Prince: An Appreciation

He was signed by Warner Bros. when he was 20.  But they lied to the world when they promoted him as an 18-year-old prodigy.  Flamboyant like Little Richard, a colourful showman like James Brown, and a devastating shredder like Jimi Hendrix, Prince Rogers Nelson further bridged the musical gaps between funk, soul and rock as he would go on to become one of the most prolific singer/songwriters of all time.

And now he’s dead. Recently sent to hospital for what was reportedly the flu (new reports claim he was suffering from “severe dehydration”), his 57-year-old body was found earlier today at his home in Minnesota.  It’s not clear yet what exactly happened.  Surely, it wasn’t influenza.

When I was a kid in the 80s, Prince was all over the Television and radio airwaves.  Not a year went by when he didn’t have either a new studio album, a new live album, a new movie, a new soundtrack to that movie or a new song and video out.  Looking back, you wonder if the man did anything besides create and play music.  He must’ve been a light sleeper.

After releasing a couple of soul albums in the late 70s, one ignored and one that went platinum thanks to his first big hit, I Wanna Be Your Lover, Prince’s first full-length critical breakthrough was 1980’s Dirty Mind.  Village Voice critic Robert Christgau famously noted in his exuberant rave of the LP, “Mick Jagger should fold up his penis and go home.”

Prince never looked back after that.  The following year, he offered Controversy.  The superior single edit of the overlong, rather warped title cut intensified his already highly sexualized, religious fervor as he addresses rumours of his sexual identity.  (He was often presumed to be gay because of his fondness for falsetto vocals and seemingly feminine presentation.  He wasn’t.)  The single edit remains one of his greatest songs.

By 1982, after building a strong black following, he finally started appealing to white kids thanks to his highly acclaimed double album, 1999, which spawned numerous smash hits like Little Red Corvette, Delirious and of course, the political title song.   (Like David Bowie’s Fantastic Voyage, it warned of the still real danger of a nuclear holocaust.)  Speaking of the latter, every verse was originally supposed to be harmonized with members of The Revolution, his second backing band.  (The Time preceded them.)  But Prince decided to individualize the vocals so that each harmony part would get a line of its own to sing which made all the difference.  The apolocalyptic 1999 would go on to become one of his most enduring musical signatures.

In 1984, Prince was ready for the big screen as he unveiled Purple Rain, his only fictional film to receive praise.  (Under The Cherry Moon and Graffiti Bridge did not fare as well.  The concert picture, Sign O’ The Times, however, was critically acclaimed.  It played on MuchMusic for years after its 1987 theatrical run.)  The fantastic soundtrack became his Thriller, his most popular collection of recordings, some of which were captured live.  (It has sold about 15 million copies in North America alone.)  Just before the album’s unveiling, Prince felt it lacked an anthem, so he quickly put together a new song that would feature his best guitar solos, most especially the one that ends the track.  Long before he became a Jehovah’s Witness, Let’s Go Crazy cheekily addresses The Rapture without being annoyingly overt (unlike the full version of Controversy which directly references The Lord’s Prayer).  The result was Prince’s second number one single.  (When Doves Cry, which also features his first-rate guitar playing, was his first.)

The Purple Rain soundtrack, the first one that gave credit to The Revolution, was loaded with other memorable songs like the beautifully epic title track (which peaked at number 2), I Would Die 4 U and the lascivious Darling Nikki which bothered Tipper Gore so much it ended up on the Filthy Fifteen list.  Foo Fighters later covered it in 2002 and it became a minor alt-rock radio hit despite being a B-Side.  (As a thank you, during his Super Bowl halftime show in 2007, Prince covered their 2005 single, Best Of You.)  In 1985, the soundtrack would win the Best Original Song Score Oscar and would be nominated for the Album Of The Year Grammy.

For the rest of the 80s, Prince would continue to offer quirky, mass appeal singles:  the anti-drug Pop Life, Rasberry Beret, Kiss (another number one later covered by Tom Jones & The Art Of Noise), I Could Never Take The Place Of Your Man, U Got The Look (with Sheena Easton) and the funky Alphabet St.  In 1987, the same year he presented Sign O’ The Times, Prince produced his darkest collection of songs.  Growing fascinated with the burgeoning hip hop movement, The Black Album was going to be his Christmas release.  Warner Bros. balked at putting out another Prince album so quickly after the multi-platinum double release of Sign O’ The Times.  But, in the end, he second-guessed himself.  Despite the production of a small number of vinyl copies (the survivors of which became very valuable collector’s items fetching thousands of dollars each), The Black Album would be cancelled.  It would go on to become one of the most bootlegged lost albums over the next 7 years.

Lovesexy would take its place in 1988.  (The Alphabet St. video urged fans to not buy The Black Album bootlegs.)  It included a rerecorded version of When 2 R In Love, the only Black Album track to see official release at the time.

With the hope of finally taking a break, Warner instead convinced him to do another soundtrack, this one for a new Tim Burton film.  Red hot after the overrated Beetlejuice, he directed Michael Keaton, Kim Basinger and Jack Nicholson in Batman, the biggest hit of 1989.  Prince’s stellar soundtrack, which I originally had on tape but is now very hard to find on CD (I’ve managed to locate three used copies in recent years, though, two of which I bought for a buck apiece), ended the decade with an emphatic exclamation point.  Batdance, an exhilarating, film dialogue-heavy montage of many of the soundtrack’s songs (including non-album B-Side 200 Balloons) and featuring yet another classic rip roaring solo, would also hit number one.  Another single, Scandalous!, didn’t fare nearly as well chart-wise but it is a lovely ballad nonetheless, another vivid showcase for his trademark falsetto.  Curiously, the video for Partyman would feature the full 7-minute version whereas the soundtrack only has the 4-minute single edit.

After Graffiti Bridge flopped in 1990 (Thieves In The Temple did crack the Top 10, however), Prince rebounded with his new backing band, The New Power Generation, in 1991 with Diamonds & Pearls.  The orgasmic Cream would be his final number one smash.  The pretty title cut would peak in the Top 5.

In 1992, Prince signed a lucrative multi-album deal with Warner, his longtime label.  He would immediately regret it.  Despite learning about copyright law in high school, Prince belatedly realized he didn’t own any of his masters.  His next album that year (Prince logo.svg) would become his new identity in 1993 (along with The Artist and The Artist Formerly Known As Prince), an unpronounceable symbol (referred to as the Love Symbol) that references both sexes.  (To be fair, it inspired cool guitar and stage designs.)  Prince logo.svg featured his last great single for Warner, the jazz-inflected Sexy M.F., one of the rare times he rapped on record.

After announcing his new identity, which baffled the music world and gave comedians plenty of material, Prince decided to get out of his contract by offering a succession of albums within a three-year period which deeply annoyed Warner.  They hated the idea of flooding the marketplace because it meant lower profits.

Prince didn’t care if they sold or not.  He just wanted out.  Some of the music he released during this period had been languishing in the vaults for years including The Black Album which finally surfaced officially in November 1994 but with a catch.  It would only be on sale for 2 months before being supposedly pulled from record shops in late January 1995.  (5 years after its release I still managed to find a new copy for 6 bucks.  I’ve seen at least one used copy available for 20 but that was a while ago.)

Just a few months before that, Prince released the acclaimed Come which finally corrected a longstanding error.  The cover revealed he had in fact been born in 1958, not 1960 as Warner had falsely promoted for years.

During a memorable September 1993 performance on The Late Show With David Letterman, Prince performed a track from The Gold Experience, an album that wouldn’t be available until 1995.  (I would love to own the damn thing on CD but good luck finding it today.)  The word “SLAVE” was written on his cheek, his way of protesting what he saw as an unfair arrangement with Warner.  Gold Experience included The Most Beautiful Girl In The World, another falsetto ballad that hit the Top 5 in 1994 and was previously issued on an EP that year, the Top 20 hit I Hate U and P Control, yet another hooky ode to the vagina.

After the releases of the unloved Chaos & Disorder and the Girl 6 soundtrack (curiously released under his old name) in 1996, Prince released his first post-Warner collection, the three-hour Emancipation, which featured his last Top 40 hits, a cover of The Stylistics’ Betcha By Golly Wow! and The Holy River.  Instead of signing with another major, he starting shipping CDs of his music over the Internet (they would eventually surface in stores not always with the same track listings, though) including Crystal Ball (available in three, four and five-disc incarnations) which captured numerous outtakes from past album sessions for a number of scrapped projects including a few that featured his child-like alter ego Camille (not including previously released rejects like non-album B-sides Shockadelica and the catchy Feel U Up which could’ve been a hit like U Got The Look, all of which are on The Hits/The B-Sides).

Meanwhile, Warner would continue to occasionally release new Prince material leftover in their vaults (one such collection was actually called The Vault) plus a number of hits packages, the best of which remains The Hits/The B-Sides in 1993.  It features Nothing Compares 2 U (which Sinead O’Connor famously covered in 1990) and the original version of I Feel For You (a big hit for post-Rufus Chaka Khan in 1984).   I guess he never recorded Manic Monday, the hit song he wrote for The Bangles.

Although the two discs of hits were also available as individual releases (The Hits 1 and The Hits 2), the 20 non-album B-Sides were exclusive to the three-disc set.  I was personally very lucky to finally nab a new copy at HMV just a few years ago.  It’s another hard-to-find release, but even when you do spot it, it’s not always affordable.  (I once saw a used copy that cost 30 bucks.  New ones can run as much as 60 to 70.  My copy was 10 but free with a gift card.)

In 2000, by this point long past his commercial and artistic prime, Prince belatedly announced he was reverting back to his birth name, although he would continue to incorporate his highly mocked symbol in his live shows.  No longer a Top 40 fixture, he would however have one last multi-platinum hurrah in 2004.  (To be fair, he would also have two final Gold albums in 2006 & 2009.)  Musicology received his best reviews in years and thanks to a clever promotion (it was given away with concert tickets), it charted well.  His performance with Beyonce at the Grammys that same year inspired a recurring Saturday Night Live sketch.

In the final 12 years of his life, Prince never stopped creating and performing, although he would considerably dial down the lust in his lyrics because of his new found religion.  He continued to churn out new records on an annual basis and he remained a popular concert attraction.  (He had just played a couple of shows in Toronto a few weeks ago.  His last concert, part of his Paisley Park After Dark series at his home estate, happened over the weekend.)

His sudden death comes just three months after the shocking demise of David Bowie.  Like the creator of Ziggy Stardust and The Thin White Duke, Prince was a major influence on subsequent generations of performers, both black and white, trans, gay and straight.  His sexually charged lyrics pushed the boundaries of acceptability way more than Madonna ever could. (There’s no way she could’ve gotten away with writing songs like Jack U Off, Head and Scarlet Pussy.)

Prince’s often horny songs were ubiquitous and brilliantly accessible to a mass audience, never more so than in the 80s and early 90s.  For someone so weird, soft-spoken and distant (he rarely gave interviews), he had surprisingly global appeal.  He was unusual enough to excite young audiences thirsting for something unique.  And yet his decision to sing more often than not in an inoffensive high register (a huge risk that could’ve resulted in unintentional laughter, although he did come close to becoming a self-parody at times) and his remarkable gift for well-crafted arrangements allowed him to win over more conservative pop traditionalists.  There’s no denying he had flat out, incredible musicianship.  He was as much as master of the electric six-string as more celebrated axmen like Eddie Van Halen and Jeff Beck.

But he could also be prickly.  Owners of Prince fan sites and bootleg distributors of his long coveted and voluminous unreleased recordings often felt his wrath in the form of lawsuits and public criticism.  A unrepentant control freak, he was not pro-Napster.  (He also didn’t want any of his songs parodied by Weird Al Yankovic who gave up asking for permission after a while.)  And although he would eventually return to work within the major label system, he wisely avoided traditional, longterm deals.  He would continue to offer new material online right up until last year.

And now he’s gone.  My reaction to his death is curiously more subdued than Bowie’s.  I hadn’t heard a Prince album since Musicology.  (The library copy I once borrowed I unfortunately broke by accident.  Not a good way to spend 20 bucks.)  And while I greatly admire many of his singles and especially his Batman & Purple Rain soundtracks, I have never felt the need to own everything he did.  On the contrary, I never stopped listening to Bowie.  (I’m loving Blackstar at the moment, his last release.)  In the last several years, I made it a point to add as many of his CDs to my collection that I could find for as little money as possible with a few more still to seek out.  With the exception of that elusive Gold Experience, on the other hand, I have all the Prince I need.

In the days and weeks to come we will surely learn more about his sudden death, as mysterious and odd as the man himself.  But for those grieving for the early end of another 80s icon, there is the warm comfort of the vast legacy he leaves behind.  Plus, now that the stern gatekeeper of so many unheard goodies is no more, how soon before that enormous trove of material long buried from the prying eyes and curious ears of a soon-to-be insatiable public begins to be unearthed?

More than 45 years after the death of Jimi Hendrix, we’re still getting new albums from him.  Prince is about to give him some much needed competition.

Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Thursday, April 21, 2016
7:28 p.m.

CORRECTIONS:  Only Prince’s debut release was ignored.  His second album went platinum and spawned his first Top 40 hit, I Wanna Be Your Lover.  It was 2000, not 1999, when Prince announced he was Prince again.  P Control from The Gold Experience was wrongly listed as P Patrol.  Musicology was his last “multi-platinum” success but by no means his last certified album.  He would acquire two more Gold records by the end of The Aughts.  And sadly, having rewatched the Controversy video a couple of times today, I realize that Prince isn’t wearing his infamous assless chaps, just leggings and bikini underwear.  All of these corrections have since been incorporated into the original piece.  I regret all the errors.

Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Sunday, April 24, 2016
9:45 p.m.

UPDATE:  It was a drug overdose.

Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Friday, June 3, 2016
1:54 a.m.

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Published in: on April 21, 2016 at 7:28 pm  Comments (2)  

Bowie

I thought it was a hoax.  I really did.  There’s no way it could be true.  No way.  Someone is playing a cruel trick on us all.  Surely.  Hopefully.

But it is true.  David Bowie is dead.  His son, the filmmaker Duncan Jones, confirmed it on his Twitter account late last night as did Bowie’s longtime producer and friend Tony Visconti.

Less than two weeks ago in this space, I had just recounted the number of Bowie entries I had written in 2015.  There were five.  And I had noted the upcoming release of what will now be his final studio album, Blackstar.  Just three days after its release, he’s gone.  The reason:  cancer.  Fuck.

David Bowie’s sudden death at age 69 is shocking for a whole number of reasons, most notably the fact that so many of us didn’t even know he was sick.  (According to an official press release by his social media accounts, his struggle with the disease lasted a year and a half.) (JANUARY 12 UPDATE:  He had liver cancer and only a few people knew his diagnosis.)

It’s long forgotten now but there was a time when Bowie was a hardcore hedonist, a committed pleasure seeker who sought women, drugs & alcohol in ever copious amounts.  He was so strung out on cocaine for much of the 70s, he stopped eating regular food for a time, limiting himself to green vegetables, usually lettuce.  He thought aliens were out to get him.  He got drunk so many times in Berlin his worldview became bleak & helpless hence the dark music he would make at the end of the decade, his increasingly dangerous addictions fuelling his thankfully temporary fascination with fascism and Nazis.

How he survived one personal & professional crisis after another is a testament to his incredible endurance and adaptability.  Besides his terrifyingly self-destructive habits, Bowie was screwed over by his then-manager Tony DeFries, a toxic business arrangement that took years to end and left him in serious financial upheaval.  His first marriage, an open relationship with his former muse Angela (Duncan’s mom), ended acrimoniously the same time he wanted to divorce himself from RCA, the label that released almost all of his most famous, influential material.

The fact that Bowie even made it to middle age in spite of all this adversity, debauchery & trauma is shocking in its own right.  And downright admirable.  (I haven’t even mentioned Mark David Chapman, John Lennon’s jailed assassin, who also contemplated murdering Bowie before ultimately targeting the former Beatle.  It was the rare topic the usually accessible Bowie declined to discuss for obvious reasons.)  It’s important to remember that there was a time where it looked like he wouldn’t even survive the 70s.

But survive that treacherous decade he did.  Not only did he survive, he grew in stature despite releasing music that few felt was better than the classics in his first full decade, although he was never short on good songs and albums.  As he gradually cleaned himself up, only one bad habit remained:  cigarettes.  In pictures and countless TV interviews, Bowie was often never without one between his fingers.  It all caught up to him before a gig in 2004.

Bowie was in significant pain.  Ever the trooper, he went ahead with the two-hour show.  Immediately afterward, he sought medical treatment.  A pinched shoulder nerve was the initial diagnosis.  But when the problem remain unsolved, a second physician stunned him with the truth.  He was actually having a minor heart attack.  (An emergency procedure finally gave him relief.)  This doctor gave him an ultimatum:  give up the cigarettes or further put his health at risk.  Bowie finally gave up the smokes.

As a result, he would drastically scale back his public appearances.  Oh sure, there was a movie or TV role here, a special live gig there.  But for the most part, he would finally enjoy prolonged periods of privacy with his second wife, the model/actress Iman, and their now teenage daughter Alexandria.

Then, three years ago, out of nowhere, a new single followed by a new album.  The Next Day was Bowie’s first new studio effort in a decade.  (It was released in at least three different versions on CD alone.)  Recorded in secret very slowly over two years, it received glorious reviews upon its unveiling and deservedly so.  By the end of 2014, another new recording, the Grammy-nominated Sue, was included in Bowie’s most expansive greatest hits collection to date, the sprawling but by no means comprehensive 3CD set, Nothing Has Changed, which highlighted 50 years of music making.  A reworked version is on Blackstar.

Throughout his surprise return, Bowie had avoided engaging with the press.  He left that to Tony Visconti who produced all three recordings.  (However, when he won a Brit award in 2014 he did release a thank you statement while hoping Scotland would remain within the United Kingdom.  Remember the failed independence referendum they had?)

Now we know why.  Bowie saw his time was running out and by God, did he make the most of it.  MuchMusic aired about an hour of his videos earlier today, mostly from the 70s and 80s.  At the end, they aired new clips for Blackstar and Lazarus.  In Blackstar, it appears the mystery of Major Tom is finally solved.  His now skeletal body still in its spacesuit is discovered lying in permanent peaceful slumber.  In Lazarus, Bowie spends half of the time in bed and in the last scene climbs into some cabinet before closing the door locking himself in.

Death was often a theme in Bowie’s repertoire long before he ever got that awful cancer diagnosis.  Whether covering Jacques Brel’s My Death during the glammy Ziggy days, chronicling the disappearance and reappearance of Major Tom in Space Oddity and Ashes To Ashes, respectively, or addressing his own mortality in Dead Man Walking, the end was never far from his mind.

Neither was sex.  Consider the nude makeout scene, a tribute to From Here To Eternity, at the end of the China Girl video.  (I have to admit his buttocks were spectacular.)  Or Rebel Rebel.  Or Drive-In Saturday.  Or Time.  Or Suffragette City.  Or any number of songs in his vast, eclectic catalogue.

Bowie was never ashamed of his sexuality.  In fact, he’s quoted on the back cover of one of his most recent biographies admitting to being cheerfully promiscuous during his first flush with fame.  But when he met Iman, as he noted in an interview later on, he was already thinking of names for their children on their first date.  Although they only had one, they were happily married for more than 20 years.

These days, when a celebrity comes out of the closet, the world shrugs.  But when Bowie declared he was gay in 1972 (while promoting the Ziggy Stardust album), it was a proverbial earthquake.  Men in rock were expected to be macho, supremely virile, barechested conquerers like Robert Plant and Iggy Pop.  They were not supposed to be outrageously effeminate like Little Richard.

Bowie cleverly realized that by shocking his audience with non-traditional statements and moves like declaring he was homosexual (although he was indeed a macho, supremely virile ladykiller himself), he would stand out.  (His hero, Little Richard, a black man from the segregationist South, could never get away with that.)  Playing around with gender identity not only suited his image, it gave his songwriting a clear focus and identity.  It effectively separated him from the pack even if John Lennon initially dismissed it as “rock and roll with lipstick”.

Ziggy Stardust, you could argue, is the first fictional trans rock star.  Both Suffragette City and Lady Stardust employ female pronouns.  The gender of the protagonist of Rebel Rebel is never specified.  (“She’s not sure if you’re a boy or a girl.”)  Other songs like John, I’m Only Dancing seem to suggest a male character is only pretending to pass for straight when he’s really bisexual  (“She turns me on/But don’t get me wrong/I’m only dancing”).

The gambit worked in the free spirited UK but Bowie struggled for a similar break in the more sexually repressive America.  (It took three tries to get Space Oddity into Billboard’s Top 40 over six years.)  None of his glam anthems crossed over into the mainstream at the time.  It wasn’t until he directly addressed the US in Young Americans with his more soulful approach that he finally achieved the recognition he had long coveted.

And it might not have been as successful as it was were it not for the last-minute inclusion of the brilliant Fame, a blistering commentary on how shady managers ruin the charmed lives of rock stars, entirely inspired by a productive, late night bitch session with Bowie’s now close friend & supporter, John Lennon, who sang back-up vocals.  It hit number one.

Young Americans also benefited from the participation of Luther Vandross, then a young, hungry soul singer who Bowie hired to do arrangements and his own backing vocals.

From there, Bowie would undergo another dramatic transition to the cold detachment of Germanic electronica, first teased on the excellent Station To Station (which featured the hit Golden Years and the epic title cut with its slow build before its exceptional disco climax) then fully embraced on the laconic Low and “Heroes”.  Bowie has little memory of Station To Station’s creation because he was high on cocaine the entire time.  It was the last time he would make an album during punishing, successive all-night sessions.

When STS was ready to go, Bowie was riding in the back seat of his limo in Los Angeles one typically sunny afternoon when he spotted a familiar face walking down the street.  It was the troubled Iggy Pop, the former Stooges frontman.  (Bowie produced their third album, Raw Power.  His original mix remains controversial.)  He gave him a lift and eventually played him his new album.  Desperate to get something going again after his band flamed out for the second time, Iggy readily agreed to Bowie’s generous offer to tour Europe with him.  They ended up living in France and a then-divided Germany for a brief period.

The gesture solidified their friendship for years (although things cooled in the late 90s) and launched Iggy’s solo career.  Bowie helped spearhead The Idiot and Lust For Life (he convinced his label RCA to sign Iggy hyping him as the next Alice Cooper), both released during the UK punk explosion.  (He later produced Iggy’s eventual breakthrough, Blah Blah Blah, which included Real Wild Child.)  He even played keyboards in Iggy’s own touring band.  (They appeared on The Dinah Shore Show together, believe it or not.)  Years earlier, when another friend, Lou Reed, was similarly struggling, Bowie, fresh off his Ziggy Stardust triumph, produced Transformer, the album that spawned the classic Warhol Factory tribute, Walk On The Wild Side.  Bowie also penned Mott The Hoople’s biggest hit, All The Young Dudes, while also recording his own version.

After Lodger and Scary Monsters (both filled with classic hits and killer album cuts), the one-two punch of Under Pressure (with Queen) and the five-year-old Little Drummer Boy/Peace On Earth (with Bing Crosby), still the greatest modern Christmas song of all time, and the Baal EP, Bowie would be welcomed back to the American mainstream with Let’s Dance (which featured an unknown guitar slinger named Stevie Ray Vaughn).  Its blockbuster success genuinely startled him.  Combining dance music with the blues was seen as a unique hybrid.  Bowie never expected it to be his biggest album.  (It was nominated for the Album Of The Year Grammy.)  The title song would be his second and final US number one.  China Girl, originally recorded by Iggy on The Idiot, became a worldwide Top 10 giving The Jean Genie/Ziggy Stardust inspiration his first taste of financial stability.  (Bowie recorded other Iggy tracks on his next two albums.)

However, unable to relate to his new expanded audience and now uncertain about where to go next (he was also probably conflicted about the restoration of his fortunes after being screwed by DeFries which also had to have contributed to his reticence), Bowie greatly scaled back the edgy experimentation that defined his 70s work and played it safe with the covers-heavy Tonight (a good but not inspired collection) and the heavily criticized Never Let Me Down.

By the end of the 80s, Bowie was determined to get back on track.  The formation of Tin Machine with guitarist Reeves Gabrels and the Sales brothers (who played on Lust For Life) might not have panned out quite the way he intended, but it did spring him from his cushy, unfulfilling creative prison.  Never again would he feel the suffocating pressure of softening his avant garde ideas for mass appeal.

After Fame was remixed for Pretty Woman & Changesbowie (it was augmented by a nifty, visually arresting video) and Rykodisc reissued Bowie’s Polygram & RCA albums (many of which contained rare bonus tracks), Bowie resumed his solo career, first with Real Cool World (from the awful Cool World movie) and the album Black Tie White Noise which features a number of songs inspired by his second wife Iman who he had just married.  Standouts on the latter include Jump They Say (about his late schizophrenic brother Terry) and the belted out cover of I Know It’s Gonna Happen Someday where he out-Morrissey’s Morrissey.

For the rest of the decade, Bowie’s alt-rock cred rose substantially even though the Let’s Dance audience had moved on.  Nirvana covered The Man Who Sold The World to much fanfare for MTV Unplugged.  (Bowie was often annoyed that fans thought Kurt Cobain wrote it.)  Nine Inch Nails joined him on tour.  And the guitar work on The Smashing Pumpkins’ Zero was clearly an unsubtle homage to Boys Keep Swinging.  Meanwhile, his hard rock edge returned.

Outside’s spoken word segments are skipable but not the songs, most especially The Heart’s Filthy Lesson, Strangers When We Meet, Hallo Spaceboy (the last Major Tom song) and A Small Plot Of Land (featuring the great pianist Mike Garson who played on Aladdin Sane).

The boisterous Earthling saw Bowie embracing jungle.  Best known for Little Wonder and I’m Afraid Of Americans (Trent Reznor’s remix is superior to the album version), it was released the same year he turned 50.  (In celebration, Bowie had a birthday concert at Madison Square Garden which featured guest musicians Dave Grohl, Lou Reed, Robert Smith, Frank Black and Billy Corgan.)

Bowie ended the 90s with the flawed but moving …hours which gave us the beautifully philosophical Thursday’s Child and the rocking, Stooges-inspired The Pretty Things Are Going To Hell.  The Dreamers features one of his most soaring late period vocals while This Isn’t Happening showcases one of Reeves Gabrels best hooks.  (A fan who won a songwriting contest wrote the lyrics.)

When Toy was scrapped (it later leaked online), Bowie presented Heathen instead.  (Slow Burn is a seriously underappreciated single, another great vocal showcase.)  Then came Reality and all its multiple versions.  The stellar New Killer Star was nominated for a Grammy.  Fall Dog Bombs The Moon, which was inspired by Dick Cheney of all people, is cutting social commentary about the collective indifference of rich, unaccountable sociopaths.  And his hurried, Spanish-inflected version of The Modern Lovers’ Pablo Picasso challenges one’s affection for the more relaxed original.

I could go on and on and on about this man’s life and career.  We haven’t even talked about his acting, how he played Andy Warhol in Basquiat, the villain in Jim Henson’s Labyrinth (the soundtrack has a number of bouncy Bowie originals), the detached alien in The Man Who Fell To Earth and Pontius Pilate in Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation Of Christ.  I haven’t mentioned his championing of bands like The Ramones, The Talking Heads, The Cure, Kraftwerk (V2 Schneider from “Heroes” was a direct tribute to the leader of the German foursome), The Polyphonic Spree and The Arcade Fire (who he performed live with during a Fashion Rocks event).  What about all the songs he did for other movies like Absolute Beginners, When The Wind Blows, The Buddha Of Surburbia and The Falcon & The Snowman, to name but four.  Nor have I run down his very funny Late Night With Conan O’Brien appearances.

There’s just so much, too much to document in a single tribute which is fitting after all.  Because there isn’t one song, one B-side, one concert, one album, one movie, one TV show or even one interview that singularly defines David Bowie.  You can try but it’s incredibly difficult.  There are just too many high points to choose from.

That said, let me highlight one moment of brilliance that is often overlooked.  In 1999, Placebo convinced Bowie to add his vocals to a single version of Without You I’m Nothing.  It’s this take that was added to their singles collection, Once More With Feeling.  Listen to the original album cut.  Then listen to the Bowie version.  Which one is the definitive one?

Do I even have to ask?

Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Tuesday, January 12, 2016
3:53 a.m.

CORRECTIONS/CLARIFICATION:  In paragraph 6, I wrongly asserted that Bowie had “survived overdose after overdose”.  As he noted in an interview excerpted in the terrific BBC documentary, David Bowie: Five Years, he had come close to overdosing without actually doing it.  The original, erroneous phrasing has been excised and that first sentence has been tweaked to reflect the change.

Regarding paragraph 9, Bowie was wrongly diagnosed with a pinched shoulder nerve by the first doctor he saw who prescribed him muscle relaxers.  It was a second doctor who told him he had suffered a minor heart attack (he actually had a blocked artery) which resulted in a successful emergency surgery.  With the exception of the muscle relaxers and the blocked artery, all of this information has been added with the errors removed.

Finally, this piece was written in 2016, not 2015.  And yes, I just noticed this mistake now.  The correct year is now in place.

Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Monday, February 15, 2016
4:28 p.m.

Published in: on January 12, 2016 at 3:53 am  Comments (2)  

Donald Trump’s Secret Song Choices To Replace Hail To The Chief

He had been threatening to do it for decades and no one took him seriously.  Even when he finally declared last June, he was still considered a longshot, a joke, a delusional plutocrat doomed to embarrass himself on the international stage.

But seven months later, however improbable it may be, the blatantly, unapologetically racist & sexist Donald Trump is the frontrunner for the Republican Presidential nomination.  Ever since he made his now infamous announcement, he has polled extremely well with potential right-wing voters, thanks in no small part to excessive, not always critical cable news coverage.  (I’m looking at you, CNN.)  Whether that will actually translate to caucus and primary victories remains an open question.  (The first vote is in Iowa on February 1st.)

Nevertheless, Trump is already making plans, prematurely.  How convinced is he that he’ll become the 45th President of the United States?  He’s contemplating replacing the traditional entrance theme, Hail To The Chief, with something more suitable to his abrasive, contemptible style.

Here is the secret list of songs he’s planning to choose from:

1. The Gentle Art Of Making Enemies (Faith No More)

2. Can’t Help Thinking About Me (David Bowie)

3. Walking Contradiction (Green Day)

4. Cocky (Kid Rock)

5. Hair (The Cowsills)

6. Better Get Used To It (Big Sugar)

7. Bigmouth Strikes Again (The Smiths)

8. My Big Mouth (Oasis)

9. I Don’t Care (Ramones)

10. All You Need Is Me (Morrissey)

11. Dodo (David Bowie)

12. Loser (Beck)

13. The Wall (Pink Floyd)

14. Back Off Bitch (Guns N’ Roses)

15. Hate (Iggy Pop)

16. Whatever (Iggy Pop)

17. Yeah, Whatever (Moev)

18. National Front Disco (Morrissey)

19. King Of Kings (Motorhead)

20. We Are The Champions (Queen)

21. Brilliant Disguise (Bruce Springsteen)

22. Mad World (Tears For Fears)

23. Simply The Best (Tina Turner)

24. The Right Stuff (New Kids On The Block)

25. Can I Play With Madness? (Iron Maiden)

26. Dum Dum Boys (Iggy Pop)

27. Cult Of Personality (Living Colour)

28. You’re So Vain (Carly Simon)

29. In A World Called Catastrophe (Matthew Good)

30. November Spawned A Monster (Morrissey)

Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Sunday, January 10, 2016
4:41 p.m.

Published in: on January 10, 2016 at 4:41 pm  Comments (1)  

5 Rock Songs That Slyly Reference 5 Other Rock Songs

Before they were rock stars, they were fans:  impressionable kids who scoured the racks at their local record shops looking for something, a single or an album that would change their lives.  Once they found it, they took it home and played it to death while obsessing over every detail of the packaging until it was all committed to memory.  Then they would return to find something new and repeat the process all over again.

Even after they started their own bands and achieved their own level of success, they never stopped being fans.  From time to time, they even recorded their own versions of their childhood favourites with varying results.

But sometimes the best way to pay tribute to a classic song is to be subtle.  Instead of doing a full throttle remake, why not just make a quick passing reference in one of your originals?  Like a direct lyric lift or a sample.

These five bands did just that:

1. Rush honours Simon & Garfunkel in The Spirit Of Radio (1980)

Drummer Neil Peart was a fan of CFNY, the tiny FM alternative rock station that would introduce the likes of Elvis Costello, the Sex Pistols, U2 and countless other cutting edge acts to Toronto-area listeners beginning in 1978 while also playing the latest from Neil Young and The Who, two revered influences on the burgeoning movement.

As a tribute to the station, Peart wrote the lyrics to The Spirit Of Radio, one of CFNY’s early ad slogans, which became one of the key singles from the 1980 album, Permanent Waves.

In the final reggae section of the song, singer/bassist/keyboardist Geddy Lee sings:

“For the words of the profits are written on the studio walls/Concert hall”

That’s a sly reference to this lyric from Simon & Garfunkel’s The Sounds Of Silence:

“And the words of the prophets are written on the subway walls/And tenement halls”

Peart was mocking the corroding influence of the commercial music business on individual creativity.

Ironically, The Spirit Of Radio would only receive sporadic airplay on CFNY, much to Rush’s disappointment.  It would be spun far more often on local competing classic rock stations.  In fact, it still is.  It wasn’t until Catherine Wheel was commissioned by the station to do a cover for the Spirit Of The Edge Vol. 2 compilation in 1996 that the song, albeit in this remade form, was finally put in high rotation.

2. Bush references David Bowie in Everything Zen (1994)

Ultimately derided as Nirvana clones (they were really trying to sound like The Pixies), this English foursome couldn’t produce enough modern rock hits to ever win over their increasingly unimpressed critics.

Their first album, Sixteen Stone, quietly debuted just before Christmas in late 1994 and would go on to spawn five singles which flooded alt-rock stations for the next two years.  (The last one, Machinehead, continues to be a jock anthem at numerous sporting events today, most notably hockey.)

Of all the Sixteen Stone hits, none was better than their debut offering, Everything Zen.  At the start of the second verse, singer Gavin Rossdale sings:

“Mickey Mouse has grown up a cow/Dave’s on sale again”

After the massive UK success of his fifth album, The Rise & Fall Of Ziggy Stardust & The Spiders From Mars in 1972, David Bowie’s record company RCA decided to release a single from his previous LP, Hunky Dory, in order to cash in on his sudden fame the following year.

Smart move.  Life On Mars? went on to become a Top 5 smash despite being two years old.  (Strangely, it was never released as a single in North America.)  At the start of the second verse, Bowie sings:

“It’s on America’s tortured brow/Mickey Mouse has grown up a cow/Now the workers have struck for fame/Cause Lennon’s on sale again”

Bowie was referencing future close pal John Lennon who would release the Imagine album in 1971.  (Four years later, they would collaborate on Bowie’s first US number one smash, Fame, which gives that portion of the lyric unintentional prescience.)  In turn, Rossdale was giving a tip of the hat to Bowie who actually didn’t release any new CDs in 1994.  Presumably, the Bush frontman is referring to his 1993 solo comeback, Black Tie White Noise.

Interestingly enough, Bowie himself referenced another song in Life On Mars?  While the female protagonist is watching the fictional, unnamed film in the chorus, he sings “look at those cavemen go”.  As noted by Wikipedia, that’s a direct reference to a 1960 song called Alley Oop by a forgotten band called The Hollywood Argyles.  (“Look at that caveman go!“)

3. The Tea Party pays homage to Joy Division in Fire In The Head (1995)

Another band who knows a thing or two about having their egos bruised by the critics is this Windsor, Ontario trio.  Often dismissed as “Jim Morrison fronting Led Zeppelin”, which is only partially correct (the band has freely admitted deriving inspiration from the English metal pioneers), The Tea Party were actually more influenced by Joy Division.

Case in point:  the 1995 single Fire In The Head from their third album, The Edges Of Twilight.  At the end of every verse, deep-voiced frontman Jeff Martin croons with his higher-voiced self:

“This is the way/Step inside”

That just happens to be the chorus for Joy Division’s Atrocity Exhibition, the opening track from their second album, Closer.  (Atrocity Exhibition was also the name of an experimental J.G. Ballard novel.)

Tired of comparisons to The Doors, The Tea Party named their fourth album Transmission (also the name of an early non-album Joy Division single) and added keyboards to their already unique sound.  By the end of the decade, they were one of the most successful bands in Canada, half-accurate critical descriptions be damned.

4. Garbage quietly samples R.E.M. for Stupid Girl (1995)

The fourth single from the first Garbage album was their Top 40 breakthrough.  The drum hook that plays throughout the track is from The Clash’s Train In Vain which, curiously enough, was their first Top 40 achievement.

But there’s another unoriginal drum part not credited in the liner notes that pops up during several instrumental breaks.  If you listen closely, you’ll notice a quick rat-a-tat-tat sample from R.E.M.’s Orange Crush.

So, why wasn’t this noted?  A number of quick web searches didn’t provide any answers.  (My guess:  a secret financial deal was reached without the need for credit which, as Alan Cross has noted, is pretty standard for the industry.)  Maybe when the 20th Anniversary edition of Garbage, the band’s self-titled debut, comes out later this year, we’ll get the full scoop.

5. The Killers tip their hat to David Bowie in Mr. Brightside (2004)

This one I just noticed recently after buying the Hunky Dory CD.

In the last verse of Queen Bitch, his glammy tribute to Lou Reed, Bowie sings about being isolated, cold and envious in his hotel room.  At one point, while continuing to observe his male companion “down on the street”, he reports:

“So I throw both his bags down the hall/And I’m phoning a cab/Cause my stomach feels small”

In Mr. Brightside, frontman Brandon Flowers is tormented in the aftermath of an ended affair.  In the second half of the song’s only verse where he punishes himself by dreaming about his ex getting involved with another man, he sings:

“Now I’m falling asleep/And she’s calling a cab/While he’s having a smoke/And she’s taking a drag/Now they’re going to bed/And my stomach is sick”

Earlier, near the end of the first verse of Queen Bitch, Bowie sings:

“I just can’t see her letting him go.”

In Mr. Brightside, in the midst of his imaginary nightmare, Flowers observes:

“But she’s touching his chest now/he takes off her dress now/letting me go”

These similiarites between the two sets of lyrics (both songs deal with jealous lovers) are not a coincidence.  Flowers has openly declared his admiration for Bowie in the press for years.  In fact, in 2010, he said his music changed his lifeIn a 2013 interview with Entertainment Weekly, he admitted that the bassline for All The Things That I’ve Done was stolen from Slow Burn, an underrated Bowie single from 2002’s Heathen.  In that same interview, he revealed that as The Killers were starting to generate material, he was very much into 70s glam rock, Lou Reed’s Transformers & Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust in particular.

Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Sunday, July 26, 2015
10:18 p.m.

CORRECTION:  I can’t believe I screwed this up.  The Tea Party lyric stolen from Joy Division is “This is the way/step inside” not “aside”.  My apologies for this stupid mistake.  The text has finally been corrected.

Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Saturday, July 8, 2017
4:17 a.m.

Published in: on July 26, 2015 at 10:18 pm  Comments (1)  

12 David Bowie Rarities That Have Never Been Released On CD

Last month, David Bowie’s official website announced the upcoming release of Five Years, the first in a series of career-spanning, retrospective box sets.  The most notable inclusion:  the original version of Holy Holy, a rare 1970 A-Side that has never been issued on CD before.  That’s right.  It has taken 45 years for this to finally happen.

This got me thinking recently of other Bowie rarities that for whatever reason have also been denied a proper CD release.  True, some of the following songs can be legally downloaded online but for old school fans, it’s always preferable to own the best quality physical copies of their favourite music.

At any event, here are the only remaining officially released recordings in the Bowie catalogue that can’t be purchased on CD:

1 & 2. Space Oddity (1969 US Single Edit & 1973 Longer US Single Edit)

The full version of Bowie’s first major hit runs five minutes and fifteen seconds.  But when it was first released in the United States, it was severely cut down to just a little under three and a half minutes.  (No wonder it flopped.)  A second US single release restored most of the original mix minus twelve seconds.

In 2009, in honour of the song’s 40th Anniversary, Bowie released a special EP that featured all the different single versions of the song plus individual elements of the original on separate tracks so fans could make their own mixes.  Unfortunately, this was an online-only release.

The Five Years box set will include the rare four and a half minute UK single edit but not any of the US edits.

3. The Man In The Middle (1971 Arnold Corns B-Side)

While making the Ziggy Stardust album, Bowie slyly released three songs under the name Arnold Corns (a reference to his favourite Pink Floyd song, Arnold Layne).  Two of the tracks, Moonage Daydream and Hang On To Yourself, would be reworked and re-recorded for Ziggy.  (The originals can be heard on the 1990 Rykodisc version of The Man Who Sold The World and the 2002 30th Anniversary edition of Ziggy.)  The third, The Man In The Middle, would only be issued as the B-Side to Yourself.  It has not been released in any other form.

4. John, I’m Only Dancing (Again) (1979 7″ Single Edit A-Side)

Two years after recording three versions of John, I’m Only Dancing (two of which would be issued as stand-alone singles in 1972, the third as a bonus cut on the 1990 Rykodisc and 2002 30th Anniversary editions of Ziggy Stardust), Bowie decided to do a funked-up disco remake entitled John, I’m Only Dancing (Again).  Rejected for Young Americans, it sat in the vaults for five years before finally getting a proper single release in 1979.

The full seven-minute 12″ version would eventually appear on CD on The Best Of David Bowie 1974-1979 and the 2007 reissue of Young Americans.  But the edited three and a half minute 7″ version remains only available on vinyl.

5, 6 & 7. Remembering Marie A, Ballad Of The Adventurers & The Dirty Song (from 1982 Baal EP)

In 1982, Bowie starred in the BBC TV adaptation of Bertolt Brecht’s Baal, a play originally written during the First World War.  He sang five songs for the production which were later collected for the Baal EP, his final release for RCA.  In 2003, The Drowned Girl & Baal’s Hymn made their CD debuts on the expanded version of the Sound + Vision box set.  Drowned Girl would also pop up on disc three of The Platinum Collection in 2005 which was given a separate release as The Best Of David Bowie 1980-1987 in 2007.

But the other three tracks from the EP – Remembering Marie A, Ballad Of The Adventurers & The Dirty Song – have never been put on CD.  However, the full EP has been available as a digital download since 2007.

8, 9 & 10. Life On Mars?, Wake Up & Five Years (from the 2005 Live At Fashion Rocks EP with The Arcade Fire)

On September 8, 2005, David Bowie & The Arcade Fire performed live at the Fashion Rocks event in New York City.  The three songs they performed that evening (Bowie’s Life On Mars? from Hunky Dory and Five Years from Ziggy plus Arcade Fire’s Wake Up from Funeral) were later issued that same year on the Live At Fashion Rocks EP (or Live EP as it says on the digital cover) as an iTunes exclusive.  Unfortunately, they have all since been removed from the site.

11. Sue (Or In A Season Of Crime) (2014 Single Edit)

The obligatory new song recorded for last year’s Nothing Has Changed compilation features the full seven-minute version.  The four-minute single edit can only be downloaded or purchased on vinyl.

12. ‘Tis A Pity She Was A Whore (2014 B-Side)

The B-Side to Sue is only available with both versions of the A-Side as a three-song digital download and on 10″ vinyl.

Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Sunday, July 5, 2015
6:20 p.m.

UPDATE:  The 7″ version of John I’m Only Dancing (Again) finally debuted on CD in 2016 when it was included in Who Can I Be Now? (1974-1976), the follow-up box set to Five Years.  It’s the last song on Re:Call 2, the bonus disc of single edits, which also includes the rare American A-Side version of Fame.

Bowie’s next legacy box set, A New Career In A New Town (1977-1982), which will be out September 29, will feature the entire Baal EP on CD for the very first time.  Also, according to Amazon’s description, it will include two other rarities I missed.  I didn’t realize the Australian single mix of Breaking Glass (from Low) and the extended version of Beauty & The Beast (from “Heroes”) had never been issued on CD before.  All of these hard-to-find tracks will be part of the Re:Call 3 bonus disc included in the collection.

Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Sunday, August 20, 2017
4:53 p.m.

Published in: on July 5, 2015 at 6:20 pm  Comments (1)  

Original Holy Holy Single Finally Makes CD Debut In New David Bowie Box Set

On September 25th, David Bowie will release a massive new box set covering the first successful phase of his long, highly regarded career.  According to his official website, Five Years 1969-1973 will feature six studio albums, two live records, and a two-disc collection of single mixes, B-sides and rarities.  It will be available in a 12-CD package as well as a separate 13-LP collection.

Space Oddity (AKA David Bowie (1969) and Man Of Words, Man Of Music), The Man Who Sold The World, Hunky Dory, Aladdin Sane and the covers album Pin-Ups have all been remastered once again specifically for this set.  The 2003 stereo remix of The Rise & Fall Of Ziggy Stardust & The Spiders From Mars, only previously available on DVD, will also be included.

On top of that, Five Years will also feature the double-disc Ziggy Stardust: The Motion Picture soundtrack and Live Santa Monica ’72, a Ziggy-era bootleg that was first released officially in 2008.

Finally, there’s Re:Call 1.  Sadly not available as a separate stand alone release, this exclusive two-disc compilation will feature 24 additional songs, many of which appeared as bonus tracks on previous studio album reissues as well as being a part of earlier box sets & greatest hits compilations.  Far from comprehensive (not all the extra songs from the Rykodisc & 30th Anniversary versions are restored here, unfortunately), it does showcase most of the non-album A-Sides & B-Sides from the era.  (The UK single edit of Space Oddity is on the track list, but neither of the two US single edits made the cut.)

Amongst a lot of familiar hits & flipsides are several genuine rarities, the biggest of which is Holy Holy.  Originally a three-minute single issued in 1970, only the two-and-a-half minute 1971 re-recording (a Ziggy Stardust outtake eventually issued as a B-Side to Diamond Dogs in 1974) has ever made it on a Bowie CD, including this box set.  Now, for the first time ever, the original three-minute version can be heard digitally, as well.  It was only previously available officially on 45.

Also making its debut on CD is a rare, unreleased single mix of All The Madmen from The Man Who Sold The World and the German single edit of Drive In Saturday from Aladdin Sane.

Fans of John, I’m Only Dancing will be happy to know that the original mix and the sax version are included on disc two of Re:Call 1, marking the first time that both have appeared on the same release.  Other highlights of the collection include the Arnold Corns versions of Moonage Daydream and Hang On To Yourself (but not the rare vinyl-only B-Side The Man In The Middle), the Italian version of Space Oddity (Ragazzo Solo, Ragazza Sola), the single edit of Time from Aladdin Sane and Velvet Goldmine.

Five Years will also include a new book filled with rare photos, new liner notes written by Bowie producers Ken Scott and Tony Visconti, plus a foreword from The Kinks’ Ray Davies.

According to the official press release on davidbowie.com, this is only the first “in a series” of box sets to cover the six-decade career of The Thin White Duke himself.

Furthermore, regarding Five Years, the website promises “updates, pre-order links and more shortly.”  Hopefully, one of those updates will note whether this box set is coming to Canada.

Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Monday, June 22, 2015
11:19 p.m.

Published in: on June 22, 2015 at 11:19 pm  Comments (2)  

Five David Bowie Classics That Bombed In America

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.

2. Changes

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.

3. “Heroes”

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

“I hate this song.  Is there something else I could sing?”

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.

Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Friday, April 24, 2015
5:05 p.m.

Published in: on April 24, 2015 at 5:05 pm  Comments (1)  

12 Singles Disappointingly Omitted From David Bowie’s Nothing Has Changed

How do you sum up a 50-year recording career in a single release?  Well, if you’re David Bowie, you cram as many hit songs as you can fit onto three CDs.  That’s what happened last November when his ironically titled Nothing Has Changed debuted.

It’s not the first collection of famous Bowie songs but it is by far the most expansive.  All 59 tracks were released between the years 1964 and 2014.  Never before has a Bowie hits compilation featured material before 1969 and after 2002.

But, despite an admirable effort to represent as many eras as possible in a single compilation, it was inevitable that other equally worthy tracks would not make the cut.  Honestly, you could easily fill another 3 CDs with just the singles that were excluded.

Rather than listing all those missing songs, many of which can be found on earlier greatest hits albums, I just want to focus on 12 that really should’ve been added to Nothing Has Changed.  Matching the spirit of its extensive track listing, I present them in reverse chronological order:

1. The Pretty Things Are Going To Hell (Single Edit)

There were four singles issued from the Hours… album in 1999 & 2000, a surprising three of which (Thursday’s Child, Seven, Survive) ended up on disc one of Nothing Has Changed.  Disappointingly excluded was this Stooges-inspired rocker that has never been on a Bowie greatest hits package.  God knows there were numerous versions to choose from (including a couple from the awful Patricia Arquette horror film Stigmata) but I would’ve been perfectly happy with the four-minute single edit from Hours… It’s definitely preferable to the underwhelming Seven & Survive.

2. Dead Man Walking (Single Edit)

Little Wonder and the Trent Reznor remix of I’m Afraid Of Americans represent the underrated Earthling from 1997.  I would’ve added one more:  Dead Man Walking, Bowie’s frenetic jungle tribute to his old friends and collaborators Iggy Pop and Lou Reed.  Like The Pretty Things Are Going To Hell, it’s never been included on a Bowie collection.  The full album version is an epic seven minutes so the four-minute single edit would’ve been just fine on Nothing Has Changed.

3. Real Cool World

Bowie’s first original solo single of the 1990s was written & recorded for the terrible Ralph Bakshi live action/animation hybrid Cool World (which featured a very young Brad Pitt and a cartoon Kim Basinger).  Aside from appearing on the soundtrack and as a stand alone CD single, its only appearance on a Bowie release happened in 2003 when it was added to the list of bonus tracks found on disc two of the 10th Anniversary edition of Black Tie White Noise.  Considering the fact that it reignited Bowie’s solo career after his short stint fronting Tin Machine (which is completely ignored on Nothing Has Changed) it would’ve been nice to have it along with all these other hits.

4. Never Let Me Down

Bowie’s tribute to his longtime assistant was his last Top 40 success in America.  Rarely included in hits packages, it was passed over for The Best Of David Bowie 1980-1987 while Day In, Day Out & Time Will Crawl made the cut.  The iSelect remix of Time Will Crawl is the only representative of the unloved Never Let Me Down album to make the Nothing Has Changed collection.  Considering the commercial significance of Never Let Me Down, the title track shouldn’t have been passed over here.

5. DJ (Single Edit)

Probably due to space considerations, Bowie’s fertile, deeply influential late 70s experimentalism is limited to three songs from three albums at the end of disc two on Nothing Has Changed:  Sound & Vision (from Low), the single edit of Heroes (from the album of the same name) and Boys Keep Swinging (from Lodger).  Most of the other singles from these seminal discs were collected on The Best Of David Bowie 1974-1979 including the full version of DJ from Lodger.  But the single edit of that song rarely appears on a Bowie compilation.  In the vinyl era, it was a part of ChangesTwoBowie in 1981.  22 years later, it was on Bowie The Singles Collection 1969-1993, the double-CD Rykodisc collection.  As far as Nothing Has Changed is concerned it should’ve been a part of disc two.

6. Peace On Earth/Little Drummer Boy (w/ Bing Crosby)

It is the greatest modern Christmas song of all time and yet, curiously, it has only been on one past Bowie hits collection:  the aforementioned Rykodisc release, Bowie The Singles Collection 1969-1993, but only in a limited sense.  It was included as a bonus on just the first 40000 copies.  Yes, it is available as a CD single and is on countless Christmas compilations but if Under Pressure, Bowie’s much loved collaboration with Queen, can make the cut, why not this classic, as well?

7. TVC15 (Single Edit)

Station To Station is ably represented by the single version of Golden Years and the excellent 2010 mix of Wild Is The Wind on Nothing Has Changed.  But it would’ve been great to have TVC15 here, as well.  Supposedly inspired by one of Iggy Pop’s girlfriends getting eaten by a Television while high on something, it was a pivotal single for Bowie who was transitioning at the time from R&B soul music to European electronica.  Although the single edit was previously included on The Best Of David Bowie 1974-1979, its exclusion from Nothing Has Changed is still disappointing.  If it was up to me, I would’ve made room for it.

8. Fame (Single Edit)

Everybody knows the story about Bowie’s first number one in America.  It arose out of a conversation with John Lennon about the nature of celebrity and quickly developed into a last-minute addition to Young Americans.  Everybody knows the full album version which was released as a single in Britain and has been on almost every Bowie hits collection including Nothing Has Changed.  But few today have heard the American single edit which trimmed 45 seconds off the album version (and served as the template for the 1990 single remix).  It was this three and a half minute mix that topped the Billboard Hot 100 40 years ago.  After previously appearing on ChangesOneBowie and K-Tel’s Best Of Bowie, both vinyl releases, it has only made one appearance on CD.  You can find it on disc five of the Have A Nice Decade box set.  Not having this rare, shorter version of Fame on Nothing Has Changed is a hugely missed opportunity.

9. Time (Single Edit)

Pianist Mike Garson played a major role on the Aladdin Sane album with his endlessly spirited tinkling, most especially on one particularly cheeky track.  While The Jean Genie & Drive-In Saturday are on disc three of Nothing Has Changed there was no love for the aforementioned Time.  It was sadly left off the collection.  Famous for its drug references and brief mention of “wanking”, it’s something of a forgotten single.  The 7″ version is about 90 seconds shorter than the album cut and has never appeared on a Bowie hits release.  In fact, the only time the three and a half minute single ever appeared on CD was as a bonus cut on disc two of the 30th Anniversary edition of Aladdin Sane which was released in 2003.  It would’ve been a welcome surprise on Nothing Has Changed.

10. Suffragette City

One of the most famous songs from the Ziggy Stardust album was shockingly rejected for Nothing Has Changed.  The title cut is here.  So is the original single mix of Starman (Bowie’s second big hit in Britain) and album track Moonage Daydream.  But no Suffragette City.  Yes, it’s on so many past Bowie hits collections but quite frankly, it should’ve been included on Nothing Has Changed, as well.  It’s one of his most significant songs.

11. Holy Holy (original 1970 single)

According to Wikipedia, there are 110 official Bowie singles.  Only one has never been released on CD:  the original Holy Holy.  In 1970, besides releasing The Man Who Sold The World album, Bowie issued two non-album singles.  The original version of The Prettiest Star (which features T. Rex frontman Marc Bolan on guitar) has since been a part of the Sound + Vision box set and The Best Of David Bowie 1969-1974.  But Holy Holy was only released once as a 45.  When Rykodisc were compiling bonus tracks for the 1990 reissue of The Man Who Sold The World they were hoping to include it.  Unfortunately, according to Wikipedia, Bowie wouldn’t allow it.  Instead, they added the re-recorded, faster version which was rejected for Ziggy Stardust (it’s also on the bonus disc of the 30th Anniversary edition of Ziggy) and later became the B-Side to Diamond Dogs.  How awesome would it have been to include the original three-minute version on Nothing Has Changed?  Talk about a blown historic moment.

12. The Laughing Gnome

Two years before he would hit it big with Space Oddity, a desperate young Bowie thought this novelty number was his ticket to fame.  It wasn’t.  But six years later, at the height of Ziggy mania in 1973, it was reissued and, much to his utter embarrassment, became a Top 10 hit in the UK.  Clearly, it had no chance of making Nothing Has Changed.  Bowie is not exactly proud of the song.  That said, why couldn’t he have a sense of humour about the whole thing and just put it in the collection anyway?  Oh well.  For those who’ve never experienced The Laughing Gnome, the good news is you can find it on the 2010 reissue of the first David Bowie album.

Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Wednesday, April 22, 2015
1:57 a.m.

Published in: on April 22, 2015 at 1:57 am  Comments (1)  

The Forgotten Influence Of MuchMusic

For almost 15 years, my Dad was obsessed with taping music videos.  He actually kept track of every single one he ever recorded on Beta & VHS by writing them all down on these tiny pieces of three-ring paper that he kept in this tiny brown binder.  The list was alphabetized by artist.  Under each name were the video titles (not always the correct ones) and the corresponding cassette(s) they were recorded on.  Some were recorded multiple times because he either loved them so much or just wanted to record right to the end of a blank tape.  (In 2004, most of them (we’re talking hundreds of tapes) were finally thrown out after years of collecting dust.)

When he started doing this in the early 80s, he would set the timer for programs like Friday Night Videos on NBC and City Limits on a local Toronto station called City TV.  Hosted by aspiring songwriter Christopher Ward (and occasionally featuring a young comic named Mike Myers), City Limits aired every Saturday & Sunday in the wee hours of the morning.  Every episode was six hours long.

The mix of performers pantomiming to their singles was always eclectic.  In between videos featuring mainstream acts like Phil Collins & Pat Benatar were more cutting edge outfits like Depeche Mode and Siouxsie & The Banshees.  Looking back, it’s amazing the show was able to showcase so many different clips during their epic weekend broadcasts.  There weren’t many videos being produced during this period.

So you can only imagine how initially thrilled my Dad was when MuchMusic launched on August 31, 1984.  Unfortunately, The Nation’s Music Station began as a Pay-TV service (my Dad wasn’t going to give our local cable company more dough) so, he only taped videos during their free preview weekends, a semi-regular sales tactic employed to attract more subscribers.

Just a few years later, Much became part of our regular cable package.  And every day until the fall of 1995, Dad was constantly watching hoping to catch something he hadn’t already recorded before.  When he wasn’t watching, he asked me to take over so he wouldn’t miss anything.

Of all the video shows Much aired in its early years, there was only one he couldn’t miss:  the Hostess Sneak Previews.  Usually hosted by Steve Anthony, a blond, curly-haired goofball who drove my Dad nuts, it was the best place to see the latest clips.  Even after the cancellation of CBC shows like Video Hits & Good Rockin’ Tonight and another City-TV program called Toronto Rocks, among numerous others, he would continue to suffer through Anthony’s “paper hell” schtick (there were no teleprompters) just to add the newest titles to his growing collection.  (He must’ve taped tens of thousands of clips over the years.)

I’m not sure now why Dad lost interest in them altogether, but about a decade later, MuchMusic itself would drastically cut back on fully honouring this part of its mandate.  For most of the first half of its existence, with the exception of Erica Ehm’s Fashion Notes, every program it aired dealt exclusively with music.  Besides the regular hours devoted to random videos, there were specialty shows devoted to specific genres:  Outlaws & Heroes (Country), Rap City (Hip Hop), X-Tendamix (Dance), Soul In The City (R&B), Clip Trip (International), Pepsi Power Hour (Heavy Metal), MushMusic (Adult Contemporary), French Kiss (French Canadian), Indie Street (unsigned bands), The Wedge, The Punk Show and the revamped City Limits (Alternative Rock) and the Coca-Cola Countdown (Pop).

On Saturday nights, there were the Big Ticket Concerts.  On Saturday afternoons, there was the all-request show R.S.V.P. (Requested Songs for Video Play), which was spun off into Daily R.S.V.P. during weekday broadcasts.  There was Much West (featuring Terry David Mulligan with his giant cellphone covering Canadian music on the West Coast) and Much East (the two Mikes covering the East Coast).  There was the daily artist Spotlight which featured videos & interview excerpts of the biggest names in the business, past and present.  And then, on Mondays, there was the MuchMusicMovie which only featured musicals like Quadrophenia and Purple Rain.

Today, as Much celebrates its 30th Anniversary, only two of these shows remain on the air:  the weekly Countdown (minus its original sponsor) and the Much Movie (which isn’t restricted to music-themed features or a specific day any more).  (FEBRUARY 22, 2016 CORRECTION:  Actually, they still do Spotlight every Monday night at 6 p.m.  Hostess Sneak Previews is now Brand New Shit.  Instead of Rap City, there’s simply Hip Hop.  The Wedge is now just Alternative.  There are shows dedicated to EDM and dance music.  And Back Trax is now the three-hour Throwback Thursday.)  Yes, they still play videos for a couple hours every afternoon.  But for the most part, today’s Much is nothing like yesterday’s MuchMusic.  There are far more sitcoms, dramas and reality shows, totally unrelated to music, dominating its daily schedule.  (FEBRUARY 22, 2016 CORRECTION:  While it’s true that Much only plays between 2 to 3 hours of videos in the early afternoon, they’re also playing videos between 6 and 9 p.m. on weeknights.)

It’s sad, really.  When Moses Znaimer, the founder of both Much and City-TV, ran things, the channel mattered.  There was a serious mission to honour not just music in general, but Canadian musicians specifically.  MuchMusic went out of its way to push homegrown talent like Platinum Blonde, The Tragically Hip, The Northern Pikes, Jann Arden, Sloan, Alannah Myles (who found great success collaborating with Christopher Ward), Chalk Circle, I Mother Earth, 54-40, The Barenaked Ladies, Blue Rodeo, The Tea Party and countless others to national success, while existing stars like Neil Young and Rush continued to flourish.

Thanks to its VideoFact program (since renamed MuchFact) which helped fund videos for indie acts, bands like The Pursuit Of Happiness, Moist, Maestro Fresh-Wes and The Age Of Electric were all able to get major label deals.  French Canadian performers like Celine Dion, Roch Voisine and Mitsou would’ve never broken out of Quebec without the nationwide platform that the channel provided for them.  And because Much was dedicated to breaking acts from various genres, Shania Twain, Alanis Morissette and The Rankin Family were all able to build their own audiences through the excessive airings of their respective videos.

In the last decade or so, it’s hard to think of Much as the influential tastemaker it once prided itself on being.  Beyond the breakout successes of Billy Talent, Sam Roberts, Metric & The Arcade Fire in the early Aughts, the channel is now far more interested in promoting Fresh Prince & Simpsons reruns and teen sudsers like Degrassi than pushing the next great Canadian act.  (Sorry but Hedley, Michael Buble, Carly Rae Jepsen & Justin Bieber just don’t count.)

To be fair, Much’s decline isn’t entirely its own fault.  Part of the problem, of course, is the Internet.  Thanks to YouTube and countless imitators, music fans can become their own video programmers by simply scouring extensive lists of clips online at their leisure and playing them in an instant.  Since the channel rarely plays classic videos from the past anymore (FEBRUARY 22, 2016 CORRECTION:  As noted earlier, they do play old clips on Throwback Thursday), if one wanted to see, say, Killing Joke’s Love Like Blood right this second, one could do so right now with absolutely no difficulty (as long as one has a fast ISP).  And if one was desperate to see something brand new that’s just been released, well, it wouldn’t take one long to find that clip online, as well.

But what’s lost in that process are passionate TV programmers and VJs urging you to check out an artist or a band you’ve never heard of who they think you’ll really dig and follow for years to come.  There’s no steering you towards the dangerous, the exciting and the unexpected any more.  (Yes, Much has videos on its website but it’s really not the same.)

In fact, when Much does play videos during their afternoon Videoflows, there are no VJs introducing them at all.  It’s up to you to find out more about the current artists they still bother to play.  Unfortunately, few of them are worth caring about.  (What the hell happened to rock and roll?  Is it truly dead?)

Today’s music fans have a plethora of choices when it comes to seeing videos on the Internet.  During my childhood, there was no on-demand, only request shows and no guarantee of that request being granted on-air.  (I was able to get a Rush video played on Toronto Rocks once when Christopher Ward guest hosted, though.)

Still, it was fantastic to watch a channel that played nothing but videos for hours and hours, exposing you to a world of music you never knew existed, reminding you of established acts you had forgotten about and introducing you to artists who would become lifelong favourites.  (It’s why my Dad became a major fan of the Crash Test Dummies.)

As it celebrates 30 years on the air in Canada, that’s the MuchMusic I wish still existed.

Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Tuesday, August 26, 2014
2:01 a.m.

CORRECTION:  City Limits was actually six hours long, not five like I originally wrote.  The correct running time for the program has been added to the original text.  My memory is not as good as I thought it was.

Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Friday, August 29, 2014
2:33 a.m.

Published in: on August 26, 2014 at 2:02 am  Comments (2)  

The Enduring Legacy Of Lou Reed

Back in June, a friend of mine treated me to a movie for my birthday.  I hadn’t exactly slept well the night before, so I was hoping I would still be alert enough to have a good time.  (I was but the movie was crap.)  Before it started, we were bombarded with the usual array of needless ads for products I will never buy.  Then came the trailers.

Because we were about to screen a horror movie, most of the previews were for other, upcoming horror movies.  There were sneak peeks of The Conjuring and the recently released remake of Carrie starring Chloe Grace Moritz.  (There was also one for Kick-Ass 2 starring, you guessed it, Chloe Grace Moritz.  I want her agent.)

It was near the conclusion of another trailer (the title of which escapes me now) that this rather tired birthday boy suddenly perked up.  (March 25, 2014 UPDATE:  It was You’re Next.  Terrible film.)  Without any warning, the chorus of Lou Reed’s Perfect Day started playing.  I hadn’t heard it in a multiplex cinema since Trainspotting back in 1996.  Back then, I preferred Duran Duran’s cover version which Reed himself praised as being superior to his own.

But on that June evening, I had a very different reaction.  Reed was never a classically beautiful singer (he often sounded like a more street savvy Bob Dylan) but on Perfect Day, he comes as close as humanly possible.  I was moved by his performance that night.  And in the days that followed I found myself both singing and whistling the song no matter what else I was doing.  As far I can remember, that had never happened before.

More recently, I was watching TV when an ad for the new PlayStation 4 came on.  What’s the song all of those young actors are singing?  It’s Perfect Day.  More than 40 years after its release, the song remains as relevant as ever.  So is the artist who made it.

And now he’s dead.  Rolling Stone reported today that Reed has suddenly died at the age of 71.  It was only five months ago that he underwent a successful liver transplant.  He is survived by his longtime lady love, his third wife, performance artist Laurie Anderson.  He never had any children.

Long before alternative rock was even thought of as a viable music scene worthy of any corporate exploitation, it was initially considered far too weird and dangerous to ever appeal to the masses.  Lou Reed was one of those original weirdos, a temperamental Raymond Chandler fan who viewed both critics and even some of his fellow musicians with great disdain while simultaneously creating some of the most enduring music of the classic rock era.

Blame his parents for his often sour demeanour.  When he was a teenager prone to fits of violence and “homosexual tendencies”, they ordered him to undergo electro-shock therapy which proved so damaging Reed often suffered severe lapses in his memory.  After graduating from college in his early 20s, he briefly returned home only to find himself, at his parents’ urging, taking a tranquilizer drug called Placidyl to mellow him out.  But there was never any drug powerful enough to ever really subdue the permanently acerbic Lou Reed and that includes heroin.

After brief teenage/early 20s flirtations with garage rock, do-wop, college DJing and even quickie songwriting (most notably a parody of a dance craze number called Do The Ostrich), The Cranky One co-founded the most important 60s band in American history.

The Velvet Underground were never going to be as well-regarded or respected as The Beatles.  They were never going to sell nearly as many albums.  But they did start a quiet revolution that is still being felt today.  I believe it was Brian Eno who famously noted that the only people who ever bought Velvet albums ended up forming bands of their own.  R.E.M. being one of them.

Thanks to their brief association with pop artist Andy Warhol (who was looking for a house band to tour with his Exploding Plastic Inevitable multi-media shows), the band achieved a bit of notoriety that led them to an unlikely record deal with jazz label Verve.  It also led to the temporary addition of a new member:  Teutonic model Nico who ended up having affairs with both Reed and bandmate John Cale.  (Warhol insisted she be added to the line-up.  After Warhol’s dismissal, Nico was out of the band.  Reed & Cale would go on to write songs for her solo albums.)

The Velvet Underground & Nico was one of the many significant releases offered to the public in 1967 (Sgt. Pepper, The Doors and Are You Experienced? all but drowned it out for attention) and easily, one of the greatest debut albums of all time.  At the very least, it sounded like nothing else available.  At the most, it gave David Bowie a future.  Drummer Moe Tucker didn’t play conventional hi-hat/snare drum patterns.  She played African tribal rhythms instead.  The guitar playing was loose, loud and jangly.  Cale’s viola playing a cacophonous yet strangely moving attack on all your senses.  The subject matter was often drenched in sex and drugs.  Next to nothing was sugarcoated.

If there was one song that defined Reed’s Velvet period (and perhaps the band itself) it was Heroin.  Based on his own dark experiences with the drug, it was written very much as a cautionary tale, a warning to those foolish enough to be seduced by death as he was for a thankfully brief period.  It always perturbed him that people thanked him for inspiring them to try the drug after hearing the song.  He always hoped it would have the opposite effect.  The line, “It’s my wife and it’s my life”, perfectly summarizes the harmful, monogamous nature of addiction.

Reed’s association with The Velvets would only last a few more years but he would offer even more gems like the epic blast of distortion known as Sister Ray (from White Light/White Heat), the gentle, romantic complexity of Pale Blue Eyes (from The Velvet Underground) and the endlessly hooky Rock And Roll (from Loaded).

Beginning in 1971, Reed embarked on a seemingly doomed solo career taking all his unrecorded Velvet songs with him.  But when David Bowie produced his Transformer LP for release the following year, for the first time he would attract mainstream attention.  Walk On The Wild Side, a sly tribute to Andy Warhol’s Superstars of The Factory, actually cracked the Top 40, the only song in his catalog to ever do so.  Perfect Day, an album cut, was the B-Side.  Vicious was inspired by a conversation with Warhol.  Satellite Of Love was later covered rather brilliantly by U2.

Throughout the next several decades, The Cranky One resented having to live up to the Gold status of that album.  For a time he even had a serious falling out with Bowie for many years.  (They eventually reconciled.  Reed made an appearance during Bowie’s 50th birthday MSG gig in 1997.)  But he still managed to impress critics and fans on occasion.  Many will cite 1974’s Rock And Roll Animal and 1982’s The Blue Mask as being two of his best.  Others will make the case for 1973’s Berlin.  As someone who hasn’t heard many of his solo records, I’d like to single out one I enjoyed back in the day:  1996’s Set The Twilight Reeling.

It features one of his most underappreciated songs ever, Adventurer, a loving, lyrically crammed tribute to Anderson.  It’s been almost 20 years since I last heard Reeling but I remember snippets of Egg Cream and the goofy Sex With Your Parents with fondness, as well.  I wouldn’t mind hearing it again, actually.

Like any longtime artist, Reed made some missteps.  His most infamous album was Metal Machine Music, a two-record collection of tuneless distortion that appeared in 1975 as a big fuck you to his label RCA for demanding another Top 10 album like Sally Can’t Dance too quickly.  Not many have heard it all the way through.  Reed later admitted that he might’ve been stoned at the time of its creation.  RCA had to release it because he had creative control.  It effectively killed all the momentum Sally had generated.

And then there was 2011’s Lulu, another double album recorded with Metallica of all bands.  With his grizzled voice now allergic to melody and the band clearly humouring him by playing along without complaint, it’s far from an ideal epitaph.  But at least Howard Stern admired Junior Dad.  (He admitted on the air a while back that he played the 20-minute disc two closer ten times in a row one day.  Brave man.)

Despite his past issues with Bowie and his Velvet bandmates (an attempt at recording new material in the 90s fell apart because of the usual creative differences during a brief reunion), Reed still managed to find time to collaborate with a whole slew of other artists over the years.  In the 80s, he worked with Simple Minds and The Tom Tom Club.  In the 90s, he recorded with The Smithereens and Vince Gill.  And more recently, he’s appeared on tracks by The Killers, Gorillaz and Metric.  He obviously never stopped listening to new music.  (According to music historian Alan Cross, he was a Barenaked Ladies fan.)

He didn’t suffer fools gladly (check out his rants on the Take No Prisoners live album from 1978), he could be a real asshole without too much provocation and he was often his own worst enemy, particularly when it came to dealing with the press who he long despised.  A songwriter with a strong pop sensibility, he didn’t always embrace it in his work.  A well-noted sourpuss, he could also be quite generous with his praise.  He may have had a negative attitude about a good number of things and people but he could also write the loveliest of melodies with the softest touch.  Consider Jesus from The Velvet Underground album as a fine example.

Despite these well-documented personality flaws and contradictions, the importance of Lou Reed’s contribution to music cannot be understated.  The Velvet Underground inspired David Bowie and Iggy Pop which began a chain reaction of influence still reverberating in the modern era.  Even his solo work, sometimes overshadowed by his Velvet period, has its big share of supporters.

I’ve often thought that the mark of a true talent is that they make you completely forget how much you dislike them personally.  Lou Reed may have had a very cool relationship with the guardians of the culture but his music had a very warm one with the world.  May he rest in peace.

Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Sunday, October 27, 2013
7:44 p.m.

UPDATE:  Reed died of liver failure, so the transplant he had wasn’t successful after all.  How sad.

As an aside, I want to belatedly acknowledge The Cowboy Junkies who famously covered Reed’s Sweet Jane back in the late 80s.  Instead of remaking the Loaded version, Margo Timmins and company reworked the original take, which you can hear in live form on a highly recommended compilation called The Velvet Underground Gold.  Reed rewrote the lyrics and tinkered with the arrangement before it was recorded for the fourth Velvet album.  The Junkies’ cover did wonders for their career (it essentially put them in the spotlight) but it also gave Sweet Jane a second chance to connect with a more receptive modern audience.  To his credit, Reed was most appreciative.

Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Tuesday, October 29, 2013
8:16 p.m.

Published in: on October 27, 2013 at 7:44 pm  Comments (2)