He’s been a pop idol, glam rocker, pantomime, brooding star, and R&B sensation. He embraced mutation and metamorphosis like no other performer before him, adapting guises and playing roles onstage (and off) so convincingly that sometimes even he forgot where the lines were drawn, if ever there were any. In the process, he sold over 140 million records, notched nine platinum albums, and sent a dizzying number of singles to the top of the charts.
And just recently—on the occasion of his 66th birthday—David Bowie released his 24th studio album, the acclaimed The Next Day.
The volume of print devoted to Bowie is no shocker, given the Brit’s stature as one of the most influential artists of our time. There have been biographies, discographies, and documentaries galore—but few critical works survey (and celebrate) Bowie’s output as comprehensively—or as fervently—as Bowie: Album By Album.
Now available from those brainiacs of the coffee table book at Insight Editions, Album By Album is a dense (292 x 248mm), weighty (4 ½ pounds), and visually dazzling (200 glossies) compendium chronicling the inception, recording, and release of every Bowie full-length, from his eponymous 1967 LP to The Next Day.
Ever wonder who painted the fantastical cover art for Diamond Dogs, or who did David’s makeup for Aladdin Sane? Did you forget who directed the groundbreaking video clip for “Ashes to Ashes,” or which musicians performed on Pin Ups? Curious about where Bowie recorded a certain album, or why? Or which books and films inspired him to write certain songs, or even give his sound a complete overhaul? Want to know who David was dating during what recording sessions? How about what music he was listening to, or what drugs he was taking? Want to know what prompted his name-change?
Check, check, and double-check. Album By Album divulges answers aplenty.
Art isn’t created in a vacuum, as they say, and critic Paulo Hewitt (Melody Maker, NME) is keen to trowel deeply for background details, unearthing the ephemera and context that impacted the dynamic, shape-shifting David.
While Album By Album is not, by design, a biography, the telling of tales behind seminal Bowie releases like Space Oddity, Hunky Dory, Diamond Dogs, and Heroes necessitates inclusion of a wealth of factual information normally devoted to such works, and Hewitt’s accommodation of such minutiae for thoroughness’ sake is commendable. This beautiful, handsomely-bound Encyclopedia Davidica is first and foremost a visual retrospect—and eye-popping repository of iconic photography, artwork, and fashion that defined Bowie and was, in turn, redefined by the theatrical singer, whose image (however changing) was always as culturally significant as his sound. Hewitt’s critical analysis is concise and fascinating, but comes secondary to the smorgasbord of color and black-and-white pictures, tucked neatly in sidebars. James Hudgron contributes a year-by-year timeline of release dates and related events, which streams down the pages to facilitate quick scanning.
We’re walked through David’s early years in Brixton as a World War II baby growing up in tough times. Hewlitt notes Bowie took to altering his identity along with his attire as a toddler; the budding musician participated in nativity plays at school, and regarded his football uniform as more than game-day gear. An introductory chronology sets the stage, zipping readers through early gigs with The Hooker Brothers, The Manish Boys, The Konrads, and the King-Bees. Swapping surnames to avoid confusion with The Monkees drummer, an independent Bowie cut his first album with Deram in 1967.
Hewitt affords each subsequent release between 15-20 pages of dissection, pulling apart individual songs to see what made them tick (or not) and surmising their significance both at the time of issue and as part of Bowie’s remarkable career trajectory.
1969’s Space Oddity is described as “Kubrick’s 2001 meets the surrealism of Salvador Dali,” wrapped in the melodic veneer of early Bee Gees. We learn how David founded an Arts Lab where he and his cohorts could engage in multimedia endeavors, following every creative whim to its (il)logical end, and of his apprenticeship as a clown in mime Lindsay Kemp’s Pierrot in Turquoise. The artistic experience—like most—would serve David well down the road.
We get an early taste of uncertainty with The Man Who Sold the World and Hunky Dory as Bowie dabbles in glam rock with The Hype and aligns himself with longtime writer / producer Tony Visconti and girlfriend Angie Barnett. Hewitt examines lasting friendships with like-minded intellectuals and (equally peculiar rock animals) Andy Warhol, Lou Reed, and Iggy Pop. Then it’s straight into classic schizoid Bowie, with Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders From Mars and Aladdin Sane showcasing David’s eagerness to employ makeup (a la Marc Bolan of T-Rex), ladies evening wear (courtesy Mr. Fish), and a shock of orange hair (by beautician Suzi Fussey) in an effort to connect with audiences using an alter-ego. Basing superstar Ziggy on label-mate Vince Taylor, the “stardust cowboy,” the gender-bending Bowie banded with guitarist Mick Ronson for countless “eureka moments” in studio and onstage.
Diamond Dogs, Young Americans, and Station to Station found Bowie exploring dystopian themes, exploiting Motown soul, and experimenting with occultism and numerology after prolonged stays in New York and—later—Los Angeles, hiring guitarists Carlos Alomar, bassist Trevor Bolder, saxophonist David Sanborn and background singers Ana Cherry Luther Vandross, to beef up his “Fame” sound. David inched further to acting, playing an eccentric alien entrepreneur in Nicolas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth, but cocaine colored his outlook—and a Rochester marijuana bust nearly cost him his freedom. German electro-pop bands like Can and Kraftwerk came on Bowie’s radar, their influence soon to affect his increasingly diverse music.
The “Thin White Duke” years take us through David’s time living and recording in Montreux and Berlin for the Teutonic trifecta of Low, Heroes, and Lodger, an arc that saw Bowie collaborate with Visconti and producer Brian Eno on sanitized noise-scapes, ambient scores, and clinical punk pastiches. The dapper-dressed David made time to duet with Bing Crosby on holiday hit “Little Drummer Boy.” Hewitt scrutinizes the mechanical Munich scene and emerging technology that facilitated Bowie’s latest shift, noting how the resulting product divided fans and critics alike (but are widely-regarded today as bold and cutting-edge). Taken by a crooked manager, Bowie willingly went mainstream in the early ‘80s, tapping Chic’s Nile Rodgers and studio guru Hugh Padgham to help craft the radio (and MTV)-ready album Let’s Dance and its “Blue Jean” follow-up, Tonight. The Serious Moonlight and Glass Spider Tours brought Bowie to millions of people in over a dozen countries and filled his coffers like never before.
Hewitt suspects Bowie felt trapped by the “inflexible” keyboard vocabulary of the decade and seemed ironically out-of-touch singing about social issues on Never Let Me Down. He also chalks the 1987 album up to David “following orders” at the behest of EMI, who wanted to capitalize on Bowie’s elevated profile with the younger set. Never one to acquiesce—at least not for long—the musician bucked trends once more by forming the avant-garde band Tin Machine with Reeves Gabrels, whose snarling guitar work heralded the Tom Morrellos and Kim Thayils of the nineties.
Later chapters trace later Bowie efforts like Outside, Earthling, Heathen, and Reality from their Bahamas and Bermuda-based sessions to pre- and post-millennial releases. Hewitt discusses how Eno’s “Oblique Strategies” cards prompted Bowie’s stream-of-conscious / chaos lyricism, and how themes of frustration, isolation, sin, redemption, and self-awareness permeated the tunes. Marriage with model Iman (and another wave of fatherhood) affected David’s schedule, tempering his tour calendar and quieting his output…until now.
Hewitt comments and critiques the artwork and photography as well, touching on now-iconic designs, shots, and costumes by Freddie Burretti, Justin de Villeneuve, Guy Peellaert, Terry O’Neil, Brian Duffy, Mick Rock, Masayoshi Sukita, Frank Ockenfels, and Kensai Yamamoto. He also dishes on David’s participation in theater and film: Elephant Man, The Hunger, The Cat People, and Labyrinth are profiled, as are more obscure titles like Basquiat (wherein Bowie portrayed Warhol). A comprehensive discography includes every album, single, compilation, duet (“Under Pressure”), and one-off (“Dancing in the Streets”) with relevant chart positions.
The ultimate visual chronology-cum-critique, Bowie: Album By Album is a must-acquire exhibit for Ziggy-heads and a fascinating catchall scrapbook for casual Bowie fans that testifies to the musician’s ever-evolving creativity.