-re-re-released in 2010. The 2005 remix and re-edit of David Live accompanies the original version, and there’s also a new fold-down of the 5.1 remix of Station by original producer Harry Maslin, which, on first listen, is not something I’m keen on at all (turn those drums down!)

The main selling point of the box set however, has been the inclusion of The Gouster, an embryonic version of Young Americans that was well on the way to being the follow-up to Diamond Dogs before Bowie scrapped it. One of the reasons for it being dropped was that it was ‘too personal’, but the arrival of John Lennon on the scene also sealed The Gouster’s fate when the immortal ‘Fame’ and not-so immortal (but still pretty damned good) cover of ‘Across the Universe’ (g)ousted the likes of ‘It’s Gonna Be Me’ and ‘Who Can I Be Now?’, as well as a radical re-working of ‘John, I’m Only Dancing’, off the playlist. In addition to some of the remaining tracks being jiggled around and re-recorded/remixed, we got the mighty likes of ‘Win’ and ‘Fascination’, and the result was Young Americans.

A long time ago, I was somewhat ambivalent towards Young Americans – along with Lodger, I severely underrated these two albums. No more. It’s a beautiful, funky, dazzling work, and a seriously exciting one when you consider the kind of musical swerve Bowie was making at the time- true, there were hints of the soul and funk direction to come on Diamond Dogs songs like ‘Rock and Roll with Me’ and ‘1984’, as well as the covers of ‘Knock on Wood’ and ‘Here Today, Gone Tomorrow’ on David Live, but this is as far from glam and Ziggy as imaginable. It’s also one of the most amazing Bowie albums in regards to vocals – his singing here is outstanding, and difficult to try and resist belting along with.

So what of The Gouster? Well, when its release was announced, and was somewhat misleadingly reported as a ‘lost’ album, it wasn’t long before fans made the quite understandable point that none of The Gouster was unheard as such – ‘It’s Gonna Be Me’ and ‘Who Can I Be Now?’ had already been released as bonus tracks on Rykodisc’s 1991 CD edition of Young Americans, while ‘John, I’m Only Dancing (Again)’ had been available since 1979. It was noted that you could quite easily compile your own Gouster if you already had the extra songs, which were still available digitally as part of the 2007 edition of Young Americans. However, it soon became apparent that said suggested compilations wouldn’t be quite the same as the version of The Gouster that was due to come out. ‘It’s Gonna Be Me’ would be the version without added strings, only available on the long-deleted Ryko CD. ‘Somebody Up There Likes Me’, ‘Right’ and ‘Can You Hear Me’ would be earlier versions, previously only available in sub-par quality bootleg form. Therefore it was too soon to start banging on about how this so-called lost album wasn’t really that elusive after all. In fact, the only identical link between The Gouster and the original Young Americans was the title song itself.

Still with me? Oh yes, let’s not forget the complaints from fans that not everything recorded around that time was going to be included, such as ‘After Today’ (which was released on 1990’s Sound and Vision box set) ‘Shilling the Rubes’, ‘I am a Lazer’ (which would be recycled for ‘Scream Like a Baby’ on Scary Monsters) and ‘The Gouster’ itself. It’s possible these songs were never seriously considered for inclusion on The Gouster (title tracks don’t necessarily ensure a place on an album, as Led Zeppelin fans will know). The previous Bowie box set, Five Years, had made a point of only including stuff officially released at the time, which meant no stuff like ‘Bombers’ or ‘Sweet Head’, so we all expected the absence of ‘Rubes’, ‘Lazer’, ‘The Gouster’ and the like on Box Set #2 too. Therefore it came as a surprise that The Gouster was going to be included, considering it was never released at the time.

Yet here it is, and although lots of us over the last few months could already imagine how The Gouster would sound like because we knew the tracks in some form or another, it was with excitement that I sat down to listen to it properly. How would it compare to the LP that replaced it, how would it flow, and what would it feel like hearing ‘Young Americans’ right near the end of the album instead of at the beginning?

Well, kicking off with the disco-funk re-recording of ‘John, I’m Only Dancing’ couldn’t be a more obvious heralding of a new direction – admittedly the idea of taking an older hit single and re-doing it to fit in with the new sounds of the time could seem a bit desperate, a bit lacking in ideas, maybe? Remember when The Beach Boys took a great little bit of R&B from their Wild Honey album called ‘Here Comes the Night’ and turned it into a ten-minute disco monster ten years later? No? Remember when Neil Young turned ‘Mr. Soul’ into a gloopy synth remake? Or what about when you get a greatest hits album and there’s the artist’s biggest hit has been given a new remix or -shudder- a re-recording? Kate Bush’s The Whole Story would have been a lot better if she’d just stuck with the original ‘Wuthering Heights’. Same goes for The Police’s ‘Don’t Stand So Close to Me ‘86’ from their Every Breath You Take compilation. What were they thinking?

However, as a reworking and an opening statement of intent, ‘John, I’m Only Dancing (Again) is mightily impressive– Bowie has well and truly become someone new, everything is in its right place, it all clicks and struts and funks immaculately. It’s not just a straight-up funk cover though – aside from the chorus, the words are all new, and the it’s about three times as long as the original. It’s not as good as either of the original ‘Johns’ though, but what can you do? It totally succeeds as an example of the Gouster sound. Bowie is saying, that was then, this is now. Hearing it in the context of an album also does it many favours – before I’d just regarded it as a bit of a throwaway, something Bowie himself wasn’t bothered about, given that it wasn’t officially released until 1979, by which time he had well and truly moved on musically. Here it sounds far more substantial.

The epic ‘Somebody Up There Likes Me’ follows, and this is what I had always hoped it sound like ever since I’d heard The Gouster would feature a different version – I’d heard this take as a bootleg, and it is so, so, so much better than the already excellent Young Americans version. Why? It’s that guitar. That gorgeous, simple, languid and smoky guitar hook that you could almost make out underneath the layer of electronic keyboards on the album mix is now upfront and it’s a thing to savour. ‘It’s Gonna Be Me’ is gorgeous, one of Bowie’s loveliest ballads, wonderfully sung – it’s quite an intimate experience and one of the most naked, least adorned songs from this era. The version with the strings as a bonus track on the 2007 edition of Young Americans is more epic and sweeping (and is in more in keeping with the more embellished, commercial feel of the released LP), but this earlier mix remains one of Bowie’s most convincing and heartfelt soul songs. There’s a bit near the end where the music pares down and it’s just Bowie’s voice, and it’s one of the most heart-stopping, beautiful moments in any song of his, ever.

The glorious ‘Who Can I Be Now?’, which gave the new box set its name, is a stirring, powerful ballad – that a song this good was held back beggars belief. The chorus in particular is brilliant – real goosebumps stuff. I can only imagine how delirious with happiness Bowie fans were when this and ‘It’s Gonna Be Me’ were first made available in 1991. Like ‘Sweet Head’ on the Ziggy reissue of that time, the realisation that these brilliant songs had been MIA for so long was revelatory. A different take of ‘Can You Hear Me’ follows next, less bombastic. Is it better than the YA version? I can’t decide. I like the gentler, more intimate delivery of this version, but it’s difficult not to surrender to the oomph of the more familiar take, especially when it kicks in the way it does at the start, and I’ve always loved the a cappella ending, which isn’t present on The Gouster. The always-welcome ‘Young Americans’, a remarkable, powerhouse song full of pleasures, treasures and killer hooks, is the same version as the one we all know and love, although there have been reports of different track lengths between the Gouster and YA versions on the new box set. From the streamed version I heard online, I can’t tell any difference between this and the one I’ve been listening to for years. What I do know for sure is that’s it’s strange to hear it this late into the album – to be fair, it would have made a better closer but I suppose we needed a bit of oomph to pick the LP up after a run of ballads. I do think though that the alternate ‘Right’, which closes this album, would have been a better penultimate track. The song, which fitted perfectly at the end of YA’s side one, feels ever-so slightly anti-climactic as The Gouster’s finale, and it doesn’t help that this version isn’t as quite good as the Young Americans take – it just isn’t as refined or tight, and the whole thing sounds a bit muddier (especially when it comes to Bowie’s vocals), but it’s a fine alternative. The ‘wishing’ vocal breakdown a third of the way in doesn’t have as cool a guitar accompaniment, and overall it feels more obviously demo-ish than the other two early versions featured here, but it’s still a delectable performance, and I love it.

Is The Gouster better than Young Americans? No. Is it worse? No. These are equal works- sibling albums, recognisably related, both excellent, though I think Bowie made the right choice in released the album we did end up with. It feels more substantial. Okay, having the fine but inferior ‘Across the Universe’ at the expense of ‘It’s Gonna Be Me’ and ‘Who Can I Be Now?’ remains a baffling error of judgement, and adding those keyboards to ‘Somebody Up There Likes Me’ was a mistake, but we did end up with the utterly spine-tingling ‘Win’, the super-funky ‘Fascination’ and the immortal ‘Fame’, which are full-on Bowie classics all the way. I also think that Young Americans is a better structured album than The Gouster, but the latter is nevertheless a pleasure all the way, and I’ve been listening the hell out of it this weekend. It’s a very welcome addition to the Bowie canon. Additionally, not including ‘Rubes’, ‘Lazer’ and the like doesn’t bother me in this specific case as this The Gouster represents the tracklisting of an actual proposed album and is not a compilation of odds and ends from the era. True, it would be nice if these Bowie box sets had a disc of unreleased tracks to gather up all the lost stuff, but that’s another argument…

Of course, you could compile the ultimate combination mixtape from the two albums, a Young Gouster from America album if you so wished…

RIP David Bowie: A Look at the ‘Berlin Trilogy’

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Low. “Heroes”. Lodger.

Three albums so good that it’s easy to forget that David Bowie had already made three or four or five absolute masterpieces before them. He had hit so many peaks during those golden years of 1970-1980 that he seemed virtually untouchable. I’d hate to think that we’ll never get another artist of the likes of Bowie in the near future, but it does seem such a difficult proposition. His musical legacy is a frighteningly brilliant one, and he’s likely to remain my all-time musical hero. Out of all his wonderful music, it’s what’s often been referred to as The Berlin Trilogy that has got to me the deepest.

I was wondering, did David Bowie himself ever call his masterful run of studio albums from 1977-1979 ‘The Berlin Trilogy’? Critics and fans do so, but given that only one of the three LPs – the middle one – was actually recorded in the capital means its a rather misleading title. Some of Low was recorded in France and Lodger was recorded in Switzerland and the US. Another title that’s been applied is ‘The Eno Trilogy’, but this is totally misleading, as it makes it out like Bowie and Eno were the only collaborators on these albums, which sorely downplays the achievements of producer Tony Visconti (Eno was never the producer), Bowie’s killer band, as well as guest guitarists Robert Fripp, Adrian Belew and Ricky Gardiner. How about we call it the ‘European Trilogy’? Yeah? Yeah?

No?

Oh well. Actually, even lumping them as a trilogy never does Lodger any favours. It always sets that splendid album up for a fall when you listen to it after Low and “Heroes”, because even though it shares its predecessors spirit of experimentation and adventure, it doesn’t have, you know… any of those instrumentals on the second side that we loved. None of it was ambient. It always feels like the odd one out, but if you don’t think much of it on first listen, please, please stick with it. I listened to the trilogy out of sequence – of the three, “Heroes” was simply the only one I could get my hands on at the time. The other two came later.

I was lucky enough to have the music and presence of Bowie instilled in me from a young age, and a fair enough spectrum it was too. Earliest examples I can think of are Labyrinth (so that’s any prejudice I might have had towards the 80’s stuff halfway-tamed already), the ‘China Girl’ 7” that was in our house (ditto) and little incidental moments that affected me, like being too scared to watch the Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars concert late one night on BBC1 because I though there might be real, huge arachnids on stage.

Most impressive of all though, was the awareness that my aunt and uncle had a David Bowie record collection. Their LP stash was infinitely better than anything we had at home, and as I moved further into my teens I was keen to investigate. However, vinyl was a sacred, fragile, scary thing back then, and it was both unofficially agreed betweeen me and my uncle and I that wasn’t to touch the LPs, so it was cassettes for me. One Bowie album that was available on chrome tape rather than vinyl was a copy of “Heroes”, and I went for this one because of, unsurprisingly, the title song. It was one of Bowie’s hits that had already broken through to my consciousness, and this was back in the day when there was no rhyme or reason to my Bowie knowledge. For example, I assumed that since 1980’s ‘Ashes to Ashes’ namedropped Major Tom, then it must have come out the same time as ‘Space Oddity’ eleven years earlier.

However, unlike the glammier stuff I knew like ‘Changes’ or ‘Starman’, “Heroes” didn’t feel so obviously rooted in the past – you know, clearly from the early seventies. It felt alien and futuristic, strangely contemporary, which wasn’t surprising given its second wind of popularity in the 90’s as an Elder Statesman’s Classic, occasionally and incongruously blended into the tracklisting of various Best Anthems Ever compilations of the time amongst all the Blurs and Oasises (or Oases, if you want to get all grammatical an’ shit). It still felt new. In fact, it felt more fresh and exciting than most of the Britpop stuff on all those contemporary mixtapes.

This was the first instance of me finding music of the past more interesting than the music of now, something I’ve still found difficult to shake. Why waste my time with the charts of the late nineties when the past had this much good stuff to offer? Now before hearing the album, the only version of “Heroes” that I knew of was its single edit, which is a whopping three minutes shorter, but at the time I didn’t know what I was missing. Even at only three minutes the song is a classic, but without the build-up of those lost verses, Bowie’s escalated vocals seem a bit too-much, too-soon, though this was an opinion I only formed in retrospect.

What is it about this song? I mean, the most obvious thing is that it’s beautiful. Direct, yet mysterious. Accessible, yet original, and even experimental. On the surface it’s a great, anthemic, sing-a-long classic, yet listen here, there and everywhere. Over it’s six minutes we have a suspended, distilled aura of pure liquid sound. It’s difficult to know where one instrument starts and the other one ends. It’s a warm caress of swirling, dreamy, sensuousness, a gleaming, gorgeous spacecraft of a song, bursting at the seams with emotional power. For many it’s the man’s peak, and when I’m in the mood, it may very well be true for me as well. I must say though that these days I do miss the time when the song was all it was, and by that I mean when there were no cover versions by Bob Dylan’s son, Oasis or X-Factor contestants. Back when it wasn’t being used in adverts. Or in a film. Back then, “Heroes” the song was it and only it for me, and it was a beautiful thing. It still is, but you know how some people can’t bear “Stairway to Heaven” anymore? Well, I still love “Heroes”, but it’s not as pure for me now as it was then. Except when it catches me unawares, and then it’s just like the first time.

The problem with the brilliance of “Heroes” the song is that for a while I didn’t bother with the rest of the album once I had acquired it. I just rewound back to the title track every time and listened to it over and over again. I was so taken by those dense, dreamy layers of synthesisers, the yearn and passion of the vocals and the striking imagery that I was afraid that the rest of album wouldn’t match it. So I’d keep rewinding “Heroes” over and over again. By sheer clumsy rewind technique, I’d always end up hearing the end of track 2 – ‘Joe the Lion’ – fading out before the main feature, and that song sounded nothing like “Heroes”. It sounded like a right old mess, to be honest, so I didn’t investigate further.

Then one day it happened. I can’t remember the specifics, but I listened to the whole thing in my bedroom, and it was my first ever instance of listening to an ‘old’ album all the way through. Until then I had only listened to new stuff, chiefly the music commonly referred to (now often pejoratively) as Britpop, but it turned out that the future of my musical pleasure lay in the past. What’s great about ‘Heroes’ is that the title song, whilst a centrepiece, is definitely not representative of the album as a whole. The album is quite a twisted kaleidoscope of pop turned inside out and then given a drink or three.. well at least for the first half anyway. The first two songs, while rarely rated in the higher echelons of the Bowie canon, are nevertheless quite delightfully mad, off-the-chain pop nuggets, way more unhinged and mad-robotic than anything else I’d ever heard by the man. ‘Beauty and the Beast’ chugs and splutters along thrillingly with its mechanised groove, beginning with what sounds like a android’s main processor being turned on, but get this – the android’s malfunctioning a bit, in fact it might be a little bit crazy. However, the rest of the band are too scared to go near it or piss it off, so it’s best that they just play, and maybe play a little bit crazy too, just to settle the machine down. Appropriately, given that this is the only true Berlin-based album, the backing vocals sound like ghoulishly decadent German cabaret – listen to the way they sing ‘daaahling’, it’s almost like a pantomime vampire troupe.

‘Joe the Lion’ is stupid crazy – partly, it’s about a pissed-out-of-his-nut man offering spiritual guidance to whoever will nail him to his car. This is based on an actual performance artist, Chris Burden, who really did this to himself. It begins with the album’s wild card, guest guitarist Robert Fripp, shredding the living shit out of his instrument. His introduction to the song will give anyone with a pulse an adrenaline rush– the rest of the band join in, and then Bowie comes in, sounding really drunk – I love hs vocals here. With the exception of the insane performance he gives on Scary Monsters‘ ‘It’s No Game (No.1)’, this album boasts some of his most mental singing. When he sings ‘this is the kiss off‘, it sounds like ‘this is a piss-up‘, which is utterly appropriate. When he sings ‘you’ll never know the real story’, it always makes me giggle, as does ‘you get up and SLEAH-EAP’. After that it’s “Heroes” itself, so let’s move on to ‘Sons of the Silent Age’, a wildly melodramatic song, a lot like the more theatrical Bowie of yore – and it wasn’t until a little later that I realised just how funny it was when a friend of mine started pissing himself laughing during the chorus. I guess it’s the way he sings ‘BAEEBY, BAEEEBY!’ in a totally unshackled and totally deranged manner, and then these backing vocals come in, singing ‘sons of sound, sons of sound’ like they were performing for a radio jingle. It’s so over the top and yet crammed with superb lyrics that even though it’s arguably the album’s weakest track, it’s still an utter pleasure. I keep meaning to find out what the hell all that ‘listen to Sam Therapy and King Dice’ malarkey means, though. One day.

But not today, cos ‘Blackout”s on. What the hell was Bowie taking during these sessions? He admits he’s under Japanese influence, and I can only imagine unquantifiable amounts of booze. This shit is wild. ‘GET ME TO THE DOCTOR!!!!’ he pleads, followed by ‘GET ME AWF THE STREEEEEEETS!’, which may well be, hands down, the most ridiculous vocal delivery he has ever given. Fripp fripps his way through some fripping brilliant guitar frippery. It’s total guitar freak-out mode, but it isn’t fretwankery or anything muso like that – this is lightning strikes once-style madness. The rest of the band keep it all together, and there’s even a gloriously hooky middle stretch (before the ‘DOCTOR!’ bit) where a radio-friendly single might have been salvaged. Its presence in the middle of all this madness only makes it more wonderful. Side one of “Heroes” is amazing – live-wired, passionate, romantic, insane, but side two goes totally in the opposite direction and barely speaks a word. First up is a kind of in-road towards what will turn out to be another world entirely, made up of atmospherics and mood. The delightful ‘V-2 Schneider’ is a sedately groovy, vapour trail of a (near) instrumental, with militaristic drumming and some oh-so decadent saxophone – it still sounds totally fresh and strange, a real one-off.

The next three tracks are something else though. When I first heard this album, looking at the handwritten tracklisting on my borrowed cassette, I was trying to work out where one piece ended and one began, although to anyone with half a grain of common sense, it’s pretty obvious. But still, back then I wasn’t used to tracks so effortlessly blending into one another like this. They would normally fade out or stop dead. A bit of silence, then the next track. But here, we had a fifteen minute or so stretch of uninterrupted music. And where was Bowie in all of this? Well, he was playing the sax, playing the koto, doing his thing – just not singing. I had never heard a Bowie song with no singing. Obviously, a song without singing isn’t really a song, but you get my drift, or at the very least are tolerating it. Thank you.

‘Sense of Doubt’ might seem a bit on the nose at first with those ‘DURM-DURM-DURM-DURRRRRRM’ piano notes, a hook that is NONE MORE DOOMY, so much that I almost laughed the first time I heard it, but the magnificent ambience seeps through, and the piece turns out to be fabulously moody. There’s a bit two thirds in when this melancholic synth creeps in and it’s absolutely beautiful. Still, if you thought that song was a little too lacking in melody, ‘Moss Garden’ will not be your cup of tea. It’s practically all atmosphere. Extremely pretty ambience. Bowie plucks away on his koto, and Eno infuses the air with his intoxicating synth mist. Wow, that sounded pretentious. Well, what I mean to say is that ‘Moss Garden’ sounds like its title. Maybe I should have just left it at that. It’s a very beautiful, relaxing piece, but prepare for a mood shift as the skies darken and ‘Neukoln’ drifts into view – this is a really bleak piece of work, really impressive, so atmospheric, and about as far away as average rock ‘n’ roll as it is possible for such a huge star. Bowie was really off away in his own orbit here, and his sax playing is deliberately atonal and scary. We know he can really play that thing – it was the first instrument he was given – but he’s using it to almost resemble a wounded, howling animal at the close of the track. It could have made for a really pessimistic ending to the album, but Bowie’s masterstroke is to end the album properly with ‘The Secret Life of Arabia’, which along with “Heroes” is the most mainstream thing here, a dazzling, exotic slice of ambient-tinged funk that glitters like a magic carpet over the sand dunes in the starry night. It’s also the second song on this album that features a reference to ‘one-inch thoughts’.

As first exposure to older albums go, “Heroes” set the bar outrageously high. It’s an established classic, yet it’s also far wilder and weirder than your average standard rock LP. It is original, artful, still-fresh and delightfully unpredictable. As an introduction to Bowie beyond the hits, it was a brilliant one, and I knew I wanted more. So, what next? Well, months later I borrowed a cassette from a good friend of mine which had Scary Monsters on one side and Low on the other. Scary Monsters is a brilliant album, but that’s for another piece. Back to Low.

Low.

Wow.

Wow. That word looks a bit like Low, doesn’t it? There’s only single differing letter, but I guess it doesn’t sound the same, so let’s move on. Yeah, move on, move on. Bowie was well and truly moving on with this album, the most astonishing step forward he had ever and would ever make. Incidentally, Bowie would record a song called ‘Move On’ a couple of albums later, and that was brilliant too, but it’s not on Low, which may very well be my absolute favourite thing by our man ever. Now that’s a stupid thing to say, because tomorrow it might be Station, or Heroes, or Scary Monsters, or Hunky Dory, or Never Let Me Dow

Woah woah woah, let’s not get stupidheaded here.

God, the likes of Tonight and Never Let Me Down seem so far very away from all of this. All of this. All this depression, burn-out and anxiety, admittedly, but it did inspire the man to create some amazing music. Like I said, wow. So in a nutshell, Bowie had been wiped out and driven essentially mad by years of success topped with years of drug abuse, paranoia and a very, very bad diet – escape was necessary. Plus, he said, he didn’t want to be another LA success and end up being the next Rod Stewart or something. So it’s off to Berlin we go, along with Iggy Pop, and there they’d rest, recuperate and make a few albums that would only, oh… I don’t know, go and change the future of everything and all that. Iggy’s two records – The Idiot and Lust for Life – were written with Bowie, produced by him and are pretty bloody excellent. They were both released in 1977. Also in 1977, Bowie released Low and “Heroes”. I mean, HUH? That was a very good year.

Low is a strange album – everything is upfront and personal, yet as ‘confessional’ albums go, it’s one of the least straight-forward and most experimental you’ll ever hear. Gone is the grandeur, the spectacle, the excess, the overwhelming Bowie-ness of yore. Also, despite being part of a trilogy, and despite being often lumped together exclusively with “Heroes”, it shares little with that album except for a inclination for side 2 instrumentals. “Heroes” is insane, triggered, frenzied, overwhelming and bursting with energy. Low is drained, worried, paranoid, nervous and ill at ease. It’s probably one of the most naked Bowie albums of all – the album sounds futuristic, off-kilter, occasionally uncommercial, yet it also feels strangely comforting, like Bowie’s in the room with you. It has an intimacy, warmth and humanity not normally present with him. For me, it was like a cassette tape of secrets, a close-knit, emotional yet atmospheric, funny yet sad and funky yet amorphous experience. I think I heard it at the right time in my life – on the eve of a big shift in my life, the likes of ‘A New Career in a New Town’ was the soundtrack, and not just the track itself. It was my memory of the track, impossible to shake off. I was about to move away from home, and this song encapsulated all the fear, excitement, mystery and sadness that I was feeling.

The fragmented, scattered first side of Low might seem spotty and incomplete on first listen. It certainly felt that way to me. That Bowie didn’t sing on the first track wasn’t as shocking to me as it must have done to listeners back in ’77 (it was his first ever without vocals), as I’d already been exposed to his instrumental side on “Heroes”, and besides, the music on ‘Speed of Life’ is one of his most beguiling, catchy and exciting from this whole era. ‘Breaking Glass’ however, totally threw me on first listen. Definitely one of the leanest, sparsest things Bowie had ever recorded, it fades out before the two minute mark, as though someone had accidentally leant against the fader just when the song might have got going. That totally took me unawares – hey Dave, where’s the tune gone? I think I was almost pissed off at that. Definitely unsatisfied. The squiggly synth bubbles of ‘What in the World’ were also pretty striking. On first listen it sounded like a bit of a mess, frankly, like someone playing Pac-Man at hyperspeed. The vocals (that’s Iggy Pop in the background) are occasionally lairy and a little drunk sounding. Compared to the grandeur of “Heroes” and ‘Life on Mars’, this sounded like a pub band let loose on the house keyboard. Then there was ‘Sound and Vision’, one of Bowie’s least conventional hits, albeit one dressed up in a highly accessible tune – more than half of the song is musical build-up. I used to be a bit ambivalent towards this one, given that it was used in a Blockbuster Video advert here in the UK which only made it sound like a ad jingle. We don’t really get any straight-up normal songs until ‘Always Crashing in the Same Car’, which was an immediate success for me, as was the barrel-house piano of ‘Be My Wife’. Still, these two feel smaller, more insular than anything of similar note of previous Bowie albums. Finally there’s another instrumental to close side one, ‘A New Career in a New Town’, which was an immediate hit with me.

For all the out-thereness of side two, the fragmented first side of Low actually proved to be the slower success for me. Nearly all the tracks with vocals felt unfinished to me, whereas the instrumentals seemed fully-formed and they won me over immediately. They were and still are some of the most amazing instrumental music ever created, but we’ll delve into those later. Let’s stick with side one, listen to it again and skip to the moment where I loved it just as much as the second side. Upon listening further, I realised that the episodic nature of Low‘s first side is precisely the point, and it works so well. Soon enough its fragmented approach becomes a kind of genius – it keeps you on edge, never settling into a staid pattern. By fading in on the first track we almost feel like we’ve already missed a bit of the Low experience, and that potentially can put you at unease. Not to mention that its the only Bowie album not to begin with a piece featuring his vocals. ‘Speed of Life’ is utterly mesmeric – as one of the only tracks on side one that was an instant hit with me, its pleasures have never been an issue. It’s a hypnotic, groove-locked chug-fest, with fantastic synth layers and a band (amazing now to think it’s almost the same band as  the one on Station to Station) re-wired and re-programmed to deliver a funk that’s been roboticised and given a new circuitboard to operate from. As an instrumental it works because it doesn’t sound like a backing track – there is really nowhere for Bowie to place his vocals over, it’s a complete piece of itself. Even though its built on repetition, a few extra glimmers here and there stand out, like when the ‘chorus’ melody comes back after what I guess was the ‘verse’, and there’s just this little extra dreaminess to the synth-line that just sends quivers down me. It sounds like the future. I’d like to think it was this little moment that made all the New Romantics go giddy with pleasure and save up money to buy a KORG. Another bit is when the ‘chorus’ comes back for its last run, and the bass just has that little extra ooomph. Gary Numan must have heard and loved that bit, right?

‘Breaking Glass’ sounds incomplete because it is about a fractured psyche – ending it so early befits its unresolved tension. It’s also as coldly funky as an ice cube down the back whilst on the dancefloor. It sounds so rigid, but it’s also bursting to cut loose, and is kind of brilliant. When it was given more time to breathe, get funky and make clear its point, like on the live version on Stage (actually a really entertaining, lively take), its extensions felt somewhat redundant. ‘What in the World’ is hilarious yet chilling – ‘what are you gonna say to the real me?’ is one of Bowie’s more mysterious questions/warnings. ‘Sound and Vision’ has persevered with me and it’s utterly fantastic. It’s amazing to think that such a chirpy, happy sounding song that did really well in the charts has some pretty bleak lyrics, of which ‘pale blinds drawn all day/nothing to think, nothing to say’ is one of the more striking couplets. ‘Always Crashing in the Same Car’ is drenched in a thick fog of synths – it’s a total wooze, dreamy, swirling and utterly fatigued. It’s full of resignation, yet there’s something romantic about it too. ‘Be My Wife’ is the first side’s most instantly melodic charmer, a simple, plaintive call for companionship sung from the point-of-view of the perennial traveller (‘I’ve been all over the world/I’ve left every place’ is a lyric that looks forward to Lodger’s restless first side), boosted by an insistent piano hook, utterly charming vocals (Bowie has rarely sounded so naked and pleading here, but not in an overwrought way, just in a simple way that befits the straight-up proposal of the title) and, outside of the song itself, in that lovely video that has our man sing to us in a stark white room. ‘A New Career in a New Town’ has the same kind of Geiger counter beat that Kraftwerk pioneered a few years earlier and is a wonderful instrumental that, as has been often noted, succeeds in sounding optimistic and nostalgic, happy and sad, with gorgeous harmonica throughout. Its placing on the end of the first side prepares us for the great journey we are about to take on the other side.

The second side of Low is held in such regard that  for many it’s pretty much the Second Side of Abbey Road for the seventies. ‘Warszawa’ is hands down the most moving and otherworldly piece of music Bowie has ever (co)created. It sounds desolate, yet also deeply comforting – not for nothing has it been used to score film scenes of both lonesomeness (Christiane F.) and intimacy (Control). Low‘s second side is arguably the furthest Bowie ever set foot outside of the mainstream, at least for such an extended stretch of album time. ‘Warszawa’ has devastatingly sad melodic changes, evoking the dignified, regal air of a state funeral. It is definitely in my Top 10 Bowie tracks of all time. ‘Art Decade’ is altogether more tranquil, and despite the air of eeriness, is almost blissful – it sounds like a navigation through an ancient museum somewhere in the depths of Atlantis, but that could just be me. With its bubbling, flickering waves of synth, it’s a strangely becalming piece, almost like meditation music, but not as bland-sounding as that. ‘Weeping Wall’ is a lot more disconcerting, an askance, creepy piece that could almost act as an alternative soundtrack to the video for ‘Look Back in Anger’, where Bowie slowly goes mad whilst transforming, Dorian Gray style, into the visage of his own portrait. It also sounds like horror movie music, the Italian giallo kind that goes for deep unease rather than outright fright. ‘Subterraneans’ is one of the sparest, quietest and saddest finales of any album – it has a vague travelogue feel to it, as though we’re travelling down autobahns in the middle of the night, with barely another car to drive past. Lonely saxophone (the only thing on this piece that grounds it with the presence of a human participating – that and the spare vocals at the end), flickering, nocturnal guitars and Bowie’s ‘failing star’ lyric all combine to suggest something is dying, yet it’s almost like there’s light at the end of the tunnel, as there might be something on the other side? Who knows? It really sounds like a step into utterly mysterious darkness, like what Major Tom might have encountered after transmission had been cut and he decided to venture off into space with only himself company to discover what lies beyond. No one else will know what he sees. Just him, but who can he share his sights with?

Low‘s second side is a remarkable achievement, and even more so when you consider it came from a man who’d already performed amazing things, and would continue to do so. Put together with its fantastic, off-kilter first side, and we have an outstanding work. For most artists, Low alone could be considered more than enough to elevate them to the pantheon of genius – for Bowie it is just one of many classics. Speaking personally, it might very well be his absolute classic.

Such was the power of Low and “Heroes”, not to mention the brilliance of other albums I would hear since, that Bowie was swiftly becoming my hero. Of course I was taking in so much other music at the time as well, so it wasn’t like I was just into him and him only. Yet the sheer volume of brilliant music from just this one man, meant that he would be a regular fixture in my listening habits, and thanks to a helpful 1999 reissue of his output from 1969’s David Bowie (aka Space Oddity) to 1988’s Tin Machine, all those albums were ready for me to buy and devour. I went about my acquisition of the Bowie catalogue with no real rhyme or reason – it certainly wasn’t without consideration for my wallet however. I wasn’t going to buy everything. I had heard that Tonight, Never Let Me Down and Tin Machine were distinctly below-par, so they wouldn’t be listened to for years to come, but others were swiftly purchased – Scary Monsters would be next up as I had already heard it on the flipside to that taped copy of Low, and soon the likes of Station to Station, Diamond Dogs, Young Americans, Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane would be gleefully devoured. Actually, I shouldn’t forget Let’s Dance, which, whilst not as uniquely brilliant as its predecessors, is still a mostly fantastic slab of utterly commercial 80’s pop that I’ll always have time for.

As for the third instalment of our trilogy, the still relatively neglected Lodger, I was wary of listening to it for a while – I used to take music magazine reviews awfully serious in my teens, and when I read a Q retrospective to commemorate the 1999 reissue campaign, I noticed that the album got a paltry two stars. Before hearing Lodger all I knew were the three big songs – ‘DJ’, ‘Boys Keep Swinging’ and ‘Look Back in Anger’ – as I’d seen the promos on the VHS Video Collection – ‘DJ’ was cool, ‘Boys Keep Swinging’ was hilariously super-catchy and ‘Look Back in Anger’ was proving to be one of the best Bowie songs I had ever heard. In the end I took the gamble and bought it (the same day I bought The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, incidentally) because in the end it was Bowie, and any album with those three songs has to have something going for it. One thing I vaguely remember was being ill in bed when I first listened to it.

Bloody hell, never listen to albums for the first time when you’re bed-ridden. There’s a good chance that music will forever be associated with being sick. I can’t listen to Tori Amos’ ‘Cornflake Girl’ without feeling queasy because it was always on the telly or radio when I had the cold sweats and shivers back when I was thirteen or so. One thing I’d end up hearing about Lodger was that not everyone was really happy with it, and that its sound was often referred to as ‘muddy’. I think the word I was thinking of at the time was…. queasy? Occasionally there are violins that sound warped, almost diseased, like on ‘DJ’ and for a few seconds in ‘Repetition’. ‘African Night Flight’ is a head rush, almost dizzying, discomforting. Adrian Belew’s guitar playing throughout the album is deliberately atonal and aggressive. Even the nicer songs have a kind of foggy, hazy sound to them, like the bookending tracks.

God, I was harsh on this album ages ago. Lumping it in with Low and “Heroes” didn’t do it many favours. Aside from the same spirit of experimentalism and occasional Euro-influence, it’s mostly a very different kind of animal than its two predecessors. The most obvious one is that there are no instrumentals, which made up for a chunk of what made the last two special. And while Low and “Heroes” flowed beautifully and were neatly divided into distinctive sides, Lodger is all over the place. All the singles are on the second side. Songs just kind of fade out or go off into messy, jammy endings, but while I had come to accept it in a song like ‘Breaking Glass’, which ended early and had some kind of brutal point to it being so short, the surprisingly early finish of a would-be blockbuster like ‘Fantastic Voyage’ seemed even more perverse than anything before. As for the messy ends, they’re there on ‘Red Sails’ and ‘Boys Keep Swinging’, the latter of which even closes with all the band switching instruments for extra chaotic effect! Pretty much all ten songs on Lodger don’t really gel with each other – exceptions being the vague travelling lyrical theme on the first side, and the duplicate melodies on ‘Fantastic Voyage’ and ‘Boys Keep Swinging’.

In addition to accusations of muddiness, extra criticisms was that the band sounded bored, the tone was listless… all in all, not really an exciting proposition. And while Lodger is many, many wonderful things, one thing I didn’t get from it at the time was warmth, and when I was listening to it ill in bed, far from my childhood home and wanting something to pull close to my heart, it didn’t do it for me. ‘African Night Flight’ was just a racket. ‘Yassassin’ was just plain goofy. ‘Move On’ didn’t move me. ‘Repetition’ was interesting and dark, but fizzled out, felt too slight. Same with ‘Red Money’. I liked ‘DJ’ but I didn’t love it. Only ‘Boys Keep Swinging’ before it all goes sloppy and the whole of ‘Look Back in Anger’ were winners for me, and given that I had all those other Bowie albums, not to mention other albums (remember, I had bought Pet Sounds that same day), and well, Lodger kind of just fell by the wayside.

But it would come back to get me.

Lodger is a classic.

I mean, yeah, it’s all loose and sloppy, but its ramshackleness soon turns out to be a real virtue. Lodger is versatile, constantly surprising and really, really enjoyable. Almost all the songs are killer, so who cares if they don’t flow as neatly as other Bowie albums have? Fair enough, ‘Fantastic Voyage’ might have done with a middle-eight and an extra chorus to give it some weight, but neither are here, and what is here is quite splendid. Maybe fading out early gives the song some kind of transient beauty, I suppose? It’s a strong, sweeping ballad, quite beautifully sung in the choruses. It also sounds like Bowie is gearing himself back to normality – even though Lodger‘s a weird album, it also features Bowie stepping back into the mainstream – three of the songs had fantastic videos that signalled the future of MTV. ‘Fantastic Voyage’ also has an a less internalised subject matter – in this case war – that was not there on the impressionistic, personal world of the last two albums.

Okay, so far, so normal, but then ‘African Night Flight’ comes in, which is very experimental indeed. And I stagger to think that at one point I wasn’t enamoured with its track, for it is one of the most insanely brilliant, one-off songs Bowie has ever recorded. It sounds like Talking Heads’ ethno-rock in advance, the chanting vocals on the, er, I guess you could call it a chorus, are totally thrilling, Bowie’s rap-speak delivery is fantastic – just try to keep up! I’ve had a tendency to put this song on loop when I’m feeling particularly mad. It is a whirlwind of sounds, effects, words and imagery, and it is quite, quite fantastic. Again, why the hell did I never like ‘Move On’ so much? The galloping beat, the almost hilarious directness of the opening lines (‘Sometimes I feel the need to move on/So I pack a bag and move on’) and the backward sample of ‘All the Young Dudes’ is utterly genius, at once totally recognisable and yet alien and weird. It makes you want to get out there and see the world! Everybody sing – ‘whyaaaaayyyaaaiiiooooo/whyyeeiiiooohhhooooo’!! Bloody brilliant!

‘Yassassin’ is still properly silly to me, and if I had to list my least favourite song from any of the Berlin Trilogy, it would be this one, but it’s got a lazy, loping charm to it. To be honest, it’s the only song on the album that I only listen to within the context of the album, whereas ‘Red Sails’ was one track I did love in those early ambivalent Lodger days, even if I felt it kind of fizzled out near the end back then (not now, I love all of it). Now that I’ve come to adore what I’d recognise as the Neu! beat, I love all of the song. This is the most driving track on the first side of Lodger, and guitarist Adrian Belew really has a lot of fun here. ‘RED SAILS!!!’ Bowie yells, like he’s Errol Flynn leading his hearties out to battle. The synths reach a kind of glorious blue horizon peak two-thirds in, and then Bowie sings some cobblers about ‘THE HINTERLAND! THE HINTERLAND!’ and Belew rips his guitar to shreds. ‘DJ’ is probably in the third-division of Classic Bowie Singles, which still puts it endless leagues above most other artists – it begins a three-track gold run of Bowie Pop. All of a sudden Bowie has gone New Wave, and the eighties are just around the corner. It’s a lost gem, this one – considering its title, it’s odd that I never hear it on the radio.

‘Look Back in Anger’ is a total, total rush. It wasn’t a single, but was obviously so good that they made a video for it. The whole song sounds like it’s falling down the stairs. The piano and the drums are practically tripping over each other as they try and regain their balance. The guitar sears and soars and cuts through the speakers. Bowie sings in his absolute best OTT theatrical style. There is nothing in ‘Look Back in Anger’ that is less than outstanding. It is one of my absolute favourite songs ever. Three minutes long and every second a pulse-pounding rush of excellence. ‘Boys Keep Swinging’, a kind of glam stomp that’s been mutated, is one of the funniest Bowie songs of all – the lyrics are gleefully camp (‘unfurl the flag’, ‘life is a pop of the cherry’ and of course, ‘when you’re a boy/you can wear a uniform’), but it’s been noted that the song is also a forewarning of the eighties, the coming of Thatcherism, encapsulated in that ‘you’ll get your share’ moment. It’s all a deliciously sugared pill though – the glorious double-tracked vocals on ‘when you’re a boyyyyyoooiiii‘ just before the chorus one of many splendid touches. It’s impossible not to grin with this song. When my girlfriend and I visited the Bowie exhibition at the V&A years back, I stuck around to watch the whole of the ‘Boys Keep Swinging’ video on large-screen loop more than once.

‘Repetition’ is another total diversion however. It’s a very unusual Bowie song in that it is unequivocally about something, an issue – in this case domestic abuse. It’s a jolt to hear Bowie singing about something so real and specific. For the most part we’re observing the male abuser, the one who takes out his frustrations of an unfulfilled life on his wife. Bowie’s delivery is deadpan, almost as though he’s a drained, helpless observer who can only narrate from the outside – his ‘don’t hit her’ interjection is the one moment he speaks directly to the abuser, while the bit when he speaks as the husband, (‘can’t you damn cook?’, he demands) is less a POV character identification (we’re definitely not being asked to side with him), more a cold mimicry, as though he’s simply reporting the incident to us. As songs that deal with issues like this go it’s not overstated and it proves that sometimes less can be more. It’s a chilling song. Musically it’s amazing. The beat is cold, robotic and sinister, and given the title, appropriately monotonous, as though the events of this song are doomed to repeat themselves night after night. Only the short, sharp snatch of violin that arrives in between the first and second verses is totally unexpected (it never returns either) and it’s one of the most out-of-left field musical surprises in Bowie’s entire output. It is one of the most unique Bowie songs, and one of his most strangely powerful.

‘Red Money’, though I didn’t know it at the time, was a reworking of ‘Sister Midnight’, the opening track from Iggy Pop’s solo debut album The Idiot, which Bowie was heavily involved with. Interesting that the melody that kicked off Bowie’s Berlin era is the same one that ends it. The lyrics are totally different this time however, and instead of the murkiness of the original, this new take, despite the air of mystery and foreboding, is nevertheless a sprightlier proposition– also, few Bowie albums of that decade have ended with such a direct line as ‘such responsibility/it’s up to you and me’. It ends one of Bowie’s least coherent but most re-listenable works – the love for this once dismissed album is only increasing over time. Unlike Low and “Heroes”, Lodger is not in my top 5 Bowie albums, but I still adore it. Sometimes, this whole Berlin trilogy thing is a load of cobblers. You can lump Low and “Heroes” together easily, but Lodger is Lodger. It’s its own beast. Yet it looks as though all three albums are destined to remain considered as a whole. I just spent the last seven thousand words doing so.

David Bowie died a few weeks ago. His death has affected me like no other famous person’s passing has. This appears to be the case for many people, going by the public outpouring of grief. I had heard Bowie’s new album before he died, and it is a startling, thrilling work – I reviewed it here and was banging on about how this was the most exciting thing he’d done in ages and that he was on a roll. When I woke up the next day to discover he had died, it felt totally unreal. How could he be gone? And why did it hit me so hard? It could be that for me, it feels like he’s always been there, and I suppose I felt he would always be here. I still can’t accept that he’s gone. He was David Bowie.

Of course, David Bowie was human just like the rest of us, but he seemed beyond the reach of other musicians and stars, most of whom seemed so much more rooted on Planet Earth than him. He wasn’t a perfect pop star – he made mistakes (although there’s never been a period in his career that I didn’t like – seriously, go and listen to Tin Machine II right now), but his range and scope remains more breathtaking than any other artist. This piece I’ve just written has barely touched upon the other music he made outside of the Berlin albums. You know, the other music, the stuff from where dreams are woven, the music that, it’s reasonable to say, changed many a young person’s life. I mean, even if he’d only released Low, “Heroes” and Lodger, he still would have been a special someone to me. That he did all that other stuff just beggars belief. He has and continues to soundtrack my life, inspiring fascination, excitement and wonder like no other single artistic individual. I think he may very well be the only pop star that I have and will always truly love. Bye, ta-ta David. Your music will live on.

A Beginner’s Guide to The Sound (1979-1988)

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Adrian Borland on vocals and the guitar. Graham Bailey on the bass. Mike Dudley on the drums. Bi Marshall and then Colvin ‘Max’ Mayers on the keyboards. Together they were The Sound.

Criminal. What happened (or didn’t happen) to this band is criminal. In an alternate universe, The Sound made it big, their music a virtual set of standards for the rock and pop world. Yet they never made it big. What was it? Was it that in lead singer/songwriter/guitarist Adrian Borland they just didn’t have enough of an obviously photogenic frontman? On the records themselves, Borland commands the scene effortlessly, but if we compare other lead singers of the time, maybe he just wasn’t as brash or beautiful or outspoken, loud, quote-worthy, whatever. The band arguably did themselves no favours with that dull, prosaic name of theirs. Maybe they just lacked that killer single. Maybe it was because they didn’t commit to music videos. Maybe they were just one epic gloom and beauty band too many in an era crammed with them. The Sound were one of many overt post-Joy Division bands, but even though both lead singers took their own lives, and even though there are many a Sound song that is wracked with despair, the majority of the band’s output burns with life, energy and passion.

This is not going to be a diatribe against other contemporary bands that hit the big time and left The Sound behind. The two most obvious contemporaries were U2 and Echo and the Bunnymen. U2 have always been one of the easiest bands to knock – their immense popularity, the Marmite presence of Bono, the statements, the bluster, the lack of subtlety. The Bunnymen were a classic example of a band that had the magic and lost it, but the brilliance of their first four albums can never be denied. Essentially, there’s enough room in my world for all three bands, but The Sound have that extra-special something that exists because of their obscurity. They’re a special band to me because not many people have heard them, and it’s like they’re still my little secret. When I say not many people have heard of them, I mean the general public and yes, people I personally know. In this day and age, when even the most esoteric and obscure bands can be name-checked and referenced, The Sound barely gets any kind of retrospective these days. The only example is an article in Uncut, the same article that got me interested in the band. After a great (if incomplete) reissue program by the Renascent label over a decade ago, their albums soon became out of print again, with only the odd live album or US-reissue here and there to keep their legacy fresh. This month however sees the release of a box set from Edsel that contains their first three albums as well as a load of extra stuff like BBC sessions, B-sides, live tracks and studio outtakes. For me, this is pleasure overload. But for those who know nothing about the band, here’s my little retrospective covering their mighty run of studio albums. Not covered here are the band’s earlier incarnation as punk band The Outsiders, live albums and any post-Sound solo albums.

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So, 1980’s Jeopardy (following an at-the-time unreleased album called Propaganda) is the debut, and what a debut. This is one of my all-time favourite first albums and it remains one of THE most vital post-punk LPs ever; it cost only £800 to record (!), and its energy, imagination and dramatic tension throughout can barely be contained. Even in Simon Reynolds’ superlative study of the post-punk era that is Rip it Up and Start Again, The Sound are mentioned in passing just the once, and it’s only in reference to the wave of groups who emerged from the breakthrough success of Joy Division. They deserve more than that. This is the kind of album where the words `dramatic’, `blistering’ and `heroic’ were made for; Borland’s strident vocals are thrilling and stirring, whilst the band play for all its worth over eleven songs of simmering, edgy and occasionally explosive rock. The opening song is an astonishing blend of quiet/loud, which jolts itself from a suspenseful, almost Neu!-like rhythm (with spooky keyboards layered on top) verse with the immortal “I…. (I!!!!!!!!!!) can’t escape myself!” which is one of rock’s most heart-stopping moments, no lie! “Heartland” doesn’t let up on the excitement for a second (“you gotta believe”, indeed!), “Missiles” is wracked with tense drama and “Night Versus Day” is eerie, beguiling and strange all the way. These songs are Jeopardy’s most spectacular highlights, but the truth is that everything here is great, be it the yearning “Hour of Need”, the surprising and effective use of brass in the cracking chorus of “Words Fail Me”, the slinky beats of the title track, the straight-up, energetic charge of “Heyday” and “Resistance”, the brooding “Desire” or the panoramic drama of “Unwritten Law”….it’s all fuelled to the nines with magnificent guitars, thrilling rhythms and atmospheric embellishments that make it one hell of an astounding, formidable debut. Critics went ballistic for it, and it pointed the way towards The Sound making it huge; they’d up the ante even more so for their even better second album.

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From the Lion’s Mouth could have, SHOULD have, been the one to make them as big as those other `big’ bands such as U2, Simple Minds or Echo and the Bunnymen….yet it just didn’t happen. Critics loved it. The public ignored it. Such a shame. With producer Hugh Jones (who also produced Bunnymen’s immortal second album Heaven up Here) breathing air and space into the band’s formerly intensely direct sound, this grand, powerful album managed to be epic without being bloated. The opening “Winning” swirls and slinks through dramatic keyboards and beautiful guitars over the kind of optimistic, determined lyrics (“I was gonna drown, but then I started swimming….I was going down, but then I start winning”) that sadly have a retrospective sting in the tail knowing what would come later. Still, the song is so stunning that you really believe in the simple directness of the lyrics and become swept up in Borland’s strength in the face of adversity, despite the reality of future events. “Sense of Purpose” is just too damn irresistible to accept as anything other than one of post-punk music’s most searing anthems, the incredible, white-hot “Contact the Fact” is almost as gripping as everything on Jeopardy put together (!), “Skeletons” will blow your mind from start to finish; honestly, it’s three minutes of pure adrenaline! “Judgement” is wracked with drama and beauty, and it’s as this stage that I can’t believe From the Lion’s Mouth can get any better…..to be perfectly honest, it doesn’t.

Nevertheless, the latter half of the album is still very, very special, be it the powerful, militaristic beats of “Fatal Flaw” (which builds up to a strong finale), the almost-as-good-as “Sense of Purpose” cracker that is “Possession”, the straight-up punk blast of “This Fire” the misty balladry of “Silent Air” or the rumbling, dramatic epic “New Dark Age”, all of which have their classic moments to boast. When this fantastic album failed to live up to commercial expectations, The Sound’s record label wanted the band to head even further into a mainstream direction. To say the band didn’t exactly comply with those wishes was an understatement, as their next album would prove…

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All Fall Down was the sound of The Sound seemingly not giving much of a damn about making a hit record; their previous LP did sound like a hit, yet sadly it wasn’t. The band’s record company, wanting the Sound to make another From the Lion’s Mouth (yet one that actually….you know, did well in the charts), were shocked by what they’d heard at the album preview; where were the tunes? The result was another commercially unsuccessful album, leading to the band being dropped by their label. So, is All Fall Down really as difficult as its minor reputation makes it out to be? Not really. It’s not as strident or vital as the first two albums, that much is true; this is dark, claustrophobic and murky stuff. It is often hypnotic and very powerful, especially on the first three songs, which go some way to explain why some fans rate this album as the band’s masterpiece. The opening title track is like a nursery rhyme turned inside out and twisted; the insistent, intense music is amazing, rising and rising, while Borland’s vocals are striking and more foreboding than he’d ever been before. This gives way to “Party of the Mind”, which sort of resembles a hit song, albeit one that sounds a little unhinged; it’s got a terrific guitar hook and a really wild, eerie and thrilling finale that, in its own way, is just as magnificent as anything on the first two albums. An out-and-out classic arrives in the form of the incredible “Monument”, which remains one of the band’s (or anyone’s, come to think of it) most affecting and beautiful ballads; gorgeous synthesisers, lovely guitars and an immortal chorus where the words “rise and rise….rise above” and the music reaches a superb, dramatic peak. This is definitely one of the top five Sound songs of all time and a thing of great beauty.

The excellent “In Suspense” has an off-kilter, edgy and distinctive rhythm, not to mention a cracking chorus, while “Where the Love Is” wraps up the first side with its powerful, quietly simmering and occasionally cathartic mood as well as its stellar guitar and piano hooks. Side two begins with “Song and Dance”, which opens up with some spooky synthesiser and piano interplay before exploding into an intense, tortured blast of guitar sound and eventually into a straight-up Sound rocker in the style of the first two albums. “Calling the New Tune”, with its great chorus, is one of the more radio-friendly songs here, though Borland’s weirdly treated vocals through the verses make it just as weird as everything else here. “Red Paint” has plenty of tension and energy to spare, the dark “Glass and Smoke” an extended, discordant and eerie epic, and “We Could Go Far” is a blindingly fine closer, understated in the way it exudes an unnerving yet strangely optimistic and romantic atmosphere; the guitars and the synthesisers here are so damn good in their own quiet, subtle way.

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After lurking in the dark, the band emerged into the sun for their next release, and it seems maddening that the Shock of Daylight EP didn’t produce anything successful. It’s easily their most commercial and accessible work, yet this more radio-friendly sound did not dilute the impact of the band’s power. In fact, and it sounds strange, it almost enhanced it! From the Lion’s Mouth gets the most praise, but Shock of Daylight is a personal favourite of mine. Six songs, all terrific, almost all potential individual singles, none making a mark on the public’s consciousness.

It kicks off with one hell of an opening blast in the form of “Golden Soldiers”, which might startle fans of early Sound with its shrill, wired opening piano attack, not to mention the most deliriously single-friendly chorus the band ever gave us, and what a thriller it is too! “I could be so golden…” sings Borland as the band give it everything and come up with a total pop classic that flies through its three minutes in a flash. The second side of this EP offers an equivalent, arguably even better pop classic with “A New Way of Life”, which is so passionate, so exciting, so driving and thrilling, with magnificent guitars and another wonderful chorus. However, the EP’s best guitar charge comes with the closing “Dreams Then Plans”, which simmers with urgent optimism and shimmering, shivering passion, occasionally breaking out into such exciting euphoria that it beggars belief that this band didn’t make it, on the evidence of this EP in particular. The guitar charge in question comes in around 2:11, where everything comes together and the heavens part and there’s no doubt that The Sound are The Great Ones. “Dreams Then Plans” is my favourite song on this EP, though second song “Longest Days”, with its thick bass intro and searing guitar, is another major, major highlight, as is the slow-burning, chilling “Winter” and the lovely “Counting the Days”.

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Heads and Hearts is often very good, even if it’s their least consistent effort. However, any album with “Total Recall”, “Restless Time” and “Temperature Drop” (three of their best) is well worth your time. The opening “Whirlpool” is pretty dark considering it follows the mighty euphoric rush of Shock of Daylight, and has power and drama in abundance. This is taken to a higher level with `Total Recall’, which has as much urgency but with a break in the clouds too, especially in its stirring chorus. The pulsing `Under You’ (with its’ we wake up and go to sleep’ lyric that recalls “Heroes”-era Bowie) would be a gem if it wasn’t for those bits of saxophone which lurk in the corners and threaten to spoil everything. They certain don’t do `Love is Not a Ghost’ any favours, wrecking a perfectly exciting song halfway through with a rotten little solo. In-between these two songs is the simmering `Burning Part of Me’, which is pretty good, but we need another out and out gem to pick things up, and `Wildest Dreams’ comes close, a subtle slow-burner that really grows on you. Oddly enough, despite the clutch of great songs to boast on Heads and Hearts, it was `One Thousand Reasons’ which was chosen as one of  the singles. It’s fun, and the verses have a quivering, exciting understatement to them, but I find the song as a whole pretty, I don’t know…average? It’s okay, it’ll do. Not bad! But not great. Lacks the magic of the best Sound songs. Better, much, much better is `Restless Time’ which mixes a pretty bleak, desperate lyric with an absolute stormer of a tune that’s just breathtaking. Awesome chorus, awesome singing, thrilling playing, just an absolute classic! `Mining for Heart’ has a droning, eerie sway to it, and `World As It Is’ is a brief but occasionally soaring little gem. The best is saved for last though. Oh god, the autumnal “Temperature Drop” is so beautiful, so very, very beautiful. One of my favourite songs. The chilling breeze of the verses give way to an astonishingly powerful chorus where the guitars conjure lovely, bittersweet melodies. The best closer to any Sound album (Shock of Daylight doesn’t count, it’s an EP!), even more so than the terrific “We Could Go So Far”, `You’ve Got a Way’ or `New Dark Age’. That’s saying something.

File:Thunder Up cover.jpgAgain though, no sales. The Sound’s final album (bizarrely omitted from Renascent’s reissue program) was the mighty Thunder Up, which sounds as triumphant an album as is possible for an a band that would have little to no impact on the mainstream music scene at the time. Despite the darkness of the last half, it sounds valedictory, as conclusive a final chapter as something like Abbey Road. ‘Kinetic’ is absolutely phenomenal – one of the most exciting songs ever, living up to the promise of its name and then some. Without ever lapsing into bombast, it revs itself up to thrilling peaks and dizzying ascents. When I made myself a 2-CD Sound compilation years back, I ended the whole thing on ‘Kinetic’, because after that where the hell can you go? ‘Barria Alta’ and ‘Hand of Love’ sounds like Christmas. They sound like a hug of warmth in the cold night. And because they’re not about Christmas, you can listen to them all year long. ‘Iron Years’ has such a silly synth-hook that might prove distracting at first, but the song’s greatness shines through and through. ‘Prove Me Wrong’ is brief but brilliant, a real ray of sunshine. ‘Acceleration Group’ a guaranteed crowd-pleaser – oh, if only they had the crowds at the time. Saying that, The Sound were huge in The Netherlands – at least they had the sense to recognise greatness. The final half of the album is a bit of a comedown – the atmospherics a lost town that’s been ‘shot up and  shut down’ – brutally effective and magnificent but chilling nonetheless. The beautiful piano introduction of ‘You’ve Got a Way’ gives way to a deeply dramatic, coursing epic that tears through the darkness.

They split up in 1988. The Sound’s recorded legacy is one of the finest in all of rock and pop. Don’t leave them behind.

Mansun: Six (1998)

One of the greatest things created by anyone, ever. 

Mansun’s Six was probably one of the only albums that really mattered to me back in the late nineties. I couldn’t believe how fucking spectacular it was. It made so much other music sound so ordinary, so…well, so-so. There were other LPs of the time that I went nuts for, albums like Supergrass’ In it for the Money (an album described as retro-Britpop at its absolute best by Uncut’s David Stubbs, and I must agree), the inevitable OK Computer by Radiohead (one of the rare exceptions where unanimous critical/commercial acceptance and how I feel about it myself were one and the same), but Six felt extra, extra special to me, because Mansun, in the grand scheme of things, weren’t that popular. Oh yes, ‘Legacy’ hit the top ten, and this album reached….you won’t believe it, number 6 in the charts, but in my social circle, they were not a big deal at all. One or two other people expressed a liking for the album, but for the most part, Mansun were my own band, and Six felt like my album, my own special secret. Some of the reviews were pretty hostile – self-indulgent, needed an editor, whiny vocals, the spectre of prog-rock (!!!) over the whole thing…nah, Mansun were a joke, right? Well, yes and no. They were ridiculous, but fuck me, they took it over the edge, past the edge, fearlessly embracing their ambition and going for nothing less than a behemoth of guitar pop/rock.

Yes, pop and rock. For this album not only swoons you over with some of the most gorgeous melodies and harmonies to bless your ears, it also blisters them with some of the most sensational, white-hot guitar playing I’ve ever heard. It’s beautiful. It’s ugly. It’s a seventy-minute plus epic that lasts twelve tracks but comes closer to totalling quadruple that, as many songs switch tack so strikingly it’s like four-songs-in-one. Not that you’d guess that from the singles. The relatively streamlined ‘Legacy’ and ‘Negative’, the single-edit of ‘Being a Girl’ that kept the punk thrash but cut out all the wild stuff afterwards and an Arthur Baker mix of the title track that turned an eight-minute long multi-song rollercoaster into something far more palatable. Imagine the shock of sticking Six on and sliding downwards through a helter skelter of musical madness, where the ground opened up as you reached the bottom and took you to hell and back. Well, I say hell. I mean, this album is thrilling, but it’s also messed-up. Paul Draper’s lyrics cover depression, paranoia, hypochondria, regrets, compromise, being emotionally raped by Jesus – wait, what? Yep, the preposterously jaunty chorus of the stunning ‘Cancer’ treats everybody to that unforgettable line, which would be exploitative if it didn’t sound so damn right on this album. Yeah, ‘Cancer’ – which could have been the ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ of the nineties if it had been released as a single (though Radiohead’s ‘Paranoid Android’ is a worthy winner), a remarkable journey that takes you through utter darkness and finally up and out into some kind of liquid ecstasy thanks to Dominic Chad’s guitars. Chad is up there with the all-time greats here. He’s excellent on the band’s first and third LPs, but he is absolutely ingenious on Six. He blows your mind. There are at least a dozen or two moments on Six where Chad makes the guitar sound more alive than on any other album of the decade. He plays the thing as though no one else had touched it before. The guy was a hero. His solos on ‘Fall Out’ (moon-landing conspiracy song among other things), ‘Being a Girl’ (Paul wants to experience what it feels like), ‘Shotgun’ (fucking hell, what is this one about?) are extraordinary. They were the teenage kicks I craved, this was the album I’d been waiting for. Draper’s voice is so over-the-top, so wounded, so slinky, so melodramatic, so delightfully intense that you’ll either love it or hate it.

Six is broken-up into two parts, the second slightly less fragmented, made up of fewer songs but scoring higher on the colossal front, although side one does end with ‘Cancer’, which is one of the most epic things ever. In-between acts we get a spoken-word confession from the Tom Baker, spoken over a delicate chamber-music pastiche where he goes on about ‘minutes bleeding into hours, bleeding into days’ or suspecting that ‘all my life, what I mistook for friendly pats on the back, were really the hands that were pushing me further and further down’. It’s so, so, so, so far beyond anything anyone else was doing at the time. Being a wounded soul at the time definitely helped one to appreciate Six a lot. Being able to make fun of one’s self and not take it all too seriously was also a vital factor, if hilarious interludes like this were anything to go by. Six is the kind of album you can really devote yourself to, to utterly believe in, and yet it’s no po-faced solemn text we should be listing alongside all those other established classic albums. It’s too ridiculous for that. You can cry to Six, you can rock out like a nutter to it. You can laugh to it. You can love the fact that not everyone will get it, that some will hate it, and that those who love it really, really love it. I really, really, really love this album.