Rock and Roll

Remembering David Bowie

I woke up this morning to see the sad news that David Bowie had passed away yesterday after an 18-month long bout with cancer. It hit me hard – along with the rest of the world, it seems. From what I’m reading in my social media feeds today, David Bowie appears to have been nearly universally beloved among my music loving friends. And although we are collectively mourning the loss of this artist that meant so much to so many of us, it has been heartening to see how we’re also celebrating his lifetime of musical gifts that touched our lives. (You can read more about Bowie’s life and music, and listen to and watch some performances, at the links below.)

David Bowie Stage LP

Listening to “Heroes” on my vinyl copy of the double live album ‘Stage’ released in 1978.

David Bowie came into my life in the late 70s (when I was about 12 or 13 years old) through FM radio first, of course, and then through listening to his albums on a friend’s turntable and then as part of my own record collection. I had heard his hits on the radio in southern California but didn’t own any of his albums and didn’t know his music beyond those songs. I remember sitting there listening to Young Americans for the first time in 1976 or 1977 and being caught up in the lush and soulful sounds coming through the speakers. It’s a great album, and it’s probably good that I started with that one. After listening to Young Americans, I heard some of his earlier albums – Diamond Dogs, Aladdin Sane, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars – and became a fan. Those albums had their edgy moments and opened up my ears to other performers like Roxy Music, Brian Eno, the Velvet Underground and Lou Reed, Iggy Pop and King Crimson. His various personae did seem strange to me – a young, fairly straight-laced, middle class kid growing up in the San Fernando Valley of southern California, but I suppose that was part of the fascination with him. Here was someone constantly testing the boundaries and pushing against the norm. I was intrigued by that. Bowie’s albums of the later 70s, the famed “Berlin Trilogy” – Low, “Heroes” and Lodger – were something else again. Those albums took me out of my comfort zone, but I later listened to them intently. I think my affinity for Bowie’s music led directly to my becoming a huge fan of the Talking Heads around 1980. (The fact that Brian Eno had a hand in each of their sounds was certainly a factor as well.) As New Wave swept through my musical world in the early 80s, Bowie put out several excellent albums and accompanying music videos that solidified his reputation for the MTV generation of listeners, too.

I had a late night radio show in the late 80s, and at first it was a mix of classic rock and newer rock, but it evolved into mostly modern rock over time. When I started to think of what constituted “modern rock,” the mid 1970s music of Bowie gave me my somewhat blurry definition. It’s still a distinction I use to this day. Bowie and some others around that time changed rock and roll forever. I’m grateful to have experienced that.

What also made me a fan of Bowie was the fact that he wasn’t just a brilliant songwriter and accomplished musician, but he was also a music producer, painter, actor and more. He did a little bit of everything, it seems, and he stayed artistically expressive throughout his whole career. I always admired that in him. My wife, who is a few years younger than I am, fondly remembers his iconic role as Jareth the Goblin King in the 1986 fantasy film Labyrinth, as do many people of a certain age.

I didn’t listen to Bowie’s new music as much in the 90s and early 2000s and it appeared he went into musical retirement after 2003. But he surprised us all when he released the critically acclaimed album The Next Day in 2013. The album had been recorded in strict secrecy and even the record company’s PR department only learned of it days before its release to the public.

And then Bowie released Blackstar just last week, on January 8, 2016 – his 69th birthday. I had been hearing a lot of buzz around this album, and rightly so. It’s really good. Go listen to it. Blackstar features a couple of very fine jazz musicians that I’m familiar with, Donny McCaslin on horns and Mark Guiliana on drums, among others, and his longtime cohort Tony Visconti once again co-produced the album with Bowie. It should come as no surprise that one of the songs on the album, “Lazarus,” opens with the now haunting lyrics, “Look up here, I’m in heaven…” It was not widely known that Bowie had been battling cancer for the past 18 months, so it was a bit of a shock to wake up this morning – three days after the release of his latest album, to learn that he had died. But how else would you expect someone who lived such an artful life to leave it? Bowie planned it this way, knowing he was dying. Visconti said this today in a statement on his Facebook page,

“He always did what he wanted to do. And he wanted to do it his way and he wanted to do it the best way. His death was no different from his life – a work of Art. He made Blackstar for us, his parting gift. I knew for a year this was the way it would be. I wasn’t, however, prepared for it. He was an extraordinary man, full of love and life. He will always be with us. For now, it is appropriate to cry.”

Thank you, David Bowie for your music and art. Now I think I’ll go listen to some of more of your music…as I have been for nearly 40 years.

OBITUARIES – you can find much more information following the links found on these obituary pages.

New York Times obituary

The Guardian obituary

MOJO magazine obituary

BBC News obituary

NME (New Musical Express) obituary

 

MORE

Watch the the official video of “Lazarus” from the album Blackstar – released the same day as the album: Jan. 8, 2016. Bowie’s last hurrah…

New York Times review of Blackstar and how Bowie came to use jazz musician Donny McCaslin’s band for the recording.

NPR Music review of Blackstar

Listen to Bowie’s Fresh Air radio interview with Terry Gross from 2003

1973 video for the song “Life on Mars” from the page of older EMI Music official Bowie videos on YouTube

David Bowie VEVO official page on YouTube

 

 

25 Days of Christmas Records – Day 18

Various Artists – A Very Special Christmas [A&M Records SP 3911, 12″ LP, 1987.]

Very Special Christmas frontThis album has a little something for everyone who is a fan of 80s music or those who don’t mind contemporary Christmas music in general. It’s a modern day classic. You can read the details behind the creation of A Very Special Christmas at the official website. Since this first volume was made in 1987, they have produced 10 more volumes. During that time, according to their website, “Approximately $116 million in royalties and investment proceeds has been generated by the sale of the AVSC albums to support Special Olympics’ athletes with intellectual disabilities.” This series of albums has raised a lot of money and awareness!

Very Special Christmas notes

Read the original liner notes by Eunice Kennedy Shriver. (Click on an image to enlarge it.)

I was working in a record store when the album was released and I remember that everyone on the staff found something to like about A Very Special Christmas. It has soul music, pop music, R&B, all kinds of rock ‘n’ roll, synthpop and one truly memorable hip hop tune. And it has an iconic cover that was created especially for the album by renowned artist Keith Haring. It is an instantly recognizable cover to this day. All of the tracks are new versions of mostly familiar traditional and modern Christmas carols and songs, with the exception of that hip hop song, “Christmas in Hollis” by Run-D.M.C. That song was one of the stand-outs on this album and I still love listening to it every Christmas. And you have to remember that this was released in the Age of MTV when music videos played a huge part in the marketing of a song or an album. Many of the songs on this album had videos and that certainly helped make this album a success right out of the gate.

Very Special Christmas backWatch the official video for “Christmas in Hollis” by Run-D.M.C.

This is a great song. I love how they riff and rhyme on traditional Christmas imagery backed with some heavy rap beats and R&B horns. And it’s humorous!

I was always a big fan of the Eurythmics and their artful New Wave synthpop, and their contribution to A Very Special Christmas is another one of my favorites. You can watch the video for their version of “Winter Wonderland” here. This has the 80s stamped all over it but still sounds fresh today, unlike some of the more poorly realized synthesizer-based tunes from that time.Very Special Christmas label

This video of U2 (one of my favorite bands of all time) performing “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” will give you a taste of how we might have watched these videos on our little old TV sets at home. This footage comes from a Top of the Pops TV special that coincided with the release of A Very Special Christmas and featured many of the songs from the album. The host seen in the footage is singer Nia Peeples.

I’ve created a playlist on YouTube featuring versions of all the songs from the album. Most are from that time period (the Sting video is also from that Top of the Pops special) but some are live versions that I thought were more interesting than just hearing the audio.

Here’s to A Very Special Christmas and the world of good that it has done.

 

25 Days of Christmas Records – Day 16

Spinal Tap – “Christmas with the Devil” [Enigma Records E-1143, 7″ 45 rpm, 1984.]

Spinal Tap cover

Click on an image to enlarge it.

It’s a parody, folks. Let’s make sure that’s clear from the beginning. As I mentioned from the start, this project explores the broad spectrum of Christmas records in my personal collection, from the sublime to the ridiculous and from the sacred to the profane. Well, here’s the profane – in all its revved up and humorous glory.

If you aren’t familiar with this band, you should watch the film This Is Spinal Tap at your earliest convenience. Its send-up of the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle is hilarious. I hate to spoil all the fun for those who haven’t seen the movie, but I feel a little background is needed here. The film is a mock documentary based upon the fictional English heavy metal rock band called Spinal Tap. The core members of the band are David St. Hubbins (Michael McKean) on lead vocals and guitar; Nigel Tufnel (Christopher Guest) on lead guitar and vocal; Derek Smalls (Harry Shearer) on bass. It’s a fictional band, but the actors actually play their instruments and they wrote all of the music for the film along with director Rob Reiner. And so the madness begins. Spinal Tap may be the only band I know of that has a fictional discography and a real discography. You see, there are all the fictional albums that they supposedly released within the story of the band as portrayed in the movie, and then there are the real albums that the actors made and released under the name Spinal Tap. Oh boy. Just go with it. (Hey, I just noticed this: at the IMDB listing for the movie, the rating function shows you can give the movie up to 10 out of 11 stars! I like their sense of humor.)

Spinal Tap backThis 7″ single that I have in my collection was released in 1984, the same year the film came out. It was also released as a picture disc with art work similar to that seen on the picture sleeve on my copy of the record. Boy, I’d love to find that picture disc someday! The song itself uses classic heavy metal rock trappings to create a twisted Christmas tune. You can read the close up of lyrics that are found on the back cover. These guys are very clever, they are. I like how they take all this classic Christmas imagery and turn it on its head. They’re really brilliant at what they do. And notice the line about halfway into the lyrics, “There’s someone up the chimney hole and Satin is his name.” I’m guessing the “band” really thinks that’s how Satan is spelled and it’s no typographical error! Just another nice touch of Spinal Tap humor there.

Spinal Tap lyricsFor me, the song reaches its apex of absurdity at around 3-1/2 minutes in. The whole thing is a very stereotypically loud heavy metal rocker, complete with wailing guitar solo and screeching vocals, and right when the song reaches its orgiastic climax of sound, the band suddenly breaks in with this utterly sincere unison Christmas greeting: “This is Spinal Tap, wishing you and yours the most joyous of holiday seasons. God bless us, everyone.” I love it! That’s what makes the song so great for me. It’s actually a well done heavy metal song, but that little touch of holiday kitsch is a great example of the kind of perfectly balanced irony that Spinal Tap is so good at pulling off. They walk that fine line between having us willingly suspend our disbelief, as good fiction does, and having us think it’s just an over the top joke. It’s not easy to do that, and they do it really well.

Take a listen to “Christmas with the Devil”  – you know what to do: turn it up to 11.

P.S. There’s also the B side to the record: “Christmas with the Devil (Scratch Mix”) – the only difference is that the song begins with the sound of a turntable needle scratching the surface of the record, and there’s no holiday greeting. Again, too clever for their own good!

The original 7" single, with the small LP sized spindle hole.

The original 7″ single, with the small LP-sized spindle hole.

P.P.S. While doing some more reading about the song, I found this new jazz version of “Christmas with the Devil” that was released by Spinal Tap’s bass player Derek Smalls/Harry Shearer and Judith Owen, his musician wife, in November 2014. Definitely watch this! If heavy metal isn’t your cup of tea, then maybe this swinging jazz trio rendition will help cleanse your palate. It’s fantastic.