June 20, 2013 by NowhereButPop
I really hadn’t been into music all that much until I was about 15 or 16, when one Ian Goldstein decided to lend me a burned copy of The Kinks’ Lola vs. Powerman. His very next recommendation was David Bowie’s Hunky Dory, and having immediately fallen in love with The Kinks, I knew he couldn’t be steering me wrong. So I went out that day and bought both Hunky Dory and Low. I was blown away – it felt like the kind of music I had been waiting for my whole life. A week later, I went and bought Ziggy Stardust.
I love David Bowie, and as a superfan of sorts, I can tell you there are a LOT of Bowie songs that get overlooked by casual listeners, critics, whoever. Some of these are underrated, some of them are outright ignored, and a few are among the best of Bowie outtakes. In essence, these are exactly as I’ve designated: overlooked.
Quicksand (Hunky Dory, 1971)
This may be the last great David Bowie folk song, the last one to capture early period folk-Bowie (roughly 1968-1971), before he went full-blown glam, weaving the theatrical with the groovy. “Quicksand” captures those early sounds of the wild eyed boy from Freecloud, where combined his admiration of early Bob Dylan, the piano pop of English music halls, and the nihilistic, neon-tinged lyrics of Lou Reed and Velvet Underground. All of these sounds and inspirations synthesize into a song that is quintessentially Bowie: “Should I kiss the viper’s fang, or herald loud the death of Man; I’m sinking in the quicksand of my thought, and I ain’t got the power anymore…”
Song for Bob Dylan (Hunky Dory, 1971)
“Hear this, Robert Zimmerman, I wrote a song for you.”
So begins “Song for Bob Dylan,” a dream-like, roving, rock tribute to one of his idols that also seems to largely function as a tribute to another aforementioned inspiration – Velvet Underground. The repeated chorus of “Here she comes, here she comes, here she comes again,” echoes the Velvets’ 1968 song, “Here She Comes Now.” Yet the song here is more genuinely rock than either artist, with trademark Mick Ronson guitar wails and wild crashing cymbals filling up each chorus.
If “Quicksand” is the end of Bowie Pt. I, then “Song for Bob Dylan” is the birth of Pt. II – the rise of Rock ‘n’ Roll Bowie, the coming of Ziggy Stardust himself. Along with “Queen Bitch,” the subsequent track on Hunky Dory, it’s a clear attempt by Bowie to determine just how successfully he could sound like a rock star. He’s said as much himself, in a 1976 interview with Melody Maker: “There’s even a song – Song For Bob Dylan – that laid out what I wanted to do in rock. It was at that period that I said, ‘okay (Dylan) if you don’t want to do it, I will.’ I saw that leadership void. Even though the song isn’t one of the most important on the album, it represented for me what the album was all about. If there wasn’t someone who was going to use rock ‘n’ roll, then I’d do it.”
Bombers (outtake, 1971)
Originally slated to appear on Hunky Dory up until the last minute, “Bombers” has long been one of my favorite Bowie songs. The lyrics depict a nuclear apocalypse, filled with “greenish-tan sky,” sirens, white sand, and hurried telegrams. The song’s sardonic smirk is what truly elevates it: “Captain sat in his deck chair, and the red light flashed “beware”; Pilot felt quite big-time as the bomb sailed through the air. Well, they danced and sang when the bang went bang, when the lights popped out and the smoke began to clear, it was positively queer!”
It’s the best of Bowie’s theatricality, combined here with a haze of political paranoia.
Letter to Hermione (Space Oddity, 1969)
If I was going to rank these, “Letter to Hermione” might be the strongest contender for number one. I’d argue it’s one of the best love songs ever written, and easily one of Bowie’s best, a song that perfectly captures the longing of youthful love – the excited hope, the delusions and fantasies, and the reluctant acceptance of defeat. The speaker is pining after Hermione, a girl who loves someone else, which he naturally refuses to believe: “They say your life is going very well, they say you sparkle like a different girl. But something tells me that you hide when all the world is warm and tired; You cry a little in the dark, well so do I.”
We witness the delusions of love, the blindness, and the refusal of the speaker to face the truth of his situation. Yet in the meantime, there’s nothing he can do; he can only “write some love to you.”
The Width of a Circle (The Man Who Sold The World, 1970)
Mick Ronson, Bowie’s lead guitarist from 1970-1973, is easily one of the most overlooked lead guitarists in rock history, and so is especially relevant in our discussion of overlooked Bowie songs in general. Ronson perfectly melded Bowie’s folk music songwriting strengths with a raw, Stooges-esque electric barrage, one that always fit in precisely beside Bowie’s acoustic guitar. He was the only sideman that could have worked with such a large personality. Ronson never outshined Bowie; the stage was Ziggy Stardust’s, and Stardust’s alone. Instead, Ronson would hang back and let the guitar do the speaking, providing the sonic equivalent to Bowie’s glitter, jumpsuits, and dyed hair. Oh, and in case you needing more convincing about the man’s importance, Ronson also wrote all of the string arrangements on those Bowie songs from 70-73.
“Width of a Circle” is the pinnacle of Ronson’s abilities. It’s an 8 minute tale about a mystical journey with monsters, gods, devils, and “pits of fear,” yet from the very opening lick, this is Ronson’s song. The studio version itself has multiple Ronson solos spread throughout. And the live version, well…that’s a beast of an entirely different caliber.
Now sit back and watch as the bloused and mascara’d banshee man plays the shit of his guitar.
Five Years (Ziggy Stardust, 1972)
“Five Years,” the opening track on Ziggy Stardust, pretty much captures the whole of the album in its 4:43 running time. The world is going insane, the speaker is feeling pretty miserable because he’s sitting there and watching everything go to hell. Yet there’s such a human longing in it, a desire to reach out and help everyone: “Your face, your race, the way that you talk; I kiss you, you’re beautiful, I want you to walk.” The music serves as the perfect reflection of these emotions. The song begins and ends on a lone drumbeat, as the speaker stands alone, unable to do anything but watch and listen. As the song progresses, and his pity, love, and hope all build, the strings build alongside him, the power of the song mounting, the emotions all bubbling up. We reach the climax – desperate cries of “Five years! That’s all we’ve got!” as the strings start to derail and reverbed screams fade in and out.
Sweet Head (outtake, 1972)
An outtake off Ziggy Stardust, and easily one of Bowie’s best rock songs. Clearly about fellatio, prettied up with puns and wordplay. And there’s this line: “Till there was rock you only had God”
Nothing more needs to be said.
Lady Grinning Soul (Aladdin Sane, 1973)
Confident and romantic, sexy and empowering, “Lady Grinning Soul” is a James Bond-esque warning of a femme fatale lying in wait: “And when the clothes are strewn, don’t be afraid of the room; Touch the fullness of her breast, feel the love of her caress – She will be your living end.” The piano hovers here, a light and airy presence over the propulsive guitar/drum combo. The piano is all smiles, but the guitar knows better: She will be your living end.
Fascination (Young Americans, 1975)
The first post-Ziggy song on our list, “Fascination” is everything great about Bowie after the glam years. Soulful music drenched in funk and disco, Bowie became provocative in his wild attempts to re-appropriate American R&B in his own alien image. The song was co-written with Luther Vandross, and is highlighted with a full female choir backing him over the chorus, a perfect counterpoint to Bowie’s deep, hollow vocals that almost feel one-step removed here. The backing vocals bring him back down to earth, where we find a cacophony of crying saxophone, sharp lead guitar staccatos, and ominous keyboards.
The song is a simultaneously a playful tribute to soul and a reflection of Bowie’s pop-rock tendencies. And like Bowie’s imitations of Dylan and Velvet Underground early in his career, while both artists were still going strong, “Fascination” and the entire Young Americans album reflect a startlingly astute awareness of what soul and R&B had been in the past, what they meant then in 1975, and where the genres could be taken. The album feels like a postmodern pastiche of different musical styles before anyone else was really doing that sort of thing, at least not on such a high profile level.
It’s also the solidification of Bowie as the ultimate artist-fan – the one who sees himself primarily as a fan, who attempts to take the music he loves and recreate the sound as he sees it. The key here, and for all of Bowie’s career, is that how he perceives the different styles are often far different than how anyone else understands them. Hence the man took a recombination of Bob Dylan, Lou Reed, Little Richard, and a pinch of T. Rex and created modern glam rock. He took soul music and came up with Young Americans and Station to Station. He even wrote “Kooks” after listening to Neil Young all day on the radio. And, as I’ll get to next, he took the increasingly mechanization of music and came up with Low and Heroes.
Be My Wife (Low, 1977)
This write-up can really go for the entire Low album, a standout Bowie album that was also truly ahead of its time. Low combined very synthetic, highly produced sounds with pop hooks and melodies. Rock was trending towards computerization and the digital age, and Bowie, along with world-class producer Brian Eno, was able to combine that technology with traditional rock.
On “Be My Wife,” the piano is far louder than the other instruments, drowning out everything else when it barges in for brief moments. The guitars sit in the background, their subdued cries side by side with plastic-sounding snares and cymbals. During the bridge, the piano leaves, but the guitars still become secondary to the bass guitar, a funk groove that dances over it. It’s a strangely structured song that sounds curiously 80s, despite being released in 1977.
Like every song we’ve looked at (and all of the hits that we haven’t), it feels like Bowie looked at the music being produced around him and decided he’d make his own characteristically warped version. David Bowie’s vision of the present seems to almost always become everyone else’s future. Just when you think you know what music is, Bowie paints over it. Sometimes with glitter and sometimes with steel.
 Ronson was to Bowie what Scottie Pippen was to Michael Jordan. Replace the guitar with seemingly supernatural perimeter defense, and we basically have the same situation. And yes, it was really hard for me to relegate a basketball analogy to a footnote. Self-editing, everyone! I did it! (kind of)