Thursday, January 14, 2016

YEAR OF BOWIE: David Bowie's 1967 Eponymous Album

In the wake of David Bowie's recent passing, Schenkerian Gang Signs has declared 2016 to be the Year of Bowie. To commemorate, we will be exploring all twenty-seven of Bowie's studio albums at a rate of one every two weeks or so. Along the way, we will explore the gamut of Bowie's achievements, from granular musical analysis to broader notions of artistic trajectories. 

David Bowie (1967)

Before I begin my discussion of David Bowie's debut album, I should probably state my credentials for conducting this evaluation of Bowie's entire output. They are relatively paltry. I was not a person who grew up enamored of his music; in fact, it wasn't until the past year or so that Bowie really attracted my attention. But attract my attention he suddenly did, with an entire month spent listening to Ziggy Stardust almost every day and stretches where I couldn't hear enough of 'The Man Who Sold the World.' So I am excited to embark on this endeavor because I am looking forward to filling in my own knowledge gaps about Bowie and the vast scope of the music that he produced.

That being said, on my first couple of listens to his debut album, I found myself quite underwhelmed by it. It's a hard one to characterize today as it does not quite fit standard tropes. Instead, it was viewed as a 'novelty album' (at least according to a BBC documentary that I recently watched), at a time when Bowie was dabbling in all kinds of novelties, including a tour across Britain in a show called 'Pierrot in Turquoise.'

Pierrot in Turquoise with David Bowie as Cloud
'Pierrot in Turquoise' is pretty much everything that you think a late 60s mimed commedia dell'arte tribute would be, including the climax, which occurs when a mannequin, serving as a proxy for Colombine, is beheaded. Bowie, in the role of Cloud, provides the songs and sits up on a ladder for a while (Bowie and the actor playing Pierrot have some pretty Ziggy-ish hair, as seen above). One of the songs that he wrote for the show, 'When I Live My Dream', would appear on his debut album. The fact that a song from a mimed commedia dell'arte show is on this album gives you a sense of its overall ambiance.

I was about to write this post in the vein of 'Not much here,' but then I started to wonder what I thought I would find on here. A proto-Ziggy? The early seeds of 'Let's Dance'? There is a bit of Ziggy, perhaps, in songs like 'She's Got Medals,' but you have to listen pretty carefully. Then I reminded myself that history is not a teleological endeavor; indeed, if any one artist reminds us to eschew the notion that an artist's biography should be structured around progressively improving stages, it is Bowie. Instead of improving, he transformed time and time again.

Until this morning, this post would have been a short one talking about the experimental nature of this album and how it was more of a curiosity than a masterwork. But I woke up with the melody to 'Little Bombadier' in my head (of course I would remember the waltz!) and realized that, improbably, these songs had taken a light hold in my mind. They still have the inventive melodies that will inform Bowie's subsequent works, a point that I will undoubtedly raise often. These songs are not quite what you think and certainly not quite what you would imagine. David Bowie served as a good start to this project because it reminded me that the goal is not to uncover a trajectory throughout Bowie's career, but instead to pay tribute to his works in their widely varying and engaging forms.

1 comment:

  1. Very excited about the Year of Bowie. Thank you for this. I have most of those 27 albums so I'll be following with considerable interest :)