Three years ago last week, David Robert Jones passed away at the age of 69. I remember it perfectly, as it was the day I had my first exam as an Imperial undergraduate. The night before I had been listening to Blackstar, the surprise avant-garde album that he had released only two days earlier, and I was still mesmerised by its dark tones and the raspiness of his aged voice. Tired, stressed, and a little bit depressed by the sheer bleakness of the record, I went to bed, hoping for a good sleep to ensure a clear head the following day. I awoke to a news alert on my phone, followed by a sudden kick in the stomach as my half-asleep brain processed the information displayed on the screen. My idol was dead.
But he was not the only person that passed away that day. Throughout his life, he had as many avatars as a Greek god, and indeed sometimes it seemed that he had been sent from an otherworldly realm by a mysterious higher power to marvel us. He was a young beatnik from South London that looked for abandoned Afghan fur coats in the dumpsters of Carnaby Street. An androgynous alien that performed fake fellatios on his onstage bandmates. A European aristocrat with fascist inclinations triggered by a diet of milk, peppers, and massive amounts of cocaine. He was all those characters, and many more, as every single fan had a different element of his persona attached to them.
To pay him homage in the best way I can think of, I have selected a list of his most underrated compositions, in chronological order. Listen to them, and you will be able understand why the innumerable masks he put on were just that, masks. And behind them remained a hidden, even more sophisticated personality, an expert on dozens of fields, ranging from Kabbalistic occultism to American politics. A deep knowledge that allowed him to become the man who shocked the world.
‘Cygnet Committee’ (1969)
Hidden in Space Oddity , the record that brought him to fame with its unforgettable title track, ‘Cygnet Committee’ narrates with melancholic tone the disappointment that follows the success of most revolutions, in no doubt inspired by his recent experiences with the hippy-run Beckenham Arts Lab. At over nine minutes, it remains Bowie’s third longest song in his entire discography.
The guitars provide lightness to this ballad that shows off Bowie´s profound understanding of the esoteric. With references to occultist Aleister Crowley and Nietzschean philosophy, the song explores themes that would be further developed in his future album Station to Station. It is not surprising that this is Marilyn Manson’s favourite song of all time.
‘Five Years’ (1972)
What to say of this great opener? A perfect introduction to the glam rock era symbolised by his alter ego, the flamboyant Ziggy Stardust, ‘Five Years’ tells the story of a man that finds out that the world will end in the eponymous time, leading him to ponder about his life. Overshadowed by some of the best and most famous songs of his career (‘Starman’, ‘Suffragette City’, ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide,’ and ‘Moonage Daydream’, to name a few), its final guitar solo by Mick Ronson foreshadowed the wonders that of the album that would soon follow.
‘Lady Grinning Soul’ (1973)
One of Bowie’s many talents was his ability to find collaborators who could enhance and elevate his songs to a superior level. That is the case of virtuoso pianist Mike Garson, who started a decades long association with Bowie in this album. The masterful piano entrance combines perfectly with Bowie’s silky voice in this love ballad. It has been called “the Bond theme that Bowie never did”, as its lyrics and melody fit nicely with the atmosphere of Roger Moore’s 007 era.
‘Word on a Wing’ (1976)
Station to Station is a monument to insanity. The culmination of his Thin White Duke period, he admitted decades after its release that he had no recollection whatsoever of the recording and production process, his cocaine addiction becoming so consuming that he regularly stored his urine in the fridge, for fear of witches stealing it. The occultist tones of the title track are further explored in ‘Word on a Wing’, a song marked with references to religion and crises of faith that arose every time Bowie awakened from his drug induced delirium. The angelical chorus that closes the composition provides a strong contrast to the actual state of mind of the performer.
Move one year into the future, and you would find an entirely different Bowie. Transplanted from LA to Berlin to end his addiction once for all, the mostly instrumental songs of Low capture the admission of defeat of a man that had hit rock bottom, and musically serve as precursors to the synth and funk of the 80s. The closing track of the record, ‘Subterraneans’ gloomy melodies in stark contrast to its delicate sax solos that evoke past, happier times. It is supposedly dedicated to the people living East of the Berlin Wall, whose suffering was only increased by the festive memories of belle-epoque Weimar Germany.
‘The Secret Life of Arabia’ (1977)
Another great ending track, this song combines Bowie’s famous falsetto with the African rhythms that would be further explored in his next album, Lodger. It has been unfairly panned as out of tone with the rest of the album, but it provides a great transition to the styles that Bowie would fully fledge on later years.
‘Waterloo Sunset’ (2003)
A cover may be a strange choice for this list, but Bowie’s version of the classic Kinks anthem manages to surpass the original. Its rockier tone showed that the swinging London of the 60s had become a truly global city by the late 90s, serving as an update the most iconic song ever written about Londinium.
‘Valentine’s Day’ (2013)
After the superstardom of the 80s and relative obscurity of the 90s and 00s, Bowie returned to the spotlight with a surprise album that meditated on both his life achievements and memories, and his latest obsessions. Valentine’s Day is the latter, narrating the story of a teenaged mass shooter in suburban America.
‘I Can’t Give Everything Away’ (2016)
How to define Blackstar ? A magnus opus that became even more definitive when Bowie passed away two days after its release. This song is the last album track of his century spanning career. Its message of calm despair before the unavoidable end will always resonate with anyone with half a heart. Truly the most emotional swansong ever recorded.