Yes: Relayer (1974)

 One prog-rock album to rule them all…
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When I was growing up, prog-rock was seen as a bit of an embarrassment. You know what I’m talking about, all those mammoth bands like Emerson, Lake and Palmer, Genesis, and so on – a lot of overblown, noodly, high-concept, fanciful nonsense that started off with good intentions but soon got way, way out of hand and there was all those blokes playing organ solos in capes and wasn’t one of them performed on ice and wasn’t it great when punk destroyed it and all that?Prog-rock did commit more than a few sins – it’s not sexy, for one thing. Just you try fucking to ‘Wot Gorilla?’. Impossible. You can’t dance to prog either. It’s rarely intentionally funny. It didn’t inspire many decent fashion movements. True, at its best it took the limits of the rock song to its logical limit, encompassing a huge scale of ambition, imagination and spectacle. Yet at its worst it was a whirlpool of interminable solos, pomposity and embarrassing lack of self-awareness. To give yourself over to prog is risk ridicule.

The thing is, who gives a shit about what other people think of your musical tastes? I first heard Yes in my twenties, when my uncle played me side one of The Yes Album (that was a very smart move on his part, for that LP is about an effective an introduction to the band as possible) and the sheer scale, giddy enthusiasm and restless changing of musical scenery caught my attention immensely. From then on, I explored Yes’ other works, fully aware of their ‘uncool’ status, fully aware that this was music of a certain time, and also fully willing to dive in head first.

Yes, for me, are the all-round best of the prog-rockers. Their sound, like many of the genre, became anathema to many after their early to mid-seventies peak in popularity – a common but amusing rejoinder to any positive talk about Yes is a succinct ‘NO’ –  but they were indeed massive back in the seventies. Their albums sold, and for a long time they were critically beloved too: they even managed to wring out some charting singles out of those monster compositions of theirs. Their most beloved songs are rich, complex (but rarely muso) and epic creations that made other genres seem so hopelessly small and closed-in. Songs like ‘Close to the Edge’, ‘Heart of the Sunrise’ and ‘The Revealing Science of God’ can be awe-inspiringly cinematic, truly enormous, adrenaline-surging and spectacular. In particular, ‘The Gates of Delirium’, which I will be raving on about in this piece, is a song that, unlike some songs that you feel would work perfectly in a film, essentially IS a film in music-form. Adding visuals would be unnecessary. I’m not blind to Yes’ faults – they were often over-the-top, sometimes indulgent and pretentious, but that’s sometimes what happens when you dare to go so close to the edge.

They started off with a couple of impressive, if relatively modest albums that had more than their fair share of spectacular moments, but for many, their imperial phase is usually regarded as when classical guitar virtuoso Steve Howe joined the band for The Yes Album. This is also when they started stretching out their songs to epic length, delivering dazzlingly melodic, rhythmic and yet very accessible rock songs like ‘Yours is No Disgrace’ and ‘Starship Trooper’. Each member of the band was a major talent – alongside Howe’s remarkable dexterity and tuneful ear, we had the chunky, addictive bass of Chris Squire, the kinetic and thrilling drums of Bill Bruford and the panoramic keyboards of Tony Kaye, not to mention the inimitable, ethereal vocals of Jon Anderson…

God, I sound like Homer Simpson rattling off the respective virtues of Grand Funk Railroad.

Seriously though, Yes were a band of superb individual parts that, when put together, created magic. Kaye was out the door by the time of follow-up album Fragile, which heralded the introduction of Rick Wakeman on the keys, whose baroque, classically influenced approach was, for many fans, the final piece of Classic Yes. Fragile took the epic achievements of the previous album and ran with them. Songs like ‘Roundabout’ and ‘Heart of the Sunrise’ were mammoth works, nicely balanced by the neat inclusion of little solo pieces by each member of the band. Don’t worry, the drummer’s contribution only lasted thirty seconds, and yet even that was great! Such little touches were gone however by the time of Close to the Edge, which for many remains THE prog-rock album. For the first time, Yes delivered a side-long opus – the eighteen minute long title track – and they’d achieved the impossible and managed to create even bigger, more sumptuous soundscapes than ever before to get lost in and be blown away by. Other songs like the awesome (and I mean that literally) ‘And You and I’ and the super-charged rock-funk of ‘Siberian Khatru’ tapped in to a world of astonishing musical possibilities. Close to the Edge isn’t my favourite Yes album, but it is the one that sees them teetering on that musical precipice, where the band pushed themselves to the limits of their own exploratory voyage without going overboard. Critics loved it, it sold a load and everything was Good. Okay, the album was apparently a nightmare to make (Bruford would quit, to be replaced by Yes mainstay Alan White), but everything seemed to point to further greatness.

Of course, blow a balloon up too much and it’ll burst, and Tales from Topographic Oceans represent the POP! Only four songs, you might note, but each one took up a whole side of vinyl: add that to Jon Anderson pushing Yes-naysayers’ already shaky tolerance of his lyrical flights of fancy past the point of no return, not to mention that yes, it was too big, too much and too bloody long, and Yes had finally lost their footing. It’s still a bloody spectacular album though: ‘The Revealing Science of God’ is a classic opus that goes for the (big) one and succeeds, and ‘The Remembering’, while clearly guilty of padding, is still lovely and pastoral. Even the third and fourth sides, whilst guilty of losing focus, had loads of wonderful stretches. True, it was overblown, but I’d rather go for an album that aims high and occasionally gets lost along the way than anything more modest and workaday. Saying that, prog-rock isn’t recommended listening any time or all the time – sometimes I want something else, but something else isn’t what we’re talking about.

Relayer, the album that followed Tales, is the apotheosis of progressive rock – it learns from the excesses of its predecessor and yet still manages to take the genre as far as it can, albeit in a different, more focused direction. It’s half as long as Tales yet achieves twice as much. After this, even Yes had nowhere else to go back down to Earth, and only after a three year break too. Prog-rock gets bashed for its pomp, but the best of it represents a truly exploratory, exciting idea of just how vast and spectacular pop/rock music could go. Much of my love for Relayer stems from the extraordinary achievement of its first side. To be honest, anything else that followed a first side that amazing could be dismissed as mere bonus material, so it’s wonderful that the second side is actually a superb thing in itself.  It was the last of Yes’ truly fearless prog-rock albums, the last one where they lived entirely in their own universe, a world where musical possibilities seemed infinite, ambition was colossal and musical chemistry was near-supernatural in its skilfulness and magic. After this, there was the break (solo careers, etc), punk came along and there was more a sense of the band second-guessing themselves, of trying to change with the times.

If you consider Tales the all-encompassing (for better or worse) centre, then Close to the Edge and Relayer are satellites on either side – the former, when Yes were only getting bigger and better and, even five albums into their career, still full of possibilities, promise, beauty, splendour and colour, and the latter, created after the band delivered their first (in the eyes of critics and some fans) their first blunder, an album that ranks as their darkest, greyest (that’s a very apt Roger Dean-designed cover they decided to go with) and most violent.

At first, the album may sounds like too much – unstructured, cluttered, incoherent. Of its three songs, only the closer, the resigned and beautiful ‘To be Over’, sounds anything like a normal song, albeit one that’s nearly ten minutes long. The first song  in particular is so overwhelmingly massive that one listen won’t be enough to take it all in. The second is an immense racket that doesn’t seem to follow any rhyme or reason. Relayer has been often noted as the Yes album with the most obvious influence of jazz or jazz-fusion. I’m not a fan of jazz, and don’t have the patience for it (to the point where I don’t even think there would be something worth hearing after repeated listens – sue me), but I often notice how often I love songs or albums that betray a jazz influence. It’s like these bands are taking this form of musical expression that I don’t have the time for, twisting it to their own means and making it palatable for listeners like me. There are moments on Relayer‘s first two songs that are quite ‘jazzy’, but this isn’t a bad thing for me. In fact, I find something like ‘Sound Chaser’ one of the most exciting things ever recorded by anyone, ever. I didn’t think that at first, mind. Anyway, back to the first song…

‘The Gates of Delirium’ may very well be the most accomplished achievement of Yes’ entire musical legacy. It was the last song of theirs to encompass an entire side of vinyl (although ‘Awaken’ on the next album is still epic at fifteen or so minutes), and unlike some of the band’s mammoth efforts, there are absolutely no spare minutes, nothing that can be taken away from it. Only ‘The Revealing Science of God’ from Tales does as much with so much time. Hey, what about ‘Close to the Edge’, I hear you ask? Well, it is a classic, but I feel it peaks at the ‘I Get Up, I Get Down’ section around two-thirds in and then ebbs away after that. ‘Delirium’ is a full-blown conceptual masterpiece, an attempt to encapsulate Tolstoy’s War and Peace in twenty-two minutes, beginning with preparation, heading into and then immersing itself in battle, followed by victory/defeat and then reflection. Personally, I think it is the high-water mark of progressive rock – a veritable Bayeux Tapestry set to music.

Praising such things as musicianship risks coming off as sounding drearily muso – technique is always something to be admired, but can it be loved? Yes were consummate players – each one a undeniable expert in their field. Steve Howe is an amazing guitarist. Chris Squire is an incredible bassist, and so on. We can all sit back, stroke our chins and pay head-nodding respect to these guys. They know their chops. And yet all of that would be mere academic achievement if it were not the fact that these guys played off each other amazingly well. At their best, the sound of Yes is the sound of absolute musical chemistry at its most astonishing. You can admire this music, but fuck that, you need to FEEL this music.

The opening section is an instrumental notable for the introduction to the group of Swiss keyboard dynamo Patrick Moraz, following the departure of Rick Wakeman. You see, Wakeman had had enough of Yes, was bored of the his bandmates’ indulgences, so much that he was likely to pass the time eating a curry on stage whilst Alan White delivered one of his drum solos. He’s been on record to say that he’s glad that he didn’t like Relayer when it came out, as it was too free-form for his tastes, therefore validating his earlier decision to leave the group. Then again, he did come back for the next record. Yes land is a mixed-up land. Moraz’s playing is less classically inclined than Wakeman, more complementary, though when he does get the chance to take centre stage, the results are pretty spectacular and totally his own. This makes Relayer a sometimes unique entry in the Yes catalogue, though to be honest, this is a band that has thrived on change, especially on the personnel front. Let me put this way – Wakeman is not missed, bless him.

The first eight or so minutes is magnificently exciting and foreboding – you really get the sense of warriors preparing to battle. Scared souls, brave souls, full of bloodthirsty determination and/or terrifying self-belief. It is indeed a war song, but through the lens of Yes it becomes something like a futuristic fantasy that non prog-rock fans might dismiss as Dungeons and Dragons-style make-believe, but if you’re willing to surrender to its cinematic scope, becomes intensely powerful. It all begins with an extended instrumental opening as Moraz sprinkles keyboard dust over Howe’s metallic, bone-scraping guitar – the latter’s playing had rarely been this harsh. There’s no prettiness here. When Anderson arrives a few minutes in, his lyrics turn out to be darker and meaner than they’ve ever been before, or ever would be. Talk of killing, warning that ‘peaceful lives will not deliver freedom’ and the memorable clincher, ‘slay them/burn their children’s laughter/on to Hell’. His voice, hitting a new kind of desperate harshness which is at times hysterical, is a far cry from the angelic tones of yore, though later on we’ll get that good old-fashioned choirboy vocal of his, albeit a far sadder version than what we’ve been used to. Alan White, who had only just joined the band an LP earlier, feels truly integrated into the band. His playing on Relayer is tremendous, full of oomph, variety and power.Squire’s trademark full-fat bass provides a constant ominous hum during this opening act and melodic counterpoint to Howe’s guitar- they’re such a vital, inimitable double-act and an essential element of Yes that one without the other just ain’t Yes. Even when Jon Anderson left the band, 1980’s Drama still felt quintessentially Yes because Howe and Squire were still there delivering the goods. Honestly, Drama is one of the very few albums where a lead singer has temporarily left the band and yet it still feels like a legitimate album, whereas the massive but Howe-less follow-up 90125 (the one with ‘Owner of a Lonely Heart’ on it) felt less like a Yes album even though Jon was back behind the mic!

Back to Howe though, and there’s little of the fleet-of-foot, rural loveliness or even electric heroism that was a key element of his work to date. Taking the spikier sound of his work on Tales‘ ‘The Ancient’ to the next level, Howe is reborn here as a much more intense six-string proposition. Of course, we’re still talking Yes here – this ain’t punk music, but ‘Delirium’ definitely sees him and the rest of the band freak out, thrash out and let loose in a way that’s quite thrilling. You could almost call it careless abandon (especially during the battle section), but I get the sense Yes knew what they were doing from start to finish. This ain’t an aimless jamming session. It might take a while to successfully put all of these pieces together, but once you have, you might question why anyone would call this music ‘incoherent’ or ‘lacking in structure’, as some reviews did at the time and still do now. There are many spectacular hooks, refrains and melodies in this first act of ‘Delirium’, admittedly nothing long enough for Yes to pull off one of their unlikely single edits (more on that sort of thing later) but the progression, escalation and sense of trepidation is hypnotic. Of course, it all leads to….

…the battle sequence, which lasts for around six minutes and will very likely at first sound like an unholy, godawful mess. It sounds utterly mad. When I first heard it, I was like ‘aww shit, and it was all going so well!’ and I was relieved when something approaching a hook re-appeared later on. The thing is, the more you listen to the whole song, the more this bit becomes focused, makes sense and turns out not to be a load of random jamming, crashing and explosions, but something closer to a truly spectacular, thrilling depiction of battle that remains unparalleled in rock music. It’s scary, confusing, strangely exciting and totally immersive. It resembles jazz in that each player gets their own chance to shine – there’s a super clunky-funky bass riff here, a shrill keyboard attack there, a vicious guitar onslaught there, and there’s also loads of sound effects, some of it literally crashing scenery, that just adds to the madness. It builds and builds to a psychotic crescendo, as keyboards and drums reach the peak…. and then…

…the sequence after all this chaos is one of the most breathtaking moments in all of music. I like to call this the victory section, as it does sound like the winning side is riding majestically over the battlefield, the vanquished fleeing in terror. Moraz kicks it off with a triumphant, yet almost foreboding keyboard melody that sounds truly monstrous. It stands tall, surveying the shattered wastelands. You think that might be valediction enough, but then Howe takes over the same melody with his guitar and lets rip with an absolutely enormous solo (air guitar on standby) that threatens to tear the skies in two,and fuck me if it doesn’t sound like the other side has been well and truly BATTERED. War is over. I must add that the rhythm section on this bit is stellar. Squire and White giving it everything. Then the sound dies down, the mist clears and what follows is a deeply eerie, quiet section of proto-ambient that Eno might have been going nuts over if he hadn’t already been praising the birth of ambient with Miles Davis’ ‘He Loved Him Madly’ from the same year. Both examples are ultimately ambient, although Davis went the whole hog and went on for thirty minutes, whereas this bit only lasts sixty or so seconds.

The ‘Soon’ section follows, as mournful, beautiful and elegiac as any piece of music found on an album. Interestingly, it was this section that was selected as a single for the album – indeed, it is the most straightforward part of the song, but blimey, despite its ultimate optimism and hope for a better future, it has to be one of the most mournful singles ever released. If guitars could gently weep, Howe’s playing would cry an ocean. Anderson’s voice has rarely been so lovely. The melody flows and falls, building to an astonishing finale that, while hopeful in terms of lyrics and vocals, musically loses itself in pure, heartbreaking sadness. Howe has never, ever been more powerful. Chord changes stab at the heart and there’s one lurching, staggering shift in key near the end that is almost too much to bear, and it’s here that you know the song’s finally going to end, and it does so with an utterly haunting, spectral and uncertain ebb and flow that sounds like it is literally dying before your very ears. Listen to it in the dark and it gets scary. Twenty-two minutes long, and every time I listen to it, I feel like I’ve just been through the wars. Hey, I love a three minute pop classic as much as anyone, but sometimes I want this. You got to play it loud, mind.

After this remarkable achievement, where the hell do Yes go from here? I mean, we’ve just been put through the wringer, came out the other side emotionally drained, and we could have been given more of the same, which frankly would have been too much. No, they do the only sensible thing and go NUTS. MAD. INSANE. ‘Sound Chaser’ is easily the most experimental, wild and exhilarating thing they’ve ever recorded. It’s absolutely fucking mental. Rick Wakeman didn’t like this album? His loss! This song is bound to make no sense at first. You feel like it would only makes sense to five people, and they’re all in the band Yes. At least ‘Delirium”s mad section was cushioned by relatively accessible material. This is just a ten-minute space trip. And yet like that ‘Delirium’s battle section, the more you listen to ‘Sound Chaser’, the clearer its vision becomes. Hey, I can understand if you don’t want to give it time. If I genuinely didn’t see anything worth investigating in these songs to begin with, I wouldn’t have bothered. But right from the start ‘Sound Chaser’ has lots of moments that make you go, ‘wow!’ – yes, they’re all disparate and all over the place, but it was enough to make me return to it, again and again. And now it makes perfect sense to me, and yet it’s still such an amorphous, seemingly undisciplined thing that I still encounter lots of little surprises me every time I listen to it.

As soon as it starts we’re on edge – nothing stands still for a second. Moraz slinks in, then White charges through, Squire hippity-hops – no guitars yet. Not yet. I don’t know how Yes do it, but they’re even making drum soloing sound great on this track, and if you don’t like that sort of thing, then Howe bursts in on the scene unleashing ridiculously complex (but still thrilling, never forget that) guitar lines and then it all makes way for Anderson barking lyrics like he’s been on the uppers and the non-stop sermons for two days straight, and it’s all got something to do with the ‘LOOK IN YOUR EYES!’ – this bit in particular, and the skyrocketing keyboards straight after, is sheer bliss! There are times during ‘Sound Chaser’ where you almost have to laugh, so addictively mad it is. It slows down here and there, even though no one told Howe about the change in tempo (he’s still on nitrous oxide). Soon even he gets the message and everything crawls to a shimmering oasis of eerie trepidation, only occasionally broken up by White giving it the full sturm-und-drang on his drums. Anderson has calmed down a bit, but deep down we know he’s just getting his breath back so that the band can go happy-go-madly once more. In the only predictable bit of the song, they do. Vapour trails of music stream on, and it’s here I start to think, ‘it’s around now that Jon’s going to do his bonkers ‘CHA-CHA-CHA, CHA-CHA!’ bit. When he does you can either throw your hands up and give up praying for Yes, or you can surrender to the sound and start praying to Yes.

Oh, as for that ”CHA-CHA-CHA, CHA-CHA!’ bit, well I bloody love it. It’s absolutely mad. I’ve heard that some people really hate this bit, but in the context of the song it makes perfect sense. I also love the ‘huhhhmmm!!’ backing grunts during this bit too. Yes were seriously possessed around this time. They were gods. Moraz then has his moment in the sunshine with a hilarious keyboard wig-out, the guitars start to skyrocket and there’s a huge build-up and then it’s all ‘CHA-CHA-CHA!’ again, a quick, final freak-out then it’s all over. This song may leave you breathless. We need to come down.

‘To Be Over’ is the calm after the storm. God knows, we need it. Actually, all that stuff I said earlier about Relayer being the darkest and most violent Yes album of them all is contradicted slightly by the sheer loveliness of this song. It has nothing to do with the themes of ‘Gates’ but flows perfectly from the ground zero of ‘Sound Chaser’. The first few minutes are actually serene. The song even fades up at the start! It’s really very calming indeed. Still, when you think about it, there is after all literally only a single letters difference between ‘Relayer’ and ‘Relaxer’. This is pastoral, very pretty music – sitting by the lake, taking in the early morning mist, such calm, such peace. And hey, there’s a sitar too! Nice to hear from you. Jon’s lyrics only add to the sense of bucolic charm further: ‘We go sailing down the calming stream/Drifting endlessly/By the breeze’ – sorted. However, the song’s not content to drift along calmly down the same river for too long, and it opens up spectacularly, as Howe’s guitar switches from gentle acoustic to chiming, glittering and eventually properly chunky electric, before opening up to take in the widescreen view: in fact this section, almost foreshadows the more lighter-waving end of 80’s stadium rock in its big, anthemic sing-a-long mid-section. Also, this section recalls the finale to Tales‘ most blissful song, ‘The Remembering’. All valediction, extended triumph and swaying happiness. Moraz gets a cute, cuddly and perky solo near the end too. That would be it for him and Yes, sadly. Hey, I’m not going to complain about Rick Wakeman – his contributions to Going for the One are fantastic, but Moraz’s all too short tenure with the band nonetheless feels brutally curt. Oh well, at least the one Yes album he did play on was…you know, the best one they ever did.

Still, that three year gap between the albums…. Relayer feels like the end of an era. Punk came along and changed a lot – right from the opening guitars of the title track, Going for the One feels like a deliberate effort to get scale it back to relative basics (well, as much as is possible for Yes), to modernise their look (as evidenced by replacing Roger Dean with Hipgnosis for the sleeve art), and they even delivered a song that didn’t even need to be edited to make for a successful single (the lovely ‘Wonderous Stories’). The sound on that album was also their sleekest, cleanest and streamlined – the songs themselves were still in thrall to their prog-rock peak, but even ‘Awaken’ sounds far more refined. elegant and comfortable than the infinite possibilities of their earlier epic tracks. It’s a great album, though. After that there was the fun but messy and badly-produced Tormato, the surprisingly thrilling Yes + Buggles = Yeggles supergroup shenanigans of Drama, and after that a second wind of 1980’s MTV-aided superstardom. But Relayer was the last time this band truly achieved astonishing transcendence. Don’t be embarrassed for loving this. Yours is no disgrace.

PS: Come to think of it, what’s a relayer?

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Felt: A Decade in Music – Ignite the Seven Cannons (1985, 2018 remix)

The fourth Felt album gets a surprise de-mix – does it work?

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It’s funny, of all the albums in the world to undergo a revisionist remake/remodel, I never thought Felt’s fourth album Ignite the Seven Cannons and Set Sail for the Sun would be one of them. I just didn’t think there was enough of a market for it. I mean, even William Shatner couldn’t get the money to give us an improved version of Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, so what chance did Lawrence have? For those who don’t know, Ignite the Seven Cannons (as it became more commonly known down the line) was a radical sonic departure from Felt’s previous albums thanks to the presence of Cocteau Twin Robin Guthrie in the producer’s chair, who wreathed the songs in that reverberated Cocteau shroud that we all know and love. Except many Felt fans didn’t love it. Felt were Felt! Not the Fucking Cocteau Felty Twins! The approach was more noticeable on the tracks with vocals than those without, but essentially everything had that Guthrie feel (think Treasure in particular) and for some it was too much. Personally, I thought the album sounded great – cluttered, crazy, overripe, yes, and sometimes a mess, but more often that not, exhilarating. Nevertheless, I was always curious to hear what the songs sounded like before Guthrie got his hands on them.

Well, now we can. All of those Guthrie production tricks are to be removed, thanks to Lawrence and Felt collaborator John A. Rivers.

The new ‘A Decade in Music’ reissue campaign of Felt’s ten albums has been a long time coming, and it wasn’t until recently that it was announced that Ignite would be undergoing a major sonic overhaul. Rewriting Felt’s past is not a new concern of Lawrence. Some of these changes have been relatively minor. The first LP, Crumbling the Antiseptic Beauty, had its front cover cropped for later editions. Let the Snakes Crinkle Their Heads to Death has been re-released with differently cropped versions of the original full band cover photo over the last few decades. Also, this year’s reissue of Snakes has changed that hilariously verbose title to the more palatable The Seventeenth CenturyThe Strange Idols Pattern and Other Short Stories, somewhat inelegantly, had one of its tracks (‘Crucifix Heaven’) omitted from nearly every eventual CD release, while the album’s cover was drastically altered from its mysterious, arcane original to a plain red design on its 2003 release. Thankfully, ‘Crucifix Heaven’ has been re-instated on this year’s reissue, but it’s been heavily edited (grrr). On Ignite the Seven Cannons, the instrumental ‘Elegance of an Only Dream’ had its title changed to ‘Elegance’ back in 2003. On the compilation front, Gold Mine Trash had its glitzy cover changed to something much more minimal later on, while Bubblegum Perfume had a few tracks removed and replaced with rarer non-album songs, which is no bad thing at all, personally speaking. Relatively minor changes admittedly, (‘Crucifix’ and Bubblegum Perfume excepted), but evidence that Lawrence was not averse to toying with his legacy. 

This new version of Ignite however, marks the most drastic change of Felt’s work. The announcement of this remix, or should I say de-mix was met with excitement, but also frustration, as it appeared that this new version was to be the only one to made available, with the 1985 release being consigned to obscurity. This is annoying. I don’t like that the original that we’ve all lived with has been suddenly denied to us. Okay, we can all keep our existing versions, but for new fans to miss out on the original mix is a disservice. Stuff like this rewrites a band’s history and legacy. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, but the treatment of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner remains the best example of tampering with an original and yet still respecting its place in history. Blade Runner has been messed around with so many times, and yet every incarnation is still available for us to compare and contrast. Weirdly, Blade Runner is the only example of a cultural artefact that genuinely gets better the more it’s been played around with, but I love that the flawed, compromised theatrical cut is still out there for us to enjoy. Compare that to say, George Lucas, whose treatment of the original Star Wars trilogy showcases little concern for the fans, with the original theatrical versions still yet to be released in anything approaching HD.

Albums get fucked around with a lot too. A new CD reissue is almost always ‘remastered’, and sometimes even ‘remixed’. Whether it’s little tweaks (The Who), removed songs/heavily rearranged tracklistings (Morrissey) or artwork alterations (although it’s funny how films get away with this all the time, as there’s rarely a single established ‘cover’ to a film, with alternative posters for different territories available right from the off). What’s annoying about most of these changes are that they aren’t presented as alternatives – they are usually given to us as the new standard. Oh yeah, that version you’ve always loved? That’s not legitimate anymore. 

What interests me are examples where the changes that are made are in the interest of the band’s ‘original vision’. Killing Joke’s underrated Brighter Than a Thousand Suns was given a last-minute remix before its release back in 1986 and for a long time that was the only version we had. Then the album was re-released in 2007 with the original mixes replacing the released ones, and all of a sudden, the version of the album that fans had lived with all those years was obsolete and unavailable. The same goes for Kiss’ much-mocked 1980 folly Music from ‘The Elder’, which is currently only available in the version that was originally proposed before it was re-jigged for its actual release. Yes, that release was not the one the band wanted, but hey, it’s the one that we the people got, and a lot (well, not a lot – it’s not a favourite with Kiss fans) of people took that version to their hearts. Now you can only get it on an old CD that’s out of print.

Sometimes we must be careful for what we wish for. Last year’s Tony Visconti-helmed/David Bowie-permitted remix of Lodger was highly anticipated by those who considered the 1979 release to have suffered from an overtly muddy mix. I must admit, even as someone who came to adore the album warts and all, that a version that somehow cleaned it up a bit and gave it more punch sounded exciting. However, despite garnering much acclaim, I found the remix often gimmicky and often clumsy. It sounded too much like a modernised version rather than something that could have genuinely come out at the time. It must be noted that this was not a genuine 1979 mix that had been rejected. It was an approximation of what Lodger could have sounded like if it had been ‘mixed properly’. The new mix of Ignite the Seven Cannons appears to be a different story – here we seem to have an album that has been simply stripped back to its original elements, a bit like The Beatles’ Let it Be…Naked from years back, when that album was unshackled from its Phil Spector overdubs. However, Ignite the Seven Cannons…Naked would not have worked as a title, as I believe that igniting anything in the nude is a dangerous, reckless pursuit.  

Oh well, at least the 2017 Lodger did not ultimately replace the original – it’s strictly part of the A New Career in a New Town retrospective box set, and the regular Lodger is still widely available. I think that this new take on Cannons should have complemented the original version, not replaced it. Like it or not, that original version released all those years ago is an essential part of Felt’s story, and the medium is just as important as the message. And now it’s been swept away like it was something embarrassing. What we have in its place is an awkward revisionist replacement that, for all its virtues (and there are many) doesn’t feel right. This should have been a 2017 post-script, not a retrospective shoe-horn into the fabric of 1985. Yet that’s what we’re stuck with. If you want the original Ignite, you’ll have to fork out a fuck-load for the original vinyl, or try and get your mitts on a second-hand CD (and they don’t come cheap either).

Anyway, let’s forget about availability, how do these restored mixes actually sound?

Pretty damn good! The original performances were always great, so if you liked them before, you’ll still like them now. At times it’s amazing to think that they’re literally the same takes, such a difference the Guthrie approach made to them. It’s like being without glasses for years and finally getting a pair, and all is crisp and clear to see. Everything is clean, totally free of reverb or embellishment. You hear little touches that may never have picked up on before. For example, there’s an guitar flourish in the chorus of ‘I Don’t Know Which Way to Turn’ that I never even noticed in the original, but when I went back to the Guthrie version, it is indeed there among the fog! ‘Scarlet Servants’ seems to have been affected the least – there’s actually not much difference between the two versions, but the other de-mixed tracks are noticeably altered. For anyone who hates overproduction, eighties excess and whatnot, these mixes will be a massive relief. But personally, do I think they’re better than the Guthrie mixes?

For the most part, no. Absolutely not. 

I must repeat that for all their occasional imperfections, the Guthrie elements really made something spectacular out of these songs back in ’85. The inviting warmth of ‘My Darkest Light Will Shine’, the ecstatic downpour of ‘The Day the Rain Came Down’, the nautical rush of ‘Black Ship of the Harbour’ the thrilling buzz of ‘I Don’t Know Which Way to Turn’…. it was an embarrassment of magnificently overcooked riches. Okay, you couldn’t make out all the details amongst the blur, but that made for an intoxicated, mad pleasure ride nonetheless.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that just because the de-mixed replacements have more clarity, doesn’t automatically make them superior. The feel of these songs now approximate closer to demos, albeit very well performed ones. They sound two steps shy of actually sounding finished. To compare, the songs on The Strange Idols Pattern and Other Short Stories were free of any overtly gimmicky production touches like those on Ignite and were delivered pretty much straight, but they nevertheless sounded complete, vivid and flawless. These new Ignite mixes sound like dry-runs, rough drafts, in need of that final, definitive touch. I mean, fair play that Rivers hasn’t added anything that wasn’t originally there, but for these to be now considered the definitive versions is preposterous. They sound like Peel Sessions in an alternate universe where John Peel actually liked the band.

What’s weirder is that Rivers has only applied the de-mixing trick to only six of the tracks, which means that half or so of it sounds really pared down and half of it still has the original ‘everything-but-the-kitchen-sink’ approach. Say what you like about the Guthrie-mixed album, but at least it sounded consistent and had a definitive character. Here, the flow becomes messy. Saying that, for most of the first side you don’t notice because all of the first four tracks have been altered, but then along comes ‘Primitive Painters’ in all its Guthrie-enriched glory and it throws you off balance completely. ‘Painters’ is the only track with vocals that hasn’t been messed with – why? Anyone who had issues with the ‘problems’ of the other songs would surely find them here too. Maybe it’s because ‘Painters’ is Felt’s most famous song, the one that came closest to transcending the band’s obscurity, and to mess with it would probably piss off a lot of people. The problem with leaving the song untouched is that it disrupts the atmosphere of the album entirely. It makes the preceding four tracks sound hopelessly small in comparison. 

Well, that’s the first side done with – as for the second side, well it was always a bit of a let down after the perfect run of the first five songs. Of the six tracks, four were instrumentals, and while they were all pleasing and often dazzling, we were hardly talking Bowie’s Low. There were two tracks with vocals – the resplendent ‘Black Ship in the Harbour’ came close to matching the first side, while ‘Caspian See’ did not, a slight throwaway on a side of vinyl that really couldn’t afford to have any. While mostly an accomplished run of tracks on its own terms, side 2 desperately needed another ‘Primitive Painters’ to give it some more weight. As for the instrumentals, none of them have been subject to de-mixing, but side 2 of Ignite nevertheless has been drastically altered in regards to structure. 

In an attempt to make the flipside “focused, edited and made symmetrical”, one of the four instrumentals has been removed (the lush, pretty ‘Serpent Shade’) and another (‘Elegance of an Only Dream’, now re-titled for the second time – it’s now ‘Elegance in D’) has been arbitrarily edited down from over five minutes to just under four. This does result in an even number of tracks per side (Lawrence has often made a point of preferring this), but if we’re going to get picky, the second side is now literally shorter than the first, and given that its original content had always felt less substantial than its flip, now it feels even less so. Honestly, the excellence of the first side’s structure is that it started off leading you in with a guiding hand, and then it took you on a journey to an epic crescendo. The second side just felt less well thought out, and honestly, I don’t think this new structural meddling has improved the album at all. It’s weird. If Lawrence and Rivers had really wanted to make the album more symmetrical, maybe they should have gone the whole hog and spread the instrumentals all over the album and put some of the heavyweight songs on the second side. Who knows, maybe it would have been a fucking disaster, but at least it would have had more ambition than this effort.  As for the two de-mixed songs on side 2, ‘Black Ship in the Harbour’ brings the album back down to a demo-level small-scale after the untouched ‘Painters’ and ‘Textile Ranch’, and I must say that it’s this track that suffers the most from De-Guthrieisation. The way the original kicked in with that wave of sound was genuinely spine-tingling. Here it has a fraction of the impact. Then again, ‘Caspian See’, the weakest track on the original album has been improved a little. It was a bit of a sloppy song, and this de-mix sounds alright, a bit sharper. It’s still the album’s weak link though. 

So to conclude, this album has not been improved. In trying to rectify perceived errors, the album has cut its nose to spite its face. Yeah, you could say the 1985 album was flawed, but so is this; far more so, I’d say. Less an album than a something resembling a compilation of odds and sods, the new Ignite the Seven Cannons fails to spark. Look, I know it sounds like I’m being overtly harsh, but I can’t deny my disappointment at the handling of the band’s past. Nevertheless, it is so wonderful that their music (well, most of it) is being made available again: I was in Rough Trade East near Brick Lane the other day and the sight of a display stand loaded with nothing else but Felt was an utter joy to witness!

For an in-depth look at Felt’s albums and singles, click here.

PS: I’ve since discovered that the original mix of Ignite is still available as a digital purchase from many of the major outlets, which is great – let’s hope it remains available!

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.

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.