Songs you need to hear this week: the David Bowie edition
I wrote many pieces for CBC Music, including several collaborative pieces like this one
By CBC Music Editorial Staff
Normally we spend each Tuesday suggesting brand new tracks you need to hear. This week calls for something different. We’re using this space to pay tribute to our favourite David Bowie songs, in honour of the Thin White Duke and his glittering legacy.
From Bowie’s isolated vocal tracks to a Nirvana cover, here are this week’s songs you need to hear, the David Bowie edition.
'Strangers When We Meet'
A small song, a nearly forgotten song, a beautifully constructed song. This one was originally recorded for the 1993 BBC series The Buddha of Suburbia, a soundtrack which received little notice when it was released. "Strangers When We Meet" presents a terrific Bowie lyrical play: here we witness an affair, a couple who share a circle of friends who now "seem so thin and frail." Grasping at shadows, the lovers have disconnected from each other, even at their most intimate. The narrator, confronted by the notion, swings from being "bewildered" to a "halfway sadness," to finally being "so thankful," "in clover," and "heel head over," over the distance, all through the chaos of emotion, bouncy melodies and a soaring chorus. An underrated gem.
— Brad Frenette (@BradFrenette)
Major Tom' (Lucien Midnight cover)
Six years ago in a tiny bar in Quebec City, I saw a man I had never heard of before sit behind a Casio keyboard and play a song. As he played the first few notes, the overcrowded room fell silent. A song we all knew, performed in a way we had never heard before: “Space Oddity.” As we listened closely, we heard David Bowie's Major Tom transformed from British junkie to cantankerous Québécois cynic. Instead of poetic daydreams, this astronaut speaks and curses in joual, his astronaut's helmet traded in for a fur hat.
“La planète terre est bleue, qu'est-ce que tu m'veux ça me calisse?” Loosely translated: Planet Earth is blue, why the f--k should I care? Lucien Midnight's brilliant revisioning of “Major Tom” takes this from run-of-the-mill cover to brilliant rendition, and it always reminds me of Bowie's power to inspire.
— Julia Caron (@cbcjulia)
An anthem for the so-called freaks, "Rebel Rebel" felt like a rallying cry, a celebration and a protest/middle finger to conservatives and conventional types. It spurred my activist heart and made me feel a little less alone in my tiny rebellion.
— Andrea Warner (@_AndreaWarner)
It's impossible to pick just one song of David Bowie's, especially today. So I'm deferring to the one song of his I've probably heard more than any other, "Five Years," because it kicks off my favourite Bowie album, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. The way it begins, with just a piano, a drumbeat and Bowie's astral voice, then slowly adds strings, building to a climax with Ziggy Stardust reflecting on how many years until the Earth's destruction — it's just not reasonable to ask for a better opening song on an album. Then, what follows is one of the weirdest, catchiest and consistently enjoyable albums, front to back, in rock history. In other words, start with “Five Years” and just let it keep playing.
— Jesse Kinos-Goodin (@JesseKG)
'Life on Mars?'
Bowie has said this song is about a young girl who is “being told that there's a far greater life somewhere, and she's bitterly disappointed that she doesn't have access to it.” For this young girl (and I think for a lot of other people), Bowie was the access portal to a greater life; to some other planet where you are supposed to be odd and ugly and beautiful, without paying any mind to whether it turns people on or turns them off. “Life on Mars?” is philosophy. It’s Salvador Dali. It’s a metaphysical plane ticket. It meant the world to me when I first listened to Hunky Dory, and it always will.
— Talia Schlanger (@TaliaSchlanger)
One of Bowie's most celebrated, covered and perhaps deceptively straightforward songs is his timeless 1977 track “Heroes.” Co-written with Brian Eno, it’s a song I discovered later in life. It wasn't that I hadn't heard it — it was often playing in the background, on the radio, even as part of my own playlists. But like a lot of things we take for granted until we're older — the Beatles, cable films that repeatedly play on Sunday afternoons, our parents — I'd never truly noticed it. The lyrics tell the story of lovers on opposite sides of the Berlin wall (“Standing by the wall/ and the guns shot above our heads/ and we kissed/ as though nothing could fall.”).
To me, “Heroes” is about a lot of things, but what's appealing on an emotional level is the way the turmoil of a terrible situation is expressed and ultimately becomes something beautiful that can change the world — the mark of great art.
— Nicolle Weeks (@nikkerized)
I was lucky enough to see Bowie live on two occasions, the first being at Commonwealth Stadium in Edmonton in the summer of 1983 on the Serious Moonlight tour. During that show, as I sat halfway back in the stadium along with the 60,000 other people, I borrowed some binoculars from the guy in the seat next to me. Focusing in on the stage, it seemed to my eyes like Bowie was looking right at me — to the point where I pulled the binoculars from my face and checked to see if anyone in my vicinity had noticed this (they hadn't). He had that ability: to play to the last row, to fill up a football stadium with his charisma and focus.
Like the Beatles and Bob Dylan before him, anything Bowie released had an immediate and long-lasting effect on anyone who chose to listen, watch or absorb. To the very end he was true to his art without ever wavering or compromising on his vision. A true artist. A true artistic genius.
— Julian Tuck
'Space Oddity' (Smashing Pumpkins cover)
Though Chris Hadfield wins for best cover of this tune based solely on strength of scope (he did record it in space, after all), the Pumpkins manage a marvel of sheer power. While completely lacking the subtlety that makes the original such a classic, Billy Corgan and co. from Smashing Pumpkins 2.0 finally answer an age-old question: "What would happen if you swapped out that saxophone solo for pure shred?"
The fact that “Space Oddity” translates so well to this amped-up re-imagining cements Bowie's shapeshifting abilities as a songwriter and performer. We will likely never see another one like him.
— Adam Carter (@AdamCarterCBC)
"That's David Bowie?" I exclaimed at a volume that could have been significantly lower than the first time I heard this song. I was no stranger to Bowie then. I knew the hits "Modern Love," "Let's Dance" and "China Girl," and there were elements of those songs here. The man knew how to work a melody. But this was 1997 and Daft Punk, Moby and Prodigy were coming into their own, changing the face of popular music once again. Yet there, right beside them, was Bowie. Sitting atop a frenetic drum and bass beat until the break — just over a minute in — where he reminds you exactly who you're listening to: David-freaking-Bowie.
What U2 tried to achieve around the same time with "Discotheque" — exploring new sounds and finding a place within them — Bowie actually aced, with his legendary confidence and cool. He made it look like he wasn't even trying.
— Judith Lynch (@CBCJudith)
'Under Pressure' (isolated vocals)
Though the song belongs to Queen, and the lyrics primarily to Freddie Mercury, no words have ever hit me harder than two sections from David Bowie in “Under Pressure.” First: "It's the terror of knowing what this world is about / watching some good friends screaming, 'Let me out!'" We live in a world where no terror seems to prevail more than an educated knowledge of that world. What do you do with that kind of fear? Do you ignore it? Do you give in? Do you hide? Bowie’s last lines of the song recommend none of the above, but focus on tirelessly introducing new love to the world. “Love dares you to care for the people on the edge of the night / and love dares you to change our way of caring about ourselves.” This song is a masterpiece, and no brush strokes seem more beautiful than Bowie’s contribution to it.
— Kerry Martin (@OhHiKerry)
'The Man Who Sold the World' (Nirvana cover)
Bowie’s music had a remarkable reach, one that united fans of all genres. This has made for a variety of inventive covers throughout the years, but one of the most memorable ones has to be Nirvana’s take on “The Man Who Sold the World” at the band’s famous MTV Unplugged session in 1993. It makes perfect sense why frontman Kurt Cobain found a kindred spirit of sorts in Bowie and his music (Cobain even listed “The Man Who Sold the World” as one of his top 50 albums of all time): both are one-of-a-kind musicians who never compromised their visions and revelled in their unique individualities. This is what made each of them musical icons who will forever influence us.
Nirvana’s sort of stripped-down cover is a fitting choice for Cobain, as the song speaks of a man searching for and interacting with a missing part of himself. As many know, the Nirvana frontman struggled with many similar internal demons. As he sings Bowie’s words about never losing control and that “glaze-less stare,” it’s impossible not to feel chills down your spine.
— Melody Lau (@melodylamb)
Nirvana - The Man Who Sold The World (MTV Unplugged)
'Station to Station'
Bowie was one of those artists who was most interesting at his most impenetrable, and that’s “Station to Station.” Bowie was at a personal low at the time: cocaine addicted and paranoid. He channelled his psychosis into this sprawling, enigmatic masterpiece, which almost demands a paranoid sort of interpretation. Every detail could mean something sinister. Is it a fascist manifesto? An occult incantation? Turns out it was neither of those things, but it’s a testament to Bowie’s protean imagination that he was able to make us think it might be.
What's equally incredible is that Bowie was able to pull this same stunt right up to the very end. The title track from Blackstar, with its bipartite structure and enigmatic imagery, resembles nothing more than "Station to Station."
— Matthew Parsons (@MJRParsons)
'Sound and Vision'
"Sound and Vision," from the 1977 album Low, was originally meant to be an instrumental, which explains the almost minute-and-a-half before we hear any singing (minus the occasional sighing and do-dos by back-up singer Mary Hopkin). It was the first Bowie song I heard that wasn't one of the big hits and, almost embarrassing to admit now, was played to me by my first boyfriend; we would drive around with this song blasting from car speakers.
The lyrics are seemingly simple, but quite heavy in context. Bowie was retreating from his time in America and his drug addiction, and as he said in an 1978 interview, "It was wanting to be put in a little cold room with omnipotent blue on the walls and blinds on the windows." Hence you get the pleading "blue, blue, electric blue" refrain. Such an upbeat song, perfect to be played with the windows down, but it's actually about retreating, embracing solitude and waiting for the gift of sound and vision.
— Jeanette Cabral (@JeanetteCabral)
'Ashes to Ashes'
“Oh no, don’t say it’s true.” It is with the heaviest of hearts that I take to writing these words. An epitaph to an eventful era, “Ashes to Ashes” wistfully ushered in a 1980s new-wave Bowie. Today, 36 years later, this ode rings true again as we enter yet another era —one lit only with the memory of this star. Ashes to ashes, stardust to stardust.
—Amer Alkhatib (@ameralkhatib)