May 21 – Ziggy Danced To The Top

He’d been Ziggy Stardust and Alladin Sane, a wild innovator and one of rock’s more “out there” stars. But by 1983, David Bowie had perhaps grown tired of putting on masks and other-wordly personas and just wanted to be himself. And to take his career to the next level. On this day 39 years ago, he had succeeded, with his single “Let’s Dance” hitting #1 in the U.S. It was the first single and title track from his 15th studio album, which would go on to be the biggest of his career.

Bowie had, of course, some degree of success before in the 16 or so years he’d been recording prior to this. He’d even had a prior American #1 song, (“Fame”) and in his native Britain, he’d scored three. Nevertheless, he’d always been considered a bit of an oddity, a mid-level star known more for his wild appearance and alter-egos than his radio hits. He wanted to change all that. To do so, he had to step on a few toes. When preparing to record a new record, he’d originally penciled in his friend Tony Visconti to produce it, as he had his last four albums. He had a last-minute change of heart and brought in Nile Rodgers instead.

Rodgers was the American guitarist and co-leader of the band Chic, which had put out a string of disco-based hits at the tail end of the ’70s, and was also integral to producing and putting together the sound of Sister Sledge. Rodgers says when Bowie called him, “he told me that he wanted me to did what I do best – make hits.”

That he did, and he made Bowie’s sound a bit more danceable, a bit more smoothly pop-sounding than it had been in the past. This song for example, was (according to Bowie) rather a folksy-sounding guitar ballad before Rodgers got his hands – and session player pals – on it. Even when it was completed, Bowie didn’t think it sounded like a single. He was partial to “China Girl” (which would in time be released as a single and make #2 in the UK and #10 in the States) but both Rodgers and Bowie’s new record label, EMI , which he had just signed to, insisted otherwise. Wisely so, as it turns out, as it hit #1 in the UK, U.S., Canada, Ireland and elsewhere, quickly propelling the album to the top of the charts and platinum status.

The BBC applauded the song’s “loud stadium-ized drum and bass sound” while journalist Johnny Law noted with it, “Bowie became for the first time. a global pop brand.” That would be helped along by the following singles, the aforementioned “China Girl” and “Modern Love.” “Let’s Dance” would have a second-life, unfortunately precipitated by Bowie’s death in 2016. After that it quickly rose to #23 again in the UK and was the #6 most-streamed song in the U.S.

Bowie wasn’t the only one to benefit from the great single. The striking guitar work on it is courtesy Texan bluesman Stevie Ray Vaughan, whom Bowie had seen at Montreaux the previous summer and been impressed enough to want him on the record. Vaughan had been a popular bar performer in Texas but was not widely known in 1982. After the Bowie single, he put out his debut album, Texas Flood, later in ’83 and it hit #38 in the U.S. and spawned his first hit song, “Pride and Joy.”

May 5 – Reed Was A Transformer Of Hit Radio

The American public took a “Walk on the Wild Side” this day in 1973… with the song of that name by Lou Reed peaking at #16. It was quite possibly the most unlikely hit of the decade in the U.S., and one might think no one would have been more surprised than Reed himself.

Reed was at the time 31 and was about two years out of the legendary Velvet Underground…a band which famously inspired a generation of new musicians but never quite came close to having a “hit” record in terms of sales let alone radio play. His first solo record in ’72 met with the same commercial response as the band’s had, and expectations for his second one, Transformer, weren’t much higher. One thing was different however, Lou got David Bowie and Mick Ronson (Bowie’s lead guitarist and frequent collaborator) to produce the album. The pair had both been big fans of the Velvet Underground.

Walk on the Wild Side” had a slow, sultry sound quite unusual for mainstream radio at the time, highlighted by a great sax solo fading out at the song’s end (played by Ronnie Ross) and the prominent, funky bassline played by one of the best session bassists anywhere, Herbie Flowers. Flowers actually played two different basses – an old standup one and a typical Fender electric – hoping they would pay him double! That didn’t work apparently, and he got a flat rate 17 pounds (about $250 in current money) for his contribution. But they mixed the two tracks together to get the ominous rumbling sound that made the single stand out. Oh, and there were the lyrics as well!

Reed would call the song a “gay song…carefully worded so straights can miss out on the implications and enjoy (it) without being offended.” He got the basic idea after reading a novel of the same name, about a drifter who left Texas for New Orleans, seeking excitement along the way. But he wrote about people he’d known in New York, friends of Andy Warhol’s. Drag queens or transexuals mainly, not the fare for most top 40 hits in the early-’70s! “I always thought it would be fun to introduce people to characters they might have met or hadn’t wanted to meet,” the singer said.

Among the real-life people populating the song were “Little Joe,” the “Sugar Plum Fairy” and “Holly.” Joe was Joe Campbell, a transexual actor who’d made movies with Warhol (although some suggest his character was more a composite of Warhol hangarounds and ‘Sugar Plum Fairy’ was a nickname for any drug dealer in their gang). Holly was Holly Woodlawn, a transgender person who left home in Miami at 15. “I was going to school, getting stones thrown at me , being beaten up by homophobic rednecks,” they recalled, so “I ran away from home and hitch-hiked across the U.S.A.” ending up with the Warhol gang in the Big Apple.

Despite its for-its-time shocking references to oral sex and cross-dressing, few censors seemed to have a problem with it. It was perhaps too outrageous and wild for them to really pick up on the content. The only thing some stations had a problem with was the phrase “the colored girls” in one line and a few stations beeped that out.

The song pushed the boundaries of radio…and Transformer to platinum status in the UK and his top-seller everywhere. Likewise, by hitting #16 in the U.S., #10 in Britain and #18 in Canada, “Walk on the Wild Side” was pretty much his only major hit single. Curiously, his second best-known song might be the one on the b-side to the 45 – “Perfect Day.”

April 14 – The ‘Gnome’nclature Of Kicking Off A Big Career

What a difference a few – or 16- years makes! Today it’s all about The Thin White Duke, Ziggy Stardust, Starman…aka David Bowie.

On this day in 1983, he put out his smash Let’s Dance, the biggest-selling record of his career. But…it was on this day back in 1967 Bowie put out his first album. That might seem appropriate given his talent and stature in rock history and given that year’s prominence in developing the sound with the likes of Sgt. Pepper… and the emergence of The Doors. Only Bowie’s entry to the scene wasn’t quite that celebrated. In fact, it’s probably fair to say it was pretty bad! Just prior to the album release, his single, “The Laughing Gnome” came out. You’re forgiven if you’re not that familiar with it. It isn’t up there with “Fame” or “A Space Oddity” when it comes to recurrent radio play!

The song was a very odd, “whimsical” tune about, well, a jolly gnome. Bowie sang the regular parts , with reference to “his tiny hands on his tummy” and so forth, as well as the gnome bits. The latter were accomplished by speeding up his voice until it was chipmunk-like, assuring listeners he was the laughing gnome, “Ho ho ho, hee hee hee.” The song would have been buried in the annals of forgettable music had Bowie not gone on to bigger and better. When his star was on the rise, his label re-released it as a single in 1973 in Europe (when “A Space Oddity” , also a re-release, was riding high over here) and remarkably, it got to #6 in the UK! A copy of that 1973 release, by the way, might fetch you something like $20 online but if you have a copy of the original Deram Records , 7” single from 1967, you might ask yourself why? Nonetheless, your surprising taste in music over 50 years back could pay off as apparently there are people who will buy it for around $300, the going rate.

His biographer David Buckley thought it was a “supremely catchy children’s song” but most agreed with the NME which called it the most embarrassing bit of his career.” We expect Bowie agreed with that assessment; when he had a fan vote in 1990 to see what song they wanted added to his “Sound + Vision” concerts, this song was leading. So he scrapped the vote. Seems Bowie got the last laugh, not the gnome

January 18 – Bowie’s Star Shone Bright

On this day six years ago, the world was still mourning the unexpected death of the great David Bowie... and he was sitting on top of the British album charts.

Blackstar came out on Bowie’s 69th birthday, January 8, 2016, and preceded his death by a mere two days. No coincidence that; producer Tony Visconti ( a longtime friend of David’s and producer of many of his best albums, like Heroes and Scary Monsters) was with him as they recorded it in New York early in 2015 and says Bowie wanted it as a “parting gift” to his fans. By that time, the singer knew he had cancer and little time left but few others did. The backing band for instance, say he seemed healthy and worked a solid schedule every day, something one couldn’t always say about the 1970s version of the man!

At the time, Bowie was listening to a lot of electronica music as well as rap, and perhaps some jazz, which had been his favorite type of music when he was a youth. All those forms came into play on Blackstar. What didn’t was mainstream pop-rock. This was no “Let’s Dance…Again!” effort. Instead we got a mass of bleak lyrics and odd, varied sounds utilizing everything from harmonica to regular electric guitars to orchestral strings. If there was one “pop” inspiration involved it would almost assuredly be Radiohead, not Nile Rodgers or Iggy Pop. As The Independant would say, it was “as far as he’s strayed from pop” through his varied career of 50 years. The title track – all 10 minutes of it – and “Lazarus” , the singles from the album, both seem to deal with mortality and death. Many pointed to the line in “Lazarus” that went “Look up here, I’m in heaven, I’ve got scars that can’t be seen” as the definitive statement about him and about the album’s relevance.

Reviews were excellent, although a cynic might debate how wonderful they would have been if Bowie had succumbed to his cancer a month or two later. The release date meant most publications were reviewing it right beside the unhappy obituary for him. Rolling Stone gave it 4-stars, Spin 7/10. Entertainment Weekly graded it “A-”, saying it was expected in its unexpectedness since “the man who fell to Earth has made an entire career of defying terrestrial categories and classification”. Pitchfork figured he was “adding to the myth while the myth is his to hold.”

The public agreed and were eager to revel in their sorrow. It hit #1 in Canada, Australia and many other countries, including the U.S. That was a surprise because he’d never had a chart-topping album before in the States; even Let’s Dance only made #4. The first week Blackstar sales there of 181 000 were the best single week sales on record for The Thin White Duke.

But it was his Britain that took to it the most. It knocked Adele from her seven-week run at #1, and spent three weeks on top, before a greatest hits compilation of his edged it out at #1. One week in January, Bowie notched seven of the 40 biggest-selling albums in the UK, a feat only Elvis Presley had done before.

The album has resonance and was remembered come year-end. Newsweek, Mojo and Q each picked it as the “album of the year” . As well it earned five Grammys including Best Alternative Album and Best Rock Song for the title track, and the Brit Awards Album of The Year… something Bowie had never done while alive.

Long may you shine on, “Black star.”

January 8 – Stars Let Your Letters Be Really First Class

One day, two superstars. Two of rock’s boldest, envelope-pushing, and enduringly popular men were both born on January 8th, 12 years apart. In Tupelo, Mississippi, Elvis Aron Presley on this day in 1935; in London, England, David Jones, aka David Bowie, in 1947. If you believe in astrology, perhaps there’s a creative bent to Capricorns.

Both had careers that lasted decades. Both won Grammy Awards (Elvis, 3; Bowie, 6). Both had #1 songs – Bowie, six in his UK, two in the U.S.; Elvis 18 in both lands (although a different list of 18 in both.) Both shocked the masses a bit, early on in their careers – Elvis with his tight pants and hip-shaking; Bowie with his makeup and androgynous looks. And perhaps most surprising, both have been honored in their homelands… on stamps. Which takes us to this day in 1993.

On what would have been Elvis’ 58th birthday, the U.S. Postal Service released the famous “Elvis stamp.” The 29-cent postage stamp was the first in their series of “Legends of American Music” ones. Hundreds lined up at Graceland early in the morning to see a fireworks show, sing “Happy Birthday” to Elvis then see the official launch of the stamp, getting a special edition envelope bearing the stamp to take with them. It had been a long wait.

People began pushing for “The King” to be honored on a stamp since the time he died. The Post Office had a requirement that someone be deceased ten years before being pictured on a stamp, so nothing happened until the late-’80s. In 1992, they finally agreed to put out an “Elvis stamp.” Which led to the question of what image should be used? They ended up with two possible designs, a “young Elvis” and an “old Elvis”, derisively nicknamed “Fat Elvis.” They printed up actual ballots which they had in the post offices and were printed in People magazine, letting the public decide. The “young” “Hound Dog” era design beat the “old” “Burnin’ Love” one by more than three to one. Over a million ballots were counted in the end. Fittingly, they decided to wait until his birthday to officially put them in circulation.

When all was said and done, they made 517 million of the stamps, about triple the normal number for a stamp in that decade, and the most-ever for any commemorative stamp. Later on in the year, they also released stamps featuring Bill Haley, Ritchie Valens, Buddy Holly, Clyde McPhatter and Otis Redding; none came close to the popularity of Presley’s. Since then they’ve issued about 60 or so more musician stamps, although few are from the world of rock or country music. There are many jazz musicians and no less than eight orchestra conductors included however.

If a single 29-cent U.S. stamp isn’t enough for your Elvis book, you can find any number of foreign countries like Gambia and Liberia who’ve also given him some tender love by putting his face on their stamps.

Bowie’s appearance on a stamp wasn’t quite as hyped. But nor did it require a choice of old or new. In 2017, Britain’s Royal Mail released a set of ten different stamps honoring him. While in the past they had put out stamps honoring rock stars (like a set which had album covers of artists like Pink Floyd and Blur) it was the first time they’d given more than one to a particular artist. They included pictures of album covers like Let’s Dance, Heroes and Aladdin Sane, so you could have young Bowie and old Bowie.

The USPS perhaps were unduly buoyed by the success of the Elvis stamp and over-estimated the appeal of pop culture stamps in general (or underestimated the appeal of Elvis). In 2010, they honored TV’s The Simpsons with stamps too. Although they sold some 300 million of them, they were left with 618 million unsold ones. D’oh!

December 17 – A Hunky Dory Day For Glam Fans

It was a Hunky Dory kind of day for art rock or glam rock fans 50 years ago. That was because the David Bowie album of that name came out this day in 1971.

The singer soon to be nicknamed “Starman”s own star was on the rise by then, particularly in his UK homeland. Hunky Dory would only accelerate that rise. It was his fourth album, but first on RCA Records, kicking off a highly-successful string of ’70s albums with them. He brought guitarist Mick Ronson back to work with him; the pair had already forged quite a friendship and creative bond through his previous work. Yes keyboardist Rick Wakeman was the main keyboardist. However, RCA changed things up a little for it by bringing in a new producer to help Bowie, Ken Scott. Scott had been a studio engineer at Abbey Road studios and helped out on various Beatles albums and had just finished off working with George Harrison on All Things Must Pass.

Although they recorded the album in London, Bowie looked elsewhere for inspiration. He’d later say it “reflected my newfound enthusiasm for this new continent (North America) that had been opened to me.” That showed up not only a little in the sound but in the songs themselves…”Andy Warhol” and “A Song For Bob Dylan” for instance. On the former, although Warhol and Bowie would become friends, the American was apparently not altogether impressed. Bowie says the song was played for Andy and he hated it. He got up and left the room, “he had nothing to say at all, absolutely nothing.” There’s no word on whether Dylan liked his song any better.

When it was done it was an 11-song set that veered all over the musical map, as Bowie typically did at his best early on in his career. There was what the BBC described as the “proto-punk” “Queen Bitch,” written for Lou Reed, side by side with the almost folky “A Song For Bob Dylan.” And there was the lead-off song on the album that would become one of his signature pieces, “Changes.”

Reaction was enthusiastic right away. Peter Noone of Herman’s Hermits exclaimed “my view is that David Bowie is the best writer in Britain at this moment.” Britain’s Melody Maker declared it “the most inventive piece of songwriting to appear in some time,” and the New York Times one-upped that, saying Bowie was “the most intellectually-brilliant man yet to choose the long-playing album as his medium of expression.” Unlike some albums of that era, the praise hasn’t dimmed in the decades since. Spin, Rolling Stone, Blender and allmusic all have retroactively given it a perfect 5-star rating at different times. The latter applauded him for “leaving heavy metal behind” (that being a reference to his prior album, The Man Who Sold the World) and called this one “fresh post-modern pop…a kaleidoscopic array of pop styles tied together only by Bowie’s sense of vision.” Rolling Stone have consistently ranked it as his second-best album (behind only Ziggy Stardust) and in the top 200 greatest albums of all-time on various lists they’ve published through the years.

For all that, critics seemed to like it a bit more than the ordinary public. RCA didn’t promote it that heavily, especially in North America where they feared he was a one hit wonder and perhaps worried about his androgynous look on the cover… a photo of him in which he said he was trying to channel Marlene Dietrich and the glory of the war-era Silver Screen sirens… a bit much perhaps for Americans to swallow, they thought. As a result (not to mention the fact that the music was boundary-pushing which seldom results in smash hits when they arrive) it did well in the UK, getting to #3, by far his best-showing to that point, and being his first to go platinum. There, the single “Life on Mars” hit #3. Over here though, the album peaked at #57 in the States, helped along by “Changes,” which just missed the top 40. Needless to say, as the world of music caught up to him through the ’70s, the album continued to sell decently and “Changes” has become a rock-radio staple, yet it still hasn’t moved enough copies to be certified gold anywhere besides Britain.

October 14 – Germany Signaled Heroic Change For Bowie

With his ever-changing looks and eclectic artistic leanings, David Bowie became a hero to many. And on this day in 1977, he introduced us to his “Heroes” – that is to say, his album, entitled that. It was his 12th studio album, and the middle one of his so-called “Berlin Trilogy.”

That set of albums of course, came out of the time in the late-’70s Bowie had moved to Germany for a couple of years, escaping his previous home, L.A. “Life in L.A. had left me with an overwhelming sense of foreboding. I had approached the brink of drug-induced calamity one too many times and it was essential to take some sort of positive action,” he said later. That positive action turned out to be moving to the West Germany. “The city was cheap and it guaranteed anonymity,” journalist Sophie Harris explained as to his reasoning.

Going with him was equally eclectic musician Eno. The first record they did together there was Low with the British hit “Sound and Vision.” For this one they brought in guitarist Robert Fripp, of King Crimson to add a bit of edge but continued on with their mixing of styles and influences, recording in an old studio located only yards away from the Berlin Wall (which of course still divided the city and land – this was still at the height of the Cold War.)

The wall was partly the inspiration for the title track, loosely about a couple of lovers separated by it but meeting there. “A perfect expression of romantic defiance,” in the words of Harris. The rest of the album merged Eno’s tendencies towards atmospheric, ambient electronic music and Bowie’s glam rock with several dark instrumentals like “Neukolln” and “Sense of Doubt.” It was all interesting, ground-breaking and perhaps a bit ironic long before Generation Irony took over. Bowie explained that he used quotation marks on the title because he thought it ironic how the word “heroes” was bandied about in society.

RCA realized it could be a bit difficult to market properly. They ran ads saying “There’s old wave, there’s new wave. And there’s David Bowie.” Basically, critics noticed and loved the record. The public ignored it, or yawned if they did come across it. The title track was the first single, and despite how much a staple of “classic rock” radio it has become, at the time wasn’t a major hit. It rose to #24 in the UK and didn’t even chart in North America. Eventually it was certified gold in Britain, but not until his death had spurred on renewed interest in his career this decade. The album itself got to #3 in the UK but only #35 in the U.S., the lowest peak for any of his albums since 1971. Even in Germany, where it was birthed, it attracted little attention, going to #44, even with Bowie issuing a version that included some songs in German.

The few reviews at the time seemed positive, but the album’s stature has grown significantly through the years. Of late, Pitchfork gave it a perfect 10, declaring it “showed all the signs of an artist growing up. Part Little Richard boogie, part Krautrock… the unlikely stylistic combination (of Bowie and Eno) hints at man’s evolution with technology, while throwing off sparks of sweat.” Entertainment Weekly, looking back at his career upon his death in 2016 rated the record “A”, calling it “art rock… thickly layered songs that subtly reflect the rise of punk’s existential angst.” Allmusic grade it a perfect 5-stars, particularly liking Fripp’s added guitars and describing the results as “challenging and ground-breaking.” Which, we might add, could be a description of the man himself.

September 24 – Should Bowie Have Waited For The Next Morning?

David Bowie is widely seen as one of the best, and most creative rock stars we’ve ever seen or heard. Rightfully so. But even a creative genius can have a bit of a miss…even if it’s a hit. Such was the general reaction to his 16th studio album, Tonight, which arrived on this day in 1984.

The previous year had been a huge – and tiring – one for David. He’d released Let’s Dance, which catapulted him from quirky low-profile star with an almost cult following into the ranks of the biggest music superstars, seemingly overnight. He helped that along by touring relentlessly for the remainder of ’83, with his “Serious Moonlight” tour, the first that saw him playing football stadiums in many places. By the time he turned the calendar on 1984, he was worn out… and uncharacteristically for him, low on ideas for new music. He decided to take a break and go on holiday to Borneo with his old buddy Iggy Pop. There they threw around a few musical ideas.

It seemed the break might be doing him good, but his new record label, EMI (whom he’d signed a major contract with prior to Let’s Dance) wanted product. Strike while the iron is hot and all. So he danced off to Quebec and its Morin Heights Le Studio, where the Police had done most of their Synchronicity album. He took Iggy along, and most of the musicians he used on the previous year’s tour including long-time guitarist Carlos Alomar. This time he didn’t have a whole idea for an album planned out, other than he wanted something that wouldn’t sound out of place next to Let’s Dance, but maybe with a bit more funk and R&B taste to it. That in mind, it was surprising he didn’t bring back Nile Rodgers, the famed producer who’d done so much on his last record and was noted for just that kind of sound. Instead he invited a little-known guitarist, Derek Bramble, to join him, play guitars, bass and synthesizers and co-produce it with him. He grudgingly followed EMI’s advice and also brought Hugh Padgham into the studio he knew so well, initially only as a sound engineer (which irked Hugh, but not enough to turn down working the The Thin White Duke.) However, as the days went on, tensions rose as Padgham wanted great performances whereas Bramble tended to go with a “one take for better or worse” type attitude. As Alomar later put it, “Bramble was a really nice guy but he didn’t know jack-s*** about producing!”. Padgham was soon elevated to co-producer with Bowie himself.

As for the music, Bowie only arrived with two songs for the album : “Loving the Alien” and “Blue Jean.” He also had several cover songs he wanted to do; in fact five of them appeared among the album’s nine tracks. Three of those were Iggy Pop tunes, one of which, the title track, Bowie had co-written years ago. Also included were his much-panned take on the Beach Boys “God Only Knows” and “I Keep Forgettin’”, a ’60s Chuck Jackson song which had been modified and made a hit only a couple of years earlier by Michael MacDonald. Bowie decided not to play any instruments. “I just came in with the songs and ideas and how they should be played and watched them put them together. It was great!”.

It might have been great for Bowie to take it easy, but the question was did it make the record great? Few felt it did. At the time, the NME liked it, saying it had a likable and “dizzying variety of mood and techniques.” Melody Maker in Britain offered a different opinion: “rotten.” Rolling Stone declared “this album is a throwaway and David Bowie knows it,” giving it a lowly 1-star rating.

Did his newfound legion of fans agree with them? Well, the album did well… but not nearly as well as its predecessor. “Blue Jean,” a song Bowie called “sexist rock’n’roll” and designed as an homage to the early-’60s, was generally acknowledged as the best song on the record, and as the lead-off single, it hit #6 in his homeland and Canada and #8 in the U.S., his fifth top 10 hit overall there. The title track, with his friend Tina Turner dueting with him also got a little airplay but missed the top 40 and the dark “Loving the Alien” squeaked into the UK top 20. Overall, the album topped the Brit charts, his third-straight #1 there, but topped out at #4 in Canada and New Zealand, and #11 in the States. It reached platinum status in North America and gold in Britain, but fell far short of Let’s Dance in sales.

And in esteem as it turns out. Later on, allmusic would give it just 2-stars, his lowest rating for an album of new material to that point, and about the Rolling Stone suggestion about it being a throwaway and he knew it…only three years after it was released, Bowie admitted “it was just a collection of songs. If you play it as an album, it doesn’t work.” He didn’t stay in his rut too long though; soon he’d join the raucous Tin Machine, which wasn’t hugely successful but did sound different and win decent reviews.

September 12 – Bowie Bowed Out Of Berlin, To Good Effect

Balancing the scales between avant garde and experimental art and commercially palatable music is quite a trick… but one David Bowie often pulled off. Case in point, this day in 1980, when he put out his 14th studio album – Scary Monsters and Super Creeps, usually known simply as Scary Monsters.

It was in retrospect, rather a “bridge” for David, not only going from the ’70s to the ’80s but in going from experimental and very European, with his previous trio of albums referred to as “The Berlin Trilogy” and the very successful pop superstar that would emerge with Let’s Dance about three years later. Unlike the past trio of records, Bowie didn’t record it in Germany and didn’t call on odd-but-brilliant Eno for help producing. But he did have much of his backing band back, including guitarist Carlos Alomar, and producer Tony Visconti, who’d worked on a total of eight Bowie albums before. They largely recorded it in New York City – even calling on E Street Band keyboardist Roy Bittan to help out on a few songs – with a few final takes and overdubs done back in London. Other guest appearances included guitarist Robert Fripp, from King Crimson, who did the lead on “Fashion” and Pete Townshend who also added some six-string to “Because You’re Young.” And not atypical for Bowie’s quirkiness, Adrian Belew says he was paid to also do some guitar bits but never asked to actually do them! The versatile Bowie himself handled any number of synthesizers, other keyboards and even some sax.

The record itself was still offbeat compared to most of what was popular in 1980, but definitely had a bit more pop accessibility than some of his late-’70s output. He later said “there was a certain degree of optimism making it…I felt very positive about the future (and) I just got down to writing a really comprehensive and well-crafted record.” The result was, to biographer Nicholas Pegg, “the triumphant culmination of Bowie’s steely art rock phase and a crucial doorway into the 1980s.”

There were nine songs, ten if you consider “It’s No Game” as two. The interesting piece opens and closes the record, and stands out due to its nearly shouted Japanese bits. They were courtesy Japanese actress Michi Hirota. Bowie says the song was “to break down a particular sexist attitude about women,” especially Asian ones, whom he noted “think an awful lot, with quite as much strength as any man.” The Eastern theme also extended to an instrumental which was cut from the LP, “Crystal Japan”, which soon emerged as a commercial jingle for a Japanese soft drink. Other tracks included “Teenage Wildlife”, according to the singer about youth “taking a short view of life, not looking too far ahead” and the funky “Fashion” . But Scary Monsters crowning moment, and most talked-about one was e return of one of his favorite song characters – Major Tom, who he sang about in his first smash hit, “Space Oddity.” Tom’s story continues on the “Ashes to Ashes”, the first single off the record. RCA backed that by making what was at the time the biggest budget music video ever for it. It cost something like 250 000 pounds to make, or well over a million dollars in today’s cash.

It paid off, since the album sold, and garnered good reviews. Rolling Stone gave it 4.5-stars, outdone by Britain’s Record Mirror which unabashedly rated it “seven stars out of five!”. Retrospective looks included Spin, 4-stars, and allmusic, which gave it 5-stars, his first such rating since Heroes. They declared it to be “dense but accessible music” but also “Bowie’s last great album.”

The record-buying public would disagree with that last statement, but did take to it. It went platinum in both the UK and Canada, and in fact was a #1 hit in the former, and Australia as well. In Canada it made it to #9, in the U.S., #14. Overall it was his biggest-seller since ’73’s Aladdin Sane. Helping that happen was “Ashes to Ashes”, his first British chart-topper since …yep, it’s previous instalment if you will, “Space Oddity.”

July 11 – Bowie’s Slow Ascent To The Stars

It wasn’t a straight-trajectory to the stratosphere for a David Bowie single released this day 52 years ago, but eventually it shone like a supernova. “Space Oddity” was released as a single on this day in 1969, from Bowie’s second album (self-titled then but later renamed Space Oddity by RCA).

Believe it or not, at the time Bowie wasn’t a big star, was known primarily for a rather bad novelty song and this single – now considered his defining moment – wasn’t likely to help the matter. So much so, his regular producer wouldn’t produce it! While Tony Visconti did agree to play flute on the record, he wouldn’t produce the single. He said “this song rubbed me the wrong way.” Not only did he think it was an obvious ploy to cash in on the Apollo space program and planned walk on the moon (which took place just nine days later “if you believe”) , he thought it sounded a lot like Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bookends.” So Gus Dudgeon came in to produce. Dudgeon says “People who had gimmicks (in the late-’60s) were taken more seriously than those who hadn’t,” and furthermore “I listened to the demo and thought it was incredible.” So he produced it, and would a couple of years later also produce the similarly-themed “Rocketman” by Elton John.

The single became the first one for Bowie to hit the top 10 in his UK, but oddly enough flopped initially in the U.S. An oddity that, given the U.S. love affair with the Space Race in ’69. Only when his Ziggy Stardust persona became popular a few years later did RCA re-release the single and it then made the North American top 20 in 1973, and after that re-entered the UK charts and hit #1.

Of course since then it became Bowie’s signature tune, was sung by Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield on the Space Station and would be ranked as the #26 “Greatest Number 1 Single” ever by NME. It also led to another UK #1, Bowie’s follow-up in 1980, “Ashes to Ashes” and a hit for Peter Schilling who continued the storyline with “Major Tom (Coming Home.)” And as for Visconti, time has a way of changing opinions. He says “years later he and I joked about it (his panning of the song) so much” and he remixed it for a 7” vinyl single going out to record stores for Record Store Day in 2019.