Five years. That’s how long it took David Bowie to get his first Top 40 hit in the UK. In America, it took eleven. Even after he established himself as a different kind of rock star, one who was more than willing to play around with gender identity and bisexuality, it wasn’t always so easy to win over mainstream US audiences.
But in the many decades since his dangerous, controversial 70s heyday, Bowie has since won the long game. A good number of singles & albums that didn’t sell, that didn’t receive much critical respect or both upon their initial releases are now considered bonafide classics, definitive audio documents of the shapeshifting performer at his absolute best. Without them, bands like Nine Inch Nails and The Smashing Pumpkins would’ve had to find their inspiration elsewhere.
While memorable singles like Fame & Let’s Dance managed to win serious raves from fans & critics alike in their respective eras (and remain beloved today), numerous others were rejected & ignored for reasons long forgotten and discredited, only to become enormous cult hits decades after their debuts. Here are five such examples:
1. Space Oddity
It was the only track producer Tony Visconti didn’t want to produce for Man Of Words/Man Of Music, Bowie’s second solo album. On a record filled with acoustic folk songs, the weird, melancholic tale of a depressed astronaut looking to escape his home planet’s troubles felt a bit too gimmicky for Visconti who let his engineer Gus Dudgeon oversee the recording.
Strategically timed to coincide with the Apollo 11 moon mission in the summer of 1969, a four and a half minute edit became a Top 5 smash in the UK thanks to its use in a TV commercial and, eventually, through constant airplay on the BBC.
Bowie had no such luck with the song in the US. A three and a half minute version of Space Oddity peaked at #124. That’s right. It didn’t even make the Billboard Hot 100 Singles Chart.
In 1975, three years after the Man Of Words/Man Of Music album was rereleased as Space Oddity, the five minute and five second version of the song (the full version is 10 seconds longer) was released as a single in America. This time, it cracked the Top 20.
Today, like Space Oddity, this Hunky Dory standout is ubiquitous, popping up in movies, on TV and, of course, the radio. But when it was first issued as a single in early 1972, it was a much tougher sell.
Much softer and orchestral than the more hard rocking antics of The Who, The Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin, it stood no chance of gaining a foothold in the UK. Indeed, Changes didn’t even chart in Bowie’s home country during its first release.
However, unlike Space Oddity, it did at least hit the Billboard Hot 100 in the US. Unfortunately, it peaked at a disappointing 66, a total flop. Three years later, Changes was re-released. How well did it do the second time around? It got up to #41 on Billboard. Despite greater visibility, one of Bowie’s most highly regarded songs of all time still couldn’t crack the Top 40.
In 2015, Changes got yet another release on vinyl for this year’s Record Store Day. This time, it was a number one seller.
It has been covered by The Wallflowers, Oasis, Blondie, Nico, TV On The Radio, Tangerine Dream, Peter Gabriel and, believe it or not, Jessica Lange, among many others. Bowie sang it to much acclaim at Live Aid in 1985, at The Concert For New York City after the 9/11 attacks in 2001 and during countless other concerts throughout his career.
But when “Heroes” debuted in shortened form in 1977, it only reached #24 in Britain. In America, the three and a half minute classic didn’t even chart on the Billboard Hot 100. (The superior full album version is just over six minutes.) Not even a performance of the song by Bowie on Bing Crosby’s final Christmas special that year could help improve its prospects in the States.
In the decades since, however, as Bowie’s late 70s material was being reassessed in a more positive light, “Heroes” (both the song and the album) started to grow in stature. Musicians like Moby, Depeche Mode’s Dave Gahan (who joined the band after singing the song in an audition) and Trent Reznor each acknowledged its importance and influence on their own careers. And now, thanks to its inclusion in numerous movies, TV shows and commercials, it is everywhere.
4. Ashes To Ashes
1980 was a tumultuous year for Bowie. He began divorce proceedings against first wife Angela and released his final album for RCA (which ultimately led to another painful parting of the ways). Perhaps feeling a bit nostalgic or maybe wanting closure after a decade of intense fame, he conceived a sequel to his first major hit.
Fittingly titled Ashes To Ashes, it either continues the story of long lost astronaut Major Tom or is a cleverly disguised allegory of Bowie’s private personal struggles with his career, the end of his marriage and his addictions. Regardless, it was a monster success in Britain where it topped the singles chart. After puzzling most fans and critics with his experiments in Germanic electronica at the end of the 1970s, Bowie began the 1980s with his greatest commercial and critical triumph since Station To Station.
But in America, Ashes To Ashes failed to even crack the Billboard Hot 100. In fact, it peaked at #101. Thanks to the debut of MTV the following year, however, the brilliant video for the song was put into high rotation, which instantly made up for its lack of support on Top 40 radio.
5. Peace On Earth/Little Drummer Boy
Bowie didn’t want to do Little Drummer Boy with Bing Crosby while taping the latter’s Merrie Olde Christmas special in the summer of 1977. So, a compromise was made. Both men would sing the first verse, then while Crosby carried on with Drummer Boy, Bowie would sing a new song called Peace On Earth, a track written very quickly by Crosby’s hired songwriters.
The result is the greatest modern Christmas song of all time. After the special aired in late 1977, the song was bootlegged for five years until RCA decided to officially release it as a single in 1982. It was the last straw for Bowie who apparently wasn’t notified of this decision. He would never record for the label again.
During its first UK release, Peace On Earth/Little Drummer Boy was a smash, climbing all the way up to #3. This version included audio from the special beginning with Crosby letting Bowie into his house and them bantering about family before launching into the track.
The US version eliminated the pre-song banter altogether. Including it probably wouldn’t have helped its commercial prospects anyway. The song didn’t even make the Billboard Hot 100.
Over time, however, Peace On Earth/Little Drummer Boy would be dusted off every subsequent Christmas where it grew in popularity and prominence, a welcome tradition that will likely continue indefinitely.
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Friday, April 24, 2015