Album review: David Bowie

David Bowie - Five Years 1969 - 1973 (Parlophone)

DAVID BOWIE has long had a habit of dating the start of his career to 1969 and his hit single 'Space Oddity', conveniently airbrushing the first five years of his career completely out of history.

That period of 1964 to 1969 saw Bowie go from talentless hipster with boundless ambition, to restless r'n'b singer seeking any vehicle to musical stardom, to the eccentric songwriter who created the odd, yet for die-hards, wonderful, musical hall styled curiosity that was his 1967 self-titled debut - not to mention the single 'The Laughing Gnome'. Although many could see he had enormous potential, Bowie has acknowledged that, back then, he was still learning how to become a good songwriter; how to present his ideas to the public; and asking himself, just what kind of audience did he want to sing to?

This new boxset, Five Years 1969 - 1973, collects the six studio albums he released in that period, as well as the Live at Santa Monica '72 album; the Ziggy Stardust live album from Bowie's last performance as Ziggy in Hammersmith in 1973; and Re:Call 1, a compilation of singles, B-sides, rare tracks, and a few remastered fan favourites, which together chronicle that crucial period where Bowie finally started to, and then fully achieved, all his above mentioned goals.

Space Oddity (3/5 ) finds the dame in singer-songwriter mode. While the epic title track is the key song here, the big chorus of 'Jeanine', the emotionally charged 'Letter To Hermione', the sublime folk-pop of 'An Occasional Dream', 'The Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud', a stage musical condensed into five minutes; and the psych-pop 'Memory Of A Free Festival', with its uplifting 'Hey Jude' style ending, display a maturing talent. However there is filler and the album's erratic nature underlies the fact that Bowie is still working out who is he and what exactly he wants to say.

With 1970's The Man Who Sold The World (5/5 ) Bowie delivers his first, truly great, album. Bowie basically wrote the album, recorded his parts, and then handed the project over to producer Tony Visconti and guitarist Mick Ronson who turned it into a heavy-rock, proto-metal, behemoth, that put Bowie, briefly, at a vanguard then occupied soley by Black Sabbath. Its themes of mental illness, technological dystopias, erotic encounters with God, and soldiers addicted to killing, made it, until 1974's Diamond Dogs, his most unnerving work.

Although it was a commercial failure, and used largely like a demo by then manager Tony deFries to convince RCA to sign Bowie, 1971's Hunky Dory (5/5 ) would, within a few years, establish itself as most people's favourite Bowie album and become one of his biggest sellers. A return to the singer-songwriter genre, here the sound was now cohesive and confident, Bowie is utterly sure of himself, and with 'Changes' he had found an anthem and manifesto. It also marked the point where he no longer had to force songs to come. Like 'Oh You Pretty Things' - the melody for which was playing in his head as he awoke one morning - they were spilling out of him naturally. He had finally become a great songwriter as Hunky Dory attests in spades.

It was with 1972's The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders From Mars (5/5 ) that Bowie's career finally took off, commercially, catapulting him to international stardom and opening doors in America. Musically, the album perfectly balanced the hard rock and singer-songwriter genres of his previous works, but crucially he had at last identified his natural audience - the outsider, alternative kids, whose tastes lay just outside the mainstream, and who were looking for a singer who was utterly of their generation, and belonged exclusively to them - not to their older brothers or sisters. Its deliberate mixing of elements from other songs - 'Starman' unapologetically steals from 'Somewhere Over The Rainbow' in its chorus; Ziggy is a mix of Iggy, Hendrix, Bolan, and The Legendary Stardust Cowboy; Bowie plundering his own back catalogue, reupholstering 'Moonage Daydream' and 'Hang Onto Yourself' to fit within Ziggy's loose narrative; and of course Bowie, writing an album about desiring, achieving, and being destroyed by fame, when he was still unknown, yet it is this album which made him a star, and unleashed a creation - Ziggy Stardust - which still follows him around, little wonder this album made Bowie, "the first postmodern popstar".

Aladdin Sane (4/5 ) was the most most muscular sounding, perhaps best produced album Bowie had yet made. It certainly rocked harder than anything thus far, save The Man Who Sold The World, thanks to swaggering blues-rockers like the stomping 'Gene Genie', the aggressive sleaze of 'Cracked Actor', and the frantic 'Watch That Man'. Mike Garson's piano playing on the title track remains an acquired taste, but the overall sensation is very satisfying. That same year, 1973, Bowie released the covers album, Pin Ups (3/5 ), great fun, but strictly for die-hards. Nonetheless it does contain his sublime cover of 'Sorrow', arguably better known than The McCoys original.

Live at Santa Monica '72 (4/5 ) was a bootleg for years before it was finally given an official release but captures Bowie and The Spiders, lean, hungry, and keen to impress, in electrifying form. The Bootlegs passed around in the early to mid-70s would influence the emerging punk generation. Ziggy Stardust (4/5 ), the soundtrack to DA Pennebaker's marvellous documentary on that last Ziggy gig, has drama aplenty, especially when Bowie, knowingly, coyly tells the audience "This is the last show we'll ever do." Cue screams, panic, and distress. Bowie, very deliberately omitted to say it was the last show "as Ziggy Stardust" - rock as theatre.

Most of the tracks on Re:Call 1 (3/5 ) have been released in various forms over the years - picks are a rough, but still impressive, version of 'The Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud' and (for curiosity value ) an Italian language rendition of 'Space Oddity' - but its main value is to show how Bowie grew from an inconsistent, directionless, songwriter into an artist, a visionary, and a genius. Proof comes via an obscure song, 'Holy Holy'. Its original version wheezes and lumbers along, with Bowie sounding like the kind of lecherous old geezer children were advised to stay away from. Three years later the song has pulse, energy, and a huge chorus, augmented by a bridge full of tension and drama. How far he had come in a few years!

This really is everything a Bowiephile could want from the period - even if the omission of 'Sweet Head', the great song that should have made it onto the original Ziggy Stardust album is not included. It charts the rise of an incredible talent, the most amazing thing being that, despite the extraordinary work on display here, the best was yet to come.

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