David Bowie’s embrace of the soul/funk musical genre has become caught up in several cultural mythologies. One is the rock community derived notion that soul and funk are “commercial” genres without much staying power. Especially on the uptempo side of it. Another was Bowie’s association with the early 70’s glam rock sound-with classics of the genre such as “Changes”,”Jean Genie”,”Rebel Rebel” and of course “Ziggy Stardust”. But when I first heard David Bowie’s Isaac Hayes inspired uptempo cinematic soul of “1984”, from his album Diamond Dogs from 1974? It was clear the man had a plan.
Bowie himself referred to this period of his career as “plastic soul”. He seemed to see himself as a white rock artist wanting to embrace a music outside of his culture. And that the burgeoning funk sound represented “squashed remains” of Afrocentrism in Western music. What helped to sooth his initial cynicism was the presence of the Nuyorican guitar maestro Carlos Alomar, the guitarist whose lines inspired many of the songs on what would become David Bowie’s 1975 album Young Americans. And indeed, the result was one of Bowie’s most dramatic musical and conceptual reinventions.
The title song starts the album-very much a stomping gospel inspired uptempo 70’s soul number. Its David Sanborn’s melodic sax solo that carries Bowie’s vocal melody. But between Mike Garson’s piano walk down-along with the bass/guitar interaction between Alomar and Willie Weeks. “Win” is a string laden ballad full of heavily revered rhythm guitar and Sanborn playing rather modal style sax flourishes. “Fascination” gets deep into the funk-with the bass, guitar and sax all heavily processed for a huge and meaty groove.
“Right” is a mid-tempo sax/percussion/Clavinet/guitar based groove-with the emphasis on a number of repetitive choruses. “Somebody Up There Likes Me” is a relatively balanced uptempo soul rocker-with a bluesy guitar break on the refrains and the use of synthesized string orchestration. John Lennon joins Bowie on a rocking soul version of Lennon’s Beatle classic “Across The Universe”-which has a country blues guitar flavor about it. “Can You Hear Me” is a very similar country soul type ballad where Lennon returns for “Fame”, the classic James Brown style funk hit, for the albums conclusion.
Young Americans has remained somewhat controversial over the years. Its often considered a classic album today. But Young Americans did bare out some of Bowie’s concerns about doing funk and Philly soul. These songs all have a strong groove. But some of the uptempo songs don’t have multi faceted structures-mostly repeated melodic choruses. And Bowie’s voice had a ragged rock style on the sleeker numbers. Some of the ballads had a more 60’s style country/soul flavor-showcasing how Bowie still had some catching up to do with what was happening in black American music by the mid 70’s.
Basically, the big hits in the title song and “Fame” are the two big occasions where the strong grooves and strong melodies come together. And the musicianship on all the songs is exciting and first rate. The presence of a young Luther Vandross as a backup singer here helped get the him (deceased along with Bowie today) a shot at his future solo career. In terms of funk, songs such as “John, I’m Only Dancing” and “Golden Years” a year later would solidify Bowie’s funk sound a bit better. But this album represents the important slow beginning for the funkiest, most soulful aspect of David Bowie’s sound.
David Bowie’s final album Blackstar doesn’t likely require much of a push from someone like me. It was a musically powerful final album from Bowie. And as depressing as it may seem,much of its notoriety likely derived from 2016’s unfortunate obsession with the cult of the dead. As you all know,my focus on reviewing songs and albums tends to be on music that’s happy in nature. Don’t personally listen to a lot of dark,depressing music. And Blackstar has extremely dark lyrics and compositional approaches. What I didn’t know when it came out was that David Bowie was dying of cancer while making it.
There were elements of the album that reminded me of the somewhat brooding avante garde jazz-rock fusion of Miles Davis’s earlier electric albums-mixed with its electronic and baroque elements. As my father informed me from his reading, a lot of this had to due with California jazz sax player Donny McCaslin. Bowie was an admire of his. And invited McCaslin to work on his new album with him. Thinking he was only there for the song “Sue”,turns out Bowie desired him to be present for the entire album. As for my first impressions on the album,here’s what I wrote roughly a year ago for Amazon.com:
While it seemed a personal opinion to me at first? It seems that 2015 was a very dark and tense year. Both in terms of America and the rest of the world. It was the first time in several years that I didn’t personally collect a lot of new music. Much of what came out, even from artists I normally enjoyed,seemed tame and lacking in vitality. It’s hard to believe it’s been over three years since David Bowie made his comeback after a decades absence with [[ASIN:B00AYHKIZ6 The Next Day]]. To be honest? Wasn’t sure it wouldn’t be that long until another album arrived. Due in part to being busy in my own life lately? Haven’t kept track of much new music in months. Until this birthday surprise from this artist arrived.
The title song that opens the album clocks in at near ten minutes. Within that time it combines a Gothic opera string arrangement with sections of both industrial drum ‘n bass and stomping 60’s style funky soul. “Tis Pity She Was A Whore” is a dramatically discordant dance rocker with it’s own unique sense of melody. “Lazarus” is a crawling alternative jazz/rock number with some sad,wailing sax. “Sue (Or In A Season Of Crime” has a similar flavor to the album opener-only with a more consistent rock flavor. “Dollar Days” is a plaintive acoustic guitar/piano led ballad while “I Can’t Give Everything Away” concludes it all with a densely arranged drum machine and harmonica led dance/rocker.
Overall this album has all the instrumental hallmarks of a David Bowie record. Soul,electronica,rock and opera are all combined together into an eclectic musical stew through which he and his musicians can thoroughly explore their melody and different senses of harmonies. Everything from the title and the imagery of both the packages as well as the lyrics are extremely world weary. So would have to agree with a lot of reviews this has at least that in common with the man’s mid/late 90’s output. That being said? It all ends with what seems like lessons learned,and the possibility of the future having good things to offer. A very good album from an artist who can handle the darkness of life with genuine eloquence and beauty.
It was of course only a few short days after writing this review that I learned of Bowie’s passing. At that time,I considered actually editing my Amazon review to accommodate the what was revealed as the cause of death. Elected not to do that. It was a good choice because,as the year went on,I began to learn other things about what went into the making of Blackstar. And decided it might be a better topic to deal with in terms of a fuller write up along with my original review on this blog. At the end of the day,its a great balancing of moods (musically and thematically) for a music icon about to leave us behind.
Just before bed last night, I learned that David Bowie had passed away earlier in the day at age 69. It would seem he was dealing with terminal cancer for the last 18 months. He recorded a final album entitled Blackstar, a darkly jazzy exploration he recorded while ill and released on what turned out to be his final birthday. During his near half century as a recording artist? He was extremely prolific and musically challenging. So while I just dealt with Bowie last week? Wanted to extend on the tribute since he’s completed a cycle from birthday to grave.
With Bowie’s mid/late 70’s change in persona from Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane to the Thin White Duke, musical transitions were happening with him even thicker and faster. For the most part? Bowie’s 1976 album Station To Station reflected his burgeoning interest in an ambient type of electronic Kraut rock. But still there was a lot of the Philly influence still left in his sound at that point. With Carlos Alomar really at the peak of his powers with Bowie? A new hit and tremendous creative triumph emerged from this groove entitled “Golden Years”.
A brushing percussion and hand clap powered rhythm provides the intro to the jam-accompanied by Alomar’s thick and phat rhythm guitar chug and a bluesy harmonica. This segues right into the percussive,marching main rhythm of the song itself. Alomar’s guitar on the rest of the song is a densely mixed polyphony of bass and higher pitched phased tones. The refrains of the song are more brightly melodic-with a ringing bell like percussion bringing in the joy even more. The song basically outro’s on the main chorus that maintains itself throughout.
What “Golden Years” does is showcase how Bowie was able to do within the black music spectrum what the Rolling Stones did: evolve with the changes of the music. So this finds Bowie’s funk transitioning into the disco era with a lean toward the four on the floor beat. It all makes sense with change being the key fixture in Bowie’s musical career as well. It’s also a great lyric with him encouraging a young,attractive lady to believe in herself because “nothin’s gonna touch you in your golden years”. For this and many dozens of musical reasons? David Bowie will be missed.
From his early years performing Anthony Newley style show tunes about laughing gnomes up through his persona as Ziggy Stardust? David Jones (better known by his stage name of Bowie) celebrated an embrace of musical and thematic eclecticism. Rock played a big part in it. But he also drew a good dose of inspiration from the rhythmic timing of funk and soul. After his most iconic years as the glam rock icon of Ziggy and the related character Aladdin Sane? Bowie began sporting white soul boy suits,slicked back hair and focusing on that soulful end of his sound.
It got going for Bowie in 1974 when his Diamond Dogs album came out-it’s Isaac Hayes inspired song”1984″ drawing him to a new group of session musicians and singers than the Spiders From Mars. In addition to the presence of David Sanborn and Luther Vandross,t he main drive behind this change was Puerto Rican guitarist Carlos Alomar. As a composer and arranger? He really understood how to rock up the funk. This led to the final number on Bowie’s soul oriented Young Americans album of 1975 ending with a collaboration with John Lennon entitled “Fame”.
An ascending backwards guitar opens the song into a more reverbed one. A brushing drum roll and acoustic guitar introduces the the slow grooving funky drummer that’s accompanied by three different guitar riffs-each playing off the one another. One is a low liquid one providing the bass line, the other is a more popping one of the same tone while each instrumental refrain is accented by a ringing high rhythm guitar. Bowie and Lennon’s vocals,both in their lower and high ranges,duet in near incoherence until descending into a chant of the song title at the end.
Together,Bowie and Alomar’s sound on this song heavily channels James Brown’s variety of funk. Everything about this song, itself built around layers of bass toned and higher pitched guitar, is entire built on Brown’s understanding of all the instrumentation being “on the one” with rhythm. Melody,harmony and all. The interesting this is? Brown himself was in turn inspired to work his own song “Hot (I Need To Be Love)” directly out of this groove the following year. So along with being a huge hit for Bowie, it’s an example of the cross pollination of funk in it’s prime.
Filed under 1975, Carlos Alomar, David Bowie, Funk, funk guitar, funk/rock, glam rock, James Brown, John Lennon, rock 'n' roll, rock guitar, Uncategorized
I’d like to begin this by personally thanking everyone who has supported Henrique and myself by reading Anatomy of THE Groove during its initial month. This weekly segment was born of Henrique’s concept and inspiration. And at least on my end, it really helped this new collaborative blog from being all dressed up with nowhere to go. He has bought his wealth of musical experiences from Oakland,the second city of the funk to his song reviews in this particular column. And I have added the outsider-looking-in perspective that hopefully makes for a broad perspective. Please enjoy this weeks edition of this. And I strongly encourage you recruit friends and members of your family to read these. Or anyone else in your district. Support Andresmusictalk and its Anatomy of THE Groove column. Not with your money, but with your eyes and ears. Thank you!
It was my cousin Pip Hall,a fairly recent addition to my extended family, who introduced me to the musical joys of Metronomy. Hailing from Tontes,Devon,England this band has continued to pioneer a stripped down approach to new wave style electronica that,while maintaining a strong dance and pop music ethic has also proven expansive enough to incorporate elements of psychedelia and European classic music as well. Being able to maintain such eclecticism within the confines of such a stripped down sound is no simple task,and is a testement to the talents within this band that they pull it off so well. Operating under the genre of electronica with multi instrumentals Joseph Mount,Oscar Cash,Anna Prior and the Nigerian born bassist/vocalist Olugbenga Adelekan,their most recent album Love Letters contains a short instrumental that caught my ear in particular entitled “Boy Racers”.
Starting off with Anna Prior’s high hat heavy funky drumming,the main instrumental theme of the songs starts up in earnest-a bass synthesizer line playing a deceptively simple melodic line throughout the song with Adelekan’s electric bass popping right along with it in perfect unison so it sounds. This melody manages has a strong groove to the nature of the playing,yet at the same time has a classical flavor about it at the same time. There is a refrain to the song that repeats itself once. Its the same bass synthesizer riff scaling upward with a strong popping sound effect and a bouncing ball high synthesizer line that is somewhat of a cross between David Bowie’s “Ashes To Ashes” and Hot Butter’s “Popcorn”. All of this fades out as the song draws to a close-not ubruptly but in an extended instrumental cool down where Prior’s drumming which started the song concludes it in the same manner.
One of the things that came to mind instantly about this song was how strongly it was connected to the fact that,in the UK disco-dance culture received little to no backlash in the early 1980’s and evolved into new wave,house and the electronica genre. And it is that last mentioned one which acts as something of a banner genre to a lot of music that is actually new wave,house and synthesized boogie funk. That comes out in this song because,rhythmically it comes directly from the post disco dance music genre. Yet at the same time the musical sound of it and the melody itself intersect the lines that many have drawn between minimalist EDM,low fi indie pop and rhythmic funk/soul music. And that mixture also brings out it’s new wave aspect-of course a genre heavily based in disco/funk itself. So this song grooves down to the bare bones by its near endless variations on musical hybridizing.