I Think I Saw You In An Ice-cream Parlour – Remembering David Bowie
Updated: Jan 10
It’s six years since David Bowie passed away, taken from the world with a jolt. It would also have been his 75th birthday this weekend, so it seems timely to remember the great chameleon.
It’s been said by others before me I am sure, but when you are asked what’s your favourite Bowie song, surely you have to ask, “which Bowie?”. The folkie, the mod, the bisexual hippie, the space-age glam rocker, the cocaine wrecked soul boy, the thin white duke, the Germanic Icey futurist, the Godfather of new romantics, the clown, the bleach blonde pop star, the lost overblown Rock star, the Tin Machine singer, the old man playing with drum’n’bass, the stately, happy rock star, the surprise come back king or the jazz experimentalist?
Like Dr Who, we all have our own Bowie. Peter Davidson was my Dr Who – he’s not my favourite, but he’s the one I fell in love with. You always remember your first. Similarly, it’s the Let’s Dance bleach blonde pop star Bowie that’s “my Bowie”. I listened intently when I was in Australia in 1984, obsessed by MTV (which we did not have back in Blighty then). I knew Bowie in ’83 but wasn’t quite ready for music then. But the video for Let's Dance was still all over MTV a year later and I watched it repeatedly.
Music became my obsession in ’84 and when we returned to the UK after a month in Oz, I got my belated birthday present – a record player and a copy of Now That’s What I Call Music 2. On side 4, track 1, lurked Modern Love. That’s the tune I REALLY fell in love with – “I know when to go out. I know when to stay in. Get things done”. Brilliant. It's still my favourite Bowie song and my go to tune when I need to get my arse in gear.
I didn’t really go back and listen to the earlier albums at that stage - I probably didn't realise they existed. Later, I made do with the ChangesBowie compilation. However, eventually I went back and discovered the treasure trove of fabulous albums. Hunky Dory is probably my favourite, though that can change with the (wild) wind.
I saw him live twice. The first time was in 1995 at Wembley Arena, supported by Morrissey. It was (at the time at least) extortionately expensive but worth it – to see Bowie AND Morrissey – what could go wrong? Sadly, Moz was grumpy at being the support band, and playing to a less than half filled hall. He was awful. Meanwhile, Bowie played a set heavy on his new album, 1. Outside, plus reworked tracks from Scary Monsters and Lodger. The drum’n’bass version of The Man Who Sold The World was terrible. I know I should have appreciated his bravery, his chameleon approach and his embracing of the latest music styles. But I just wanted some hits. In the end, the encore of Moonage Daydream and Under Pressure were the only nod to his more famous and accessible tunes - both played dead straight to an ecstatic crowd. The skinhead in front of us leapt up wildly, jumping on the roof of the staircase below us, tearing off his jacket and t-shirt, swinging them manically over his head as he sang along topless. It was a lot of money for two great songs…
In 2003, Bowie toured again, but I had decided not to go, scarred by my 1995 experience. But word went round that this was a hits heavy set. My colleague Paul was going, and bragged he had tickets to me and another colleague James. We realised we had made a mistake and James messaged me to say he had found 2 pairs of tickets online – did I want two, he was taking the others. I decided there and then I was going after all – I couldn’t have Paul see him and tell me how brilliant it had been the next day – I would have been full of regret. So, we took the tickets – totally worth it just for the fact that our seats were slightly further forward than Paul’s – procrastination pays off occasionally.
The set was stunning, hit heavy, and a genuine tour de force, drawing on tracks from Hunky Dory, Ziggy, Aladdin Sane, Diamond Dogs, Low, Heroes, Lodger, Scary Monsters – it was brilliant and I am forever glad I made that impulsive decision and ever grateful for James finding there were tickets (and to Paul for drawing it to our attention we were mad not to be going). As Bowie had advised I knew when to go out and when to stay in. Going out that night was a brilliant call.
Over the years, I have gone back and bought most of his albums (Tonight and Never let Me Down just do not appeal). These are my favourite 45 songs, in no order of preference, more a fantasy setlist (though the poor chap would be knackered if he played this lot!).
It omits some classic stuff - no Space Oddity, I never liked it. No Fame, no All The Young Dudes. Great songs, but not my favourites. Nothing from Blackstar, his finale. It’s still growing on me - I will get there! It’s my list - it's not wildly obscure, it's mostly fairly obvious, though I do love some of the maligned tracks (I mean you Loving The Alien), though there's no Tin Machine (I nearly included Baby Universal, which I loved at the time). I am sure you have yours too!
1. Five Years - The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1972)
The soundtrack to an impending apocalypse - it's stately, calm, a perfect summary of the varying reactions to the end of the world. And he did appeal to all the fat, skinny people, all the tall, short people, all the nobody people and all the somebody people.
2. Let’s Dance - Let's Dance (1983)
I do have some red shoes somewhere...
3. Modern Love - Let's Dance (1983)
My favourite still - I do indeed know when to go out and when to stay in. Thanks for that Dave.
4. Changes - Hunky Dory (1971)
Turn and face the strange - more good advice.
5. Golden Years - Station To Station (1976)
He'd done folk, rock, glam, soul - now he was nailing soul-funk-pop. Genius. This performance on Soul Train is just stunning. He's miming, but he just looks beautiful and it's in no way incongruous he is on this show. Not many artists can pull that off.
6. Ashes To Ashes - Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps) (1980)
Self-reverential and still brilliant. He came and showed the New Romantics how to do it properly
7. Young Americans - Young Americans (1975)
My favourite pub quiz answer for it's brilliant appropriation of The Beatles' lyrics - "I heard the news today, oh boy".
8. Life On Mars? - Hunky Dory (1971)
The song he allegedly wrote for Sinatra.
9. Oh! You Pretty Things - Hunky Dory (1971)
A song about the impending obsolescence of the human race in favour of an alliance between arriving aliens and the youth of the present society. Later covered by Peter Noone, lead singer with Herman's Hermits. I am not sure he was quite on board with the lyrical content.
10. Moonage Daydream - The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1972)
The brilliant closer from my first live Bowie experience - I always see the stripping, leaping, flailing skinhead every time I hear this.
11. Queen Bitch - Hunky Dory (1971)
Bowie does Lou. Better than Lou.
12. The Man Who Sold The World - The Man Who Sold The World (1970)
A song so good even Lulu couldn't ruin it. And Nirvana's version is stunning and suitably respectful.
13. Drive-In Saturday - Aladdin Sane (1973)
Moz covered this. He should't have.
14. Loving The Alien - Tonight (1984)
I know it's from his generally accepted crap phase, but I still love this.
15. Sound And Vision - Low (1977)
The stripped down, piano only version is also magnificent.
16. Boys Keep Swinging - Lodger (1979)
In my experience, clothes don't always fit you, but I am not as lithe as Bowie.
17. Jump They Say - Black Tie White Noise (1993)
About his brother and the mental health challenges he had.
18. Slow Burn - Heathen (2002)
19. New Killer Star - Reality (2003)
20. Where Are We Now? - The Next Day (2013)
21. The Stars (Are Out Tonight) - The Next Day (2013)
Those last albums Heathen, Reality and The Next Day are superb - a stunning way to have consolidated his brilliant career. I will get there with Blackstar eventually as well.
22. Speed Of Life - Low (1977)
23. The Secret Life Of Arabia - "Heroes" (1977)
24. D.J. - Lodger (1979)
Three from his Berlin period, all different, all the same, all Bowie.
25. Fashion -Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps) (1980)
Turn to the left. Turn to the right.
26. Little Wonder - Earthling (1997)
27. Hallo Spaceboy - 1. Outside (1995)
Listening to drum'n'bass and Nine Inch Nails, these two nail what he was going for, better than anything else on their parent albums.
28. China Girl - Let's Dance (1983)
He wrote it with Iggy Pop so it's not quite a cover. Iggy's version is pretty cool and hard to beat, but this is perfect 80s pop.
29. Absolute Beginners - Absolute Beginners Soundtrack (1985)
Though the film was not much cop, this is a belter of a song.
30. Buddha Of Suburbia - Buddha Of Suburbia (1993)
Never quite got the recognition it should have, but this was Bowie rediscovering his roots. Just marvellous.
31. TVC15 - Station To Station 1976)
Bowie in full on art rock mode, made when Bowie was on so much coke, he had no memory off its recording. His Kraftwerk-esque use of "transition" and "transmission" shows that even off his tits, he knew what he was doing.
32. Weeping Wall - Low (1977)
An instrumental meant to evoke the Berlin Wall, where the album was recorded, though it adapts the tune of Scarborough Fair. It's ghostly, weird, wonderful.
33. Cat People (Putting Out Fire) - Cat People Soundtrack (1982)
Not the overblown, aggressive and frankly crap version on Let's Dance, but the stripped down, brilliant song from the soundtrack of the film Cat People, co-written with Georgia Moroder.
34. Station to Station - Station To Station (1976)
Bowie does Krautrock and Prog. Stunning.
35. Stay - Station To Station (1976)
36. Cracked Actor - Aladdin Sane (1973)
From different albums, but sister tunes in my head.
37. I Know It’s Gonna Happen Someday - Black Tie White Noise (1993)
Bowie covering Moz who in turn had been produced by Mick Ronson and had lifted its tune from Rock'n'roll Suicide. This is as "meta" as it gets.
38. Under Pressure - single with Queen (1980)
Brilliant collaboration with Queen, though I think the version Bowie did with Annie Lennox at the Freddie Mercury tribute concert is truly magnificent.
39. Ziggy Stardust -The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1972)
40. Starman -The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1972)
41. The Jean Genie - Aladdin Sane (1973)
42. Rebel Rebel - Diamond Dogs (1974)
43. Suffragette City -The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1972)
Five from his Ziggy/Aladdin Sane/Diamond Dogs period, all good enough to make you think you should go out and buy some spandex, dye your hair red and slap the make up on with gusto. I am not going to, no matter how much you might want to see that. But his appearance on Top Of The Pops performing Starman did that and set an army of my favourite musicians off on their careers. Wow.
44. Heroes - "Heroes" 1977)
Robert Fripp was / is suing the Bowie estate for a credit on this, and I do get it, his guitar is essential. But if you sign up to be Bowie's sideman, then you should know your lot.
And whilst the guitar is a defining moment, it's really at 3 minutes and 17 seconds, when Bowie lets rip on the vocals that makes this song. It still gives me shivers.
45. Rock’n’roll Suicide -The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1972)
Oh no love, we're not alone. Bowie is with us always. (don't worry, I am not about to drop to my knees and say the Lord's prayer - proof that even Heroes can make mistakes).
Give the playlist a listen, I would love to know your favourite songs. And unimaginable as this is to me, if you don’t like Bowie, definitely give this a listen. There’s no ‘one‘ Bowie – may be there’s one you DO like!