David Bowie: 10 of the best

If you don’t want to wade your way through Bowie’s new 3 CD set, here’s his career distilled to nine of his own performances, and one song he gifted to another band

1 Space Oddity

When David Bowie hit No 5 in 1969, he must have thought he’d finally made it, but his inability to follow Space Oddity with another song that captured the nation’s imagination would see him drift back to outsiderdom for a few years yet. In modern times, artists signed to major labels are rarely afforded the luxury of even three strikes before they’re out, which is in sharp contrast to the many years a young David Jones spent as a second-rate Anthony Newley impersonator, trying on different styles and attempting to figure out what it was he wanted to do. His first hit in 1967, The Laughing Gnome, was a novelty single that still causes him embarrassment, and then his first bona fide smash came two years after that, given a massive leg-up thanks to its topical subject matter. Long time producer Tony Visconti passed over the opportunity to work on Space Oddity to Gus Dudgeon, calling it “a cheap shot, a gimmick to cash in on the moon landings” (though he recently admitted regretting his earlier sniffiness). There was certainly more than a hint of opportunism, but the song has maintained devotion, and is arguably Bowie’s most famous song, thanks to the epic sci-fi production, catchy close harmonies, intriguing narrative and the all-too-human dialogue between Major Tom and Ground Control that drifts closer to pathos with each passing minute. The handclaps don’t do it any harm either. The disappointment of falling out of the public’s affections so quickly after such a long wait must have hurt Bowie, but also galvanised him, and he soon learned the importance of communicating a strong concept. Within three years that notion would foment into a pop apotheosis. It was called Ziggy Stardust.

2 The Bewlay Brothers

What, no Life on Mars? If choosing 10 tracks from the career of David Bowie is difficult, then trying to isolate a best moment from Hunky Dory is impossible. Life on Mars? written as a kind of riposte to My Way and in many ways more overblown, was not for nothing voted greatest all-time Bowie song by readers of Digital Spy in 2012, though it loses points here because its lyrics are largely gibberish. Not that The Bewlay Brothers doesn’t keep us guessing with its poetic abstraction and folky weirdness, but it’s somehow an altogether more cohesive conundrum. There are moments that creep into the hinterland of childish nightmares, the line about frightening “the small children away”, and the disturbing nursery rhyme sing-songiness of the conclusion (“Lay me place and bake me pie/ I’m starving for me gravy …”) which unsettles as much as it astounds. It was more or less written and recorded over the night of 30 July 1971 with producer Ken Scott, according to Nicholas Pegg’s The Complete David Bowie, and the singer once said people could ‘“read whatever in hell they want to read into it”. Some have come with a theory that it’s about Bowie’s relationship with his schizophrenic half-brother Terry Burns, and his own fears of mental illness. Terry committed suicide in 1985, a subject written about later on 1993’sJump They Say.

3 Mott the Hoople – All the Young Dudes

If Bowie’s own career hadn’t been entirely rebooted yet in May 1972 (it was still another six months before Ziggy would fall to Earth), then the gift of All the Young Dudes to a floundering Mott the Hoople was the first salvo in a sideline career that saw him bequeath Lazarus-like extra lives to old favourites; his amazing restorative powers would raise American rock’n’roll legends Lou Reed, and later Iggy Pop, from their slumbers. Mott the Hoople had actually split up, or were in the process of doing so, when the call came with the offer of a new song Bowie had just written. His benevolence saw these builders in blouses take his glam rock teen manifesto to No 3 in the charts, their biggest hit. “Speed jive,” croaked Ian Hunter, “don’t wanna stay alive when you’re 25”. It was a song that was clearly dangerous, and with a line like “man I need TV when I got T Rex”, it was dangerously sarcastic, too. Bowie recorded a glut of rollicking glam rock classics: Drive In Saturday, The Jean Genie, Diamond Dogs and Suffragette City to name just four, but none were more exuberant than All the Young Dudes, and certainly not Bowie’s own version, which was lacklustre in comparison...more