It’s not that I don’t know David Bowie; my mother loved Bowie. It was the music of long car rides and what was playing around the house when I was a kid. It’s more that I am just not familiar with Bowie beyond specific periods in his career. I know the Eno-Bowie period super well, but calling those Bowie albums always seems weird to me. “Low” is barely a Bowie record (especially side 2), it’s more of a Eno record with a really strong vocalist on it. Not to say Eno is a bad singer (I fucking love his voice) just few people have a voice like David Bowie. Anyway, I know Bowie, I just haven’t explored much by him in decades and this is an album I’ve never heard. I’ve heard the Nirvana cover of the title track way too many times and I have heard people rave about it for years; it’s just I’ve never sat down with it and given it a good listen.
I kinda wish I had earlier, as somehow it escaped me that Mick Ronson is the lead guitarist on it. Ronson is an extremely underrated guitarist with a keen ear for arrangements. His leads are always awesome in a really scummy dirty sort of way and his wah-wah use is really unique for the time, as he used it more as a filter (leaving it notched to bring out a specific frequency range instead of moving it back and fourth as most people do). On a technical level, he’s not the best player on Earth (I’d call him a slop machine), but it has a monstrous about of emotion behind it and works for Bowie’s glam period.
“The Width of a Circle”: Yeah, okay, this totally kicks into the sound that they would refine on “Ziggy Stardust and the Glass Spiders from Mars”. Fuzzed out guitar lead with an acoustic strumming away percussive-ly in the background. The thing that really pops out is the bass player. Tony Visconti (who also produced this and many other Bowie albums) is laying down a monster groove. The bass tone is just massive; thick and melodic. I am not sure if I wanna shake my ass or intellectually break down all the subtle stuff he is doing. Bowie is the off one here. He sounds almost reserved. Yeah, he is givin’r, but it sounds like he is still developing the confidence he has in later years. Midway through there is a moment I love where it breaks down into a reverse reverb acoustic guitar part. The percussive attack is fucking perfect and you have to wonder if this is one of Kevin Shields from My Bloody Valentines favourite songs (as he is kinda the king of reverse reverb).
Honestly, I am going to go all guitarist on this track for a minute. I fucking love this song from a guitar players point of view. The arrangement is fucking awesome and layering is fantastic for the time. Every section feels unique and special, guitar wise. It shows Ronson’s depth as a player. His absolutely disgusting use of whammy bar during the first solo is so fitting. Little things like that is what makes him a joy to listen to. He balances grime with a sort of intelligence rarely heard in glam rock stuff. He also loves feedback. Every guitarist should love feedback. The world needs more feedback and reverse reverb. This song has both. Even when this song breaks down into a very ‘Stones influenced section I still dig it. This is how you open an album. The song rules and I am excited for where it goes next.
“All The Madmen”: This sound like Bowie really getting his footing. It’s the sound of early ’70’s Bowie. It’s hard to tell what I like on it more, Visconti’s Bass work or Ronson’s leads. Yeah, okay there is the spoken word bit half way through that is kind of lame in 2015, but was probably cool in 1970. This album in headphones is fucking ear candy.
I’m two songs in and I am already really fucking happy I picked this record. I’m also left wondering why this album isn’t talked about way more. You can hear its influence all over other acts in the weirdest ways. It’s odd just how universally ignored it is.
‘Black Country Rock”: I really wanted to hate on this song, really I did. It starts out so lame and then Ronson and Visconti come in and just fucking elevate it. The playing on this track is way above this songs pay scale. Even the songwriting, with its weird ’70’s radio rock vibe, has grown on me. This is the sort of subversion of pop music I love.
Know what? Fuck it. I am calling this review here. This album is so fucking awesome. I don’t actually feel the need to do a step by step breakdown of it, which is rare for me. Every song is strong (and I didn’t even make it to the title track for this review) and the playing and arrangements are just stellar. I can’t find a single glaring fault on this album, which has left me wondering if I am softening in my old age or if it is really just that fucking good. Maybe I am finally starting to really get Bowie, or maybe this is what Bowie actually sounds like when he isn’t chameleon-ing (or leeching, if you look at it from a less flattering perspective) and constantly searching for new people to work with. There is an honesty on this record I find missing in the later entries of his discography. It shocks me this album isn’t better remembered and revered in the rock universe. I almost wonder if it is just too weird for some, but really it isn’t all THAT weird. It has a surreal quality to it, but its infinitely approachable and listenable.
I want to specify mention that I am listening to a CD (gasp) of the 2015 remastered version. Yes, I still buy CDs, and this one was dirt fucking cheap (two for $20 deal). It sounds fantastic; thick and warm and all those words we use to describe a good vinyl master. CD’s sound great if they are properly treated. The separation of all the layers is fantastic. The bass tone is just awesome and not in that over-compressed brickwalled way. It rumbles and shakes, but never overwhelms. The drums and drumming (which i didn’t mention) sound great, and the playing is subtly awesome. Nothing super flashy, nice rolls and fills that work for the song; not draw away from it at all. This is a great example of reserved and spacious drumming. Also, bonus points for quality synth sounds. Synth from this period can be really questionable, as they were still relatively new instruments. So often they sound gimmicky and lame. This album is an exception to that rule.
I went into this album not expecting much; a few quality songs and Bowie still looking for his voice. I kind of figured it would be a dry run for “Ziggy Stardust and the Glass Spiders from Mars” and holy shit was I ever wrong. This is an incredibly odd, but accessible slice of how rock was changing in the early 70’s. It still has elements of psychedelia, but is pushing forward into the type of guitar rock that would become the sound of the ’70’s. Second album into this series and I am already blown away by something. Fucking Weird. I didn’t see that coming at all. – SHANE
ALL THE MADMEN by DAVID BOWIE from THE MAN WHO SOLD THE WORLD