Song of the Day, March 24: Wild Is the Wind by David Bowie

BowieStationWindToday’s song is a curious choice given haunting power by a recently departed master. Dmitri Tiomkin and Ned Washington wrote the title track for the 1957 film Wild Is the Wind for Johnny Mathis. His version was nominated for an Oscar (losing to Frank Sinatra’s reading of All the Way from The Joker Is Wild) and went to #22 on the Hot 100. Eclectic chanteuse Nina Simone included a live version of the song on her 1959 album Nina Simone At Town Hall and later crafted a definitive version as the title track for her 1966 album.

David Bowie was a big Simone fan, and after meeting her he decided to record his own version as an homage. It appears on his brilliant transitional album Station to Station, one of six widely varied, carefully crafted songs. While clearly inspired by Simone, Bowie plumbs the song’s darker depths, making it his own. He shows off a very different vocal that works nicely as he sheds the Thin White Duke and heads for Berlin.

Enjoy this wonderful rendition of an epic ballad today, in remembrance of the late, great David Bowie.

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Album of the Week, February 28: The Compilation Conundrum

They have many names: Greatest Hits, Best of, Singles, Gold, and more! What these albums have in common is that they provide a snapshot of a musical act’s output. As I’ve written my way through my favorite artists and albums, I’ve avoided focusing on any of these overviews, saving them for the Further Listening section as appropriate. Sometimes, however, a compilation is a wonderful way to enjoy the music. The best of the Best Of’s come in five flavors.

ABBAGoldSqueeze45s1. The Hit Machines
Perhaps the most prevalent — and one of the first types of long-player available — are the collections of songs an act has released as singles intended for radio play. Many acts have enough big hits to fill a disc or two, creating a nice overview for casual fans or for people mostly interested in the familiar material. These discs serve as great overviews of solid genre performers (like Donna Summer), or acts that frankly put their best music out as singles (thank you, ABBA). Sometimes a compilation will catch a song that never made it onto another album (Blondie and Call Me), and they often have a new track or two that will become a hit (Dan Fogelberg’s nice Greatest Hits). It can also be a great way to get a snapshot of a band that was a hit machine outside the United States, like Squeeze (Singles, 45’s and Under) or the Jam (the amazing Snap!). Let the buyer beware, of course since single releases of songs may be remixes or shortened versions. Madonna’s Immaculate Collection is a notorious example of great music badly collected.

ChangesOneBowieMartynIsland2. Career Overviews
Many acts have long, interesting careers that include songs that were never hits or a mix of hits from each side of the Atlantic. Major stars like Bob Dylan and David Bowie fit here nicely, and each curated one collection themselves (Greatest Hits, Vol. 2 and ChangesOneBowie respectively). Some long careers never included radio play, like the chameleonic John Martyn. A good compilation can also be a way to preserve a particular slice of a career, like the Beatles’ “Red” and “Blue” albums. Like the hit machine collections, these are a great way for a casual fan to connect with an artist or for a newcomer to get started.

DrakeWayCroceP&M3. Short Careers
Not everyone sticks around as long as the Rolling Stones. When an act has a small catalog, a collection can be a strong introduction or a nice overview. Artists who died young — like Nick Drake or Jim Croce — are great examples, as are bands that only had a couple of albums and some singles, like the Zombies. File this category under Your Mileage May Vary, of course. I can’t imagine not owning all three original Drake discs or the entirety of Odessey and Oracle. I’m very happy with a smart overview of Croce’s music however, blending the hits and some solid album cuts.

CostelloTakingBuzzcocksSingles4. Oddities and Outtakes
Many artists, especially the most prolific, have a backlog of unreleased tracks, demos, and b-sides. For these, a compilation is often the only way to get everything, especially for completionists. Elvis Costello’s Taking Liberties, Robyn Hitchcock’s Invisible Hitchcock, and the Triffids’ Beautiful Waste and Other Songs (which includes two EPs) are great examples. Sadly, these albums often go out of print as content is repackaged. Costello’s maddening multiple versions of every album are a prime example. The “bonus track” phenomenon can round out a great album (Hitchcock’s I Often Dream of Trains) or clog up half a disc with fragments and experiments (most Alan Parsons Project re-issues).

Related to this category are bands that release numerous non-album singles. Buzzcocks’ Singles Going Steady is a perfect overview of the band, with the best moments from their early albums and all those singles that never had an album to call home. Earlier performers, like Nat “King” Cole or Jo Stafford often fit into this group almost by default.

ClaptonCrossroadsrtBBC5. The Mega-Pack
Starting in the late 80s, the box set became a phenomenon, taking most of these categories and dumping them into four- or five-disc collections. These are usually very mixed bags — as Barenaked Ladies warn us — often including multiple alternate versions or sonically challenged live takes. Sometimes, however, they really hit the mark. Eric Clapton’s Crossroads is one of the best examples. Because he played in so many different bands and had a long solo career on multiple labels, collecting a good sample of his work is nearly impossible without this box. For listeners who want a thorough overview of a long career, big packages are a great way to get a solid collection without buying dozens of albums.

Artists with extensive live or broadcast catalogs can benefit from a box as well. Richard Thompson’s Live At the BBC is a perfect example, capturing his many radio performances, including beautiful alternate versions and some not-otherwise-available tracks. For the not-quite-casual fan or the enthusiast, a well-crafted box is a great thing. (I dote on out-of-print multi-disc sets of Martin Carthy, June Tabor, and the Watersons.)

In the digital, buy a track at a time, stream to your heart’s content era, the concept of the compilation may seem a bit dated. I’ve certainly built my own compilations for artists I enjoy, especially when there isn’t anything available (the Connells) or when I own several albums and want a sampler of the rest (Jethro Tull). Still, there’s something to be said for a collection that’s been assembled with intention. Whether the artist says “here are my favorites” or radio play sets up a great playlist, sometimes a pre-set compilation is the perfect way to enjoy the music.

Song of the Day, October 1: Under Pressure by Queen and David Bowie

QueenBowiePressureToday’s song is a superstar pairing that works. In 1981 Queen were coming off the massive success of The Game; David Bowie was rejuvenating his career, about to record his smash album Let’s Dance. Bowie had dropped in on the sessions for Queen’s Hot Space, recording some backing vocals that were not working out. The five musicians spent some time just jamming together, and the result was a highlight of both careers.

The loose, improvisational origin of the song is part of its success. Both Bowie and Queen are notorious for their laborious studio work. The scat-style vocals and loose-limbed instrumentation of Under Pressure show off another side to both acts that serves them well. It wound up credited to all five performers, a rare Queen track with writing split all four ways. The song is a perfect balance of performers’ prog/glam history, growing interest in dance music, and solid pop skills. Bowie and Freddie Mercury blend their voices together flawlessly while the rest of Queen provide an urgent, compelling backdrop.

The result was Queen’s second and Bowie’s third UK #1 and a great reintroduction of Bowie to US radio listeners. It remains one of the finest singles in both catalogs.

Enjoy this early 80s gem today.

BONUS VERSION: After Freddie Mercury’s untimely death, Queen held a tribute concert to raise money for AIDS research. Bowie — who had not sung the song live — joined the band for a rousing version of Under Pressure. Stepping in for Mercury was the incomparable Annie Lennox, whose fiery turn finds new energy in the song and clearly inspires the band and Bowie.

Billboard #1s for the Week Ending August 31, 1985

This week’s Time Capsule!

Chart Title Act Weeks
Hot 100 The Power of Love Huey Lewis and the News 2
R & B Freeway of Love Aretha Franklin 5
Country Love Is Alive The Judds 1
Adult Contemporary Cherish Kool and the Gang 2
Rock Fortress Around Your Heart Sting 2
Album Brothers In Arms Dire Straits 1

JaggerBowieDancingThis week sees a superstar duo launch the third Top 40 version of a Motown classic. William “Mickey” Stevenson had the basic idea for Dancing In the Street, which he framed as a ballad. He shared it with Marvin Gaye, who helped craft it into a dance number. Gaye recorded a demo which the pair offered to Stevenson’s wife, Kim Weston. She passed, so they took it to Martha Reeves. Reeves was underwhelmed, but the track stuck in her head. She asked to rewrite the vocal arrangements to fit her style. With musical contributions from frequent Stevenson collaborator Ivy Jo Hunter, the song came together; Reeves and her group the Vandellas recorded it and had a 1964 smash hit.

Martha and the Vandellas’ rendition remains the quintessential interpretation of the song. With two weeks at #2 (behind Manfred Mann’s Do Wah Diddy Diddy), it’s also the most successful on the charts. The joyous anthem has become a pop standard with dozens of cover versions, many of them released as singles. The Mamas and the Papas, Ramsey Lewis, and Teri DeSario (with KC) all took the song into the lower reaches of the Hot 100. Van Halen released it as their third cover single and eased up to #38.

The most recent Top 40 version was recorded as part of the Live Aid charity concerts. Mick Jagger and David Bowie intended to perform the song as an intercontinental duet, with Jagger in New York and Bowie in London. Satellite delays made that impractical and neither singer was willing to lip sync, so they got together before the concert and made a video to show between acts. It was a hit, and the pair agreed to release it as a single with all the proceeds going to charity. Their version danced onto the Hot 100 at an impressive #47 this week; it blasted up to #7, becoming one of Bowie’s biggest hits and Jagger’s most successful recording away from the Stones.

Song of the Day, July 22: Sons of the Silent Age by David Bowie

BowieSonsToday’s song is David Bowie’s Sons of the Silent Age. He wrote it not long after recording the first of his brilliant Berlin trilogy albums, Low. When he went into the studio next, it was the only track he had written and served as the working title for the album that would become “Heroes”.

Despite having a very different origin than the rest of the disc — which was composed in the studio in an improvisational manner — the track fits nicely. It’s a stark, mysterious song with grating sax driving the verses and dramatically declaimed choruses. The lyrics could describe Bowie’s state of mind as he went through withdrawal; they could also warn of dystopian regimes or recap the violence of mid-20th Century Europe. The lack of certainty adds to the eerieness of the song.

Enjoy this dark track today.

Song of the Day, February 4: Always Crashing In the Same Car by David Bowie

BowieCrashLowToday’s song is Always Crashing In the Same Car from David Bowie’s brilliant, innovative 1977 release, Low. Much of the album consists of vignettes, fragments, and eerie instrumentals. This track is a complete song, nicely sequenced in to heighten the mood of the disc. Based loosely on an experience Bowie had in a parking garage, it’s a perfect capsule of the frustrations of modern life. With a brooding guitar and haunting, repetitive synth figure, it swirls around like the titular car, never quite getting anywhere but causing chaos. Bowie’s brittle vocal and anguished yelps complete the package nicely.

Enjoy this evocative song today.

Album of the Week, September 28: Transformer by Lou Reed

TransformerLou Reed was responsible for one of the most important bodies of popular music in the 20th Century. Born in Brooklyn in 1942, he played guitar and sang while in school. He pursued a journalism degree at Syracuse, but right after graduating went right back to music. After a brief period as a staff writer, he fell in with a diverse crowd and formed the Velvet Underground, musical pioneers that helped launch a dozen musical styles. By the time he left the Velvets, Reed had a solid reputation for lyrical honesty — often discussing topics that had been taboo — and solid musical chops. Best known for exploring the darker side of life with laserlike precision, he also had a strong romantic side and a deep sense of fun. His first solo album sounded like a weak Velvets disc, not a big surprise since he was that band’s primary writer and lead vocalist. Retrenching after that release, he hooked up with David Bowie, who had been deeply influenced by the Velvet Underground. Bowie co-produced Reed’s second album with regular collaborator Mick Ronson. Their glam-rock approach meshed nicely with Reed’s tales of losers, outcasts, and mavericks, resulting in a powerful album that is one of the most fun and celebratory in his long career.

Title Transformer
Act Lou Reed
Label RCA Release Date November 8, 1972
Producer David Bowie and Mick Ronson
U.S. Chart  #29 U.K. Chart  #13
Tracks
[U.S. Hot 100]
  1. Vicious
  2. Andy’s Chest
  3. Perfect Day
  4. Hangin’ ‘Round
  5. Walk On the Wild Side [#16]
  6. Make Up
  7. Satellite of Love
  8. Wagon Wheel
  9. New York Telephone Conversation
  10. I’m So Free
  11. Goodnight Ladies

Dismissed by critics at the time because it didn’t sound “like Lou Reed,” Transformer is both daring and perfectly logical. It shows off the breadth of his talent as a writer and singer while sticking close to the subjects he explored best and most consistently.

Vicious kicks things off flawlessly. Inspired by a lyrical request from long-time friend Andy Warhol, the track captures the spirit of the album nicely. The lyrics are a nasty kiss-off with hints of the S&M world explored by the Velvets; the music is solid rock, with a classic guitar riff. The vocals, however, are arch, almost camp, adding a sense of whimsy to the darkness. Is that wink a welcome or a warning? It’s Transformer.

Andy’s Chest, presumably dedicated to Warhol as well, is downright silly at times but also charming. Reed’s lyrics are free-associations and goofy images presented as tribute to someone clearly worthy of celebration. It’s a new side of Lou Reed, but it works. Perfect Day is a beautifully bittersweet song, one of the finest of Reed’s compositions. Delicate but powerful, it’s an achingly everyday ode and also features some of his most stirring vocal work.

Rock comes back to the fore with Hangin’ ‘Round, another nice juxtaposition. With a classic piano line straight out of the 50s and a street corner vocal and guitar mix, it’s comforting, well-crafted musical territory. The stories on this corner, however, would never have appeared in an early rock hit, exploring darker adventures with musical glee. That sets things up for the album’s most famous track (and Reed’s only Top 40 hit), the glorious Walk On the Wild Side. Inspired by the real characters that assembled at Warhol’s factory, it shows off Reed’s knack for biography. It’s also a series of road songs, telling each person’s journey over a surging, rambling guitar line. With subtle strings and a famous doo-doo-doo chorus, it’s a flawless pop gem that managed to subvert chart trends with its very direct lyrical content.

Make Up is an ode to transformation and disguise, a fairly direct theme song for the album. A suitably camp vocal about “a slick little girl” is buoyed by an oddly effective tuba line. When the oompahs accompany Reed declaring that “we’re coming out of our closets,” the celebration is complete.

Satellite of Love is a very pretty song about a very ugly emotion. A twisted look at jealousy, it’s an amazingly effective mix. Bowie’s vocal contributions aid the subversively joyous feel. As an antidote to the darkness underlying that brilliant track, Wagon Wheel is a fun guitar romp composed around three lyrical fragments. It’s truly joyous and fun, with a silly edge that shows that both Bowie and Reed could play as hard as they could ponder. New York Telephone Conversation is just that, a spoken-sung snippet that raises the camp quotient in a quick bit of fun.

I’m So Free is another gem, a bristling celebration of self-determination with — of course — some darkness around the edges. A celebration of camaraderie, it’s a powerful track. Things wrap up with the apt Goodnight Ladies, a lovely farewell to all the characters that populate the album. With a charming New Orleans style clarinet riff and an almost Tin Pan Alley feel, you can hear the curtain closing as emcee Reed bids farewell.  It’s nicely presented and a final example of the flawless sequencing that help make this disc a masterpiece.

Since its initial dismissal — this just wasn’t Lou enough for critics in 1972 — Transformer has justly risen to a place of honor in the rock canon. It’s a brilliant collaboration and a perfect reinvention for Reed. Any disc that includes Vicious, Perfect Day, Satellite of Love, and Walk on the Wild Side, is worthy enough, but the depth, cohesion, and inventiveness of Transformer make it an amazing release even from a major talent like Lou Reed.

FURTHER LISTENING: With dozens of albums over 40 years of solo work, picking through Reed’s strong, diverse catalog is daunting. While always insightful, unflinching, and dedicated, his work varies dramatically from album to album from the sublime to the frankly dismal. Most albums have a gem or two (if not more), however, and most are great samples of true rock talent. A few rise to the top.

While Berlin receives more plaudits than most, I find it a bit claustrophobic and lacking in the musical diversity that marks my favorite Reed albums. New Sensations is one of his finest, a wonderful mix of romance, reality, and the land in between. Few artists are as unremittingly New York as Reed, so his homage to the city, New York, is a powerful statement without a bad track. Magic and Loss, a meditation on mortality inspired by the loss of two close friends, is a mixed bag that is occasionally ponderous but overall rewarding. It also features some brilliant vocal work from the late, great Little Jimmy Scott.

With only a handful of singles, a tendency to craft tightly cohesive albums, and a few label changes, Reed is short on good compilations. There are a number of discs that capture one period or another of his career, notably Walk on the Wild Side. The best long-form overview is the three-disc Between Thought and Expression.

Song of the Day, January 8: Aladdin Sane by David Bowie

BowieAladdinToday’s song is Aladdin Sane, the title track from David Bowie’s sixth album. After the huge success of The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, Bowie began a more experimental phase of his career. Building on Ziggy’s glam rock, he incorporated a wider range of sounds into the music, slowly expanding his musical palette.

This song was dedicated to his brother, Terry, a schizophrenic. It was also inspired by Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies; Bowie saw chilling parallels between the excesses and willful blindness of people between the World Wars and the behavior of 1970s America. The occasional subtitle of the song — (1913-1938-197?) — hinted at another major catastrophe waiting in the wings.

The song is powerful and haunting. Bowie lifted a brief interpolation of the Drifters On Broadway, tying the hopes and failures of that song nicely to his more apocalyptic themes. It would stand well in his canon on its own, but the song has one other amazing feature. Keyboardist Mike Garson, recently added to Bowie’s band, provides a stunning piano solo. Bowie asked for something like the avant-garde jazz of the 60s. Garson’s first take was too cautious, and Bowie insisted that he cut loose on his own terms. The result is simply inspired, one of the finest keyboard solos in rock history.

Wish David Bowie a happy 68th birthday and enjoy this amazing song today.

Song of the Day, October 7: Space Oddity by David Bowie

Bowie-Space-OddityWorldSpaceWeekCelebrating World Space Week, October 4 – 10!

Today’s song launched a series of tracks about the challenges of space flight and its power on those who make the journey. David Bowie wrote Space Oddity for his second, eponymous album in 1969, pondering the upcoming Apollo mission to the moon.

At its heart, it’s a folk song about a traveller, built on Bowie’s clear vocal and a simple guitar figure. Major Tom, the mythical astronaut, expresses his joys and fears about the journey; something goes awry and he vanishes into space.

Though I’m past one hundred thousand miles
I’m feeling very still
And I think my spaceship knows which way to go
Tell my wife I love her very much — she knows

The early demo was fleshed out with a full band by producer Gus Dudgeon and the single was ready for release by the Apollo launch. Given the mysterious fate of its protagonist, the single was withdrawn until the astronauts were safely home; it made it to #5. David Bowie was eventually re-released as Space Oddity in recognition of the song’s success. In the US, it stalled at #124 on the first go-round. Re-released in 1973, it went to #1 in the UK and became Bowie’s first US Top 40, peaking at #15.

Major Tom proved equally resilient. Bowie brought him back in 1980 on the song Ashes to Ashes. Three years later, German singer and songwriter Peter Schilling reinvented the Space Oddity story on his single Major Tom (Coming Home). His track went to #42 in the UK but did Bowie one better in the US by peaking at #14.

Enjoy this haunting classic track today.

Song of the Day, September 2: Changes by David Bowie

BowieChangesToday’s song is Changes by David Bowie. It first appeared on his fourth album, the much-lauded Hunky Dory. It was released as disc’s first single, but failed to chart in the UK and stalled at #66 in the US. After the success of Space Oddity in the States, it was re-released and made it to #41. Despite its chart failure, however, the song has become one of Bowie’s most famous. Its themes hew so closely to his chameleonic career that it seems, in retrospect, to be something of a manifesto.

It’s a solid pop tune, fundamentally upbeat despite some darker lyrics. Bowie has called it “a bit of a throwaway” initially. WIth great piano work by RIck Wakeman and solid production hinting at his coming glam persona, however, it’s a perfectly crafted song. Given how much the musical — in fact, the pop culture — landscape changes from year to year, it has a self-contained prescience that blends with its tongue-in-cheek delivery perfectly.

Ch-ch-ch-ch-Changes
(Turn and face the strange)
Ch-ch-Changes
Don’t want to be a richer man
Ch-ch-ch-ch-Changes
(Turn and face the strange)
Ch-ch-Changes
Just gonna have to be a different man
Time may change me
But I can’t trace time

Enjoy this classic track today.

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