Earthling by David Bowie

Earthling by David Bowie

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Earthling by David BowieIn my opinion, David Bowie went into a creative slump after his mega 1983 hit Let’s Dance. The albums after Let’s Dance weren’t bad, per say, they just didn’t achieve the same musical heights as the ones leading up to that. Throughout the 1970s, Bowie was consistently ahead of musical trends, but after Let’s Dance, he started chasing those trends. This was especially apparent with his 1997 album Earthlings.

The 1990s were the decade when Stomp and raves rose to prominence. Stomp ushered in a fascination with industrial music, while raves brought electronica to public consciousness. Bowie tapped into these two music trends when creating Earthlings. As a result, the album functions well as a time capsule for that type of music. Unfortunately, this is also what limits the album. If you’re not nostalgic for the late 90s or in the mood to take some drugs and dance, Earthling quickly gets repetitive.


Earthling by David Bowie
Released: February 3, 1997 (Arista)
Produced by: David Bowie, Reeves Gabrels & Mark Plati
Recorded: Mountain Studio, Montreux & Looking Glass, New York, April–October 1996
Track Listing Primary Musicians
Little Wonder
Looking for Satellites
Battle for Britain (The Letter)
Seven Years in Tibet
Dead Man Walking
Telling Lies
The Last Thing You Should Do
I’m Afraid of Americans
Law (Earthlings on Fire)
David Bowie – Lead Vocals, Guitars, Saxophone
Reeves Gabrels – Guitars, Synths
Gail Ann Dorsey – Bass, Vocals
Zack Alford – Drums, Percussion
 
Earthling by David Bowie

 

Before I get into the songs, I wanted to discuss the cover. Bowie is standing in a Union Jack themed coat, turned away from the viewer, staring out at England. It’s a cool piece of pop art. The album starts with “Little Wonder,” which lets the listener know right away that this album will be focused on electronica and industrial sounds. The song starts well before getting repetitive and going on a bit too long. In “Looking for Satellites,” Bowie’s lyrical nonsense acts as a musical instrument, which is fun. There’s little to note about “Battle for Britain (The Letter),” it’s essentially club music. After this is “Seven Years in Tibet,” which is one of the best songs on the album. Bowie gets away from electronica and industrial and opts for a more traditional tune, while his lyrics evoke emotion instead of being used like a sampling device. This song also previews the musical direction Bowie would take on his follow-up album.

David Bowie 1997

There isn’t a great deal to say about the next several songs. They all sound similar and work off repetition. “Dead Man Walking” has a fun piano outro. “Telling Lies” features an intro that sounds virtually identical to three of the previous tunes on the album. “The Last Thing You Should Do” changes into a fun rock jam near the end but primarily includes the same faults as the previous songs.

“I’m Afraid of Americans” was the big hit single off this album, and it is fine, but not great. The last song on the album “Law (Earthlings on Fire)” manages to change up the electronica patterns used throughout the album and as a result, sounds more enjoyable than a lot of the songs in the same vein, despite still heavily using repetition and sampling.

Out of 25 David Bowie albums, I’d recommend at least 19 before mentioning Earthling. It’s not that Bowie’s 1997 effort is a particularly bad album, but it just doesn’t rate highly in the Starman’s stellar discography. None of the songs are particularly memorable. Thankfully, starting with his 1999 album Hours, Bowie would embark on a string of excellent albums leading right up to his untimely passing in 2016.

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1997 Images

Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of 1997 albums.

Young Americans by David Bowie

Young Americans by David Bowie

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Young Americans by David BowieFor his ninth studio album, David Bowie decided to move in a radically new direction with the soul and R&B infused 1975 album Young Americans. On this record, which was recorded mainly in Philadelphia, Bowie collaborated with diverse musical legends such as Luther Vandross and John Lennon in fulling his legitimate quest to produce a solid cross-genre album. The result was a commercial success which resulted in a Top 10 album on both sides of the Atlantic.

Following the release of 1974’s Diamond Dogs, Bowie embarked on a North American tour, complete with a high-budget stage production and theatrical special effects. Ultimately, this tour spawned a documentary entitled Cracked Actor as well as the live album, David Live, which was a worldwide hit and is highly acclaimed as a live album. During the tour, Bowie also became deeply enamored in American Soul music and during a break in the tour he convened some recording sessions.

These initial sessions were from August through the Fall of 1974 with producer Tony Visconti and a variety of musicians loosely called the Sound of Philadelphia, including Vandross and guitarist Carlos Alomar. Much of these sessions were recorded live in studio for a more authentic feel and during these sessions several non-album tracks were recorded, including the single “John, I’m Only Dancing (Again)”, a sequel to a 1972 non-album single. Later sessions during the winter of 1974-1975 (including those where Lennon contributed) took place in New York City with engineer Harry Maslin.


Young Americans by David Bowie
Released: March 7, 1975 (RCA)
Produced by: Tony Visconti, Harry Maslin, & David Bowie
Recorded: Sigma Sound, Philadelphia, August 1974 – January 1975
Side One Side Two
Young Americans
Win
Fascination
Right
Somebody Up There Likes Me
Across the Universe
Can You Hear Me?
Fame
Primary Musicians
David Bowie – Lead Vocals, Guitar, Keyboards
Carlos Alomar – Guitars
Earl Slick – Guitars
David Sanborn – Saxophone
Willie Weeks – Bass
Andy Newmark – Drums

The consistent sax David Sanborn along with the excellent chorus backing vocals lead the opening title track. “Young Americans” proved to be a commercial breakthrough for Bowie in the United States as a Top 40 hit due in part to its cynical and timely lyrics and overall catchy energy. “Win” follows as a steady Soul ballad topped with Bowie’s slightly contrasting English folk which makes the whole effect a bit psychedelic. Vandross co-wrote the song “Fascination”, which derived from a song called “Funky Music”. This version prominently features the clavinet of Mike Garson and is a real showcase for bassist Willie Weeks.

While less cohesive than much of the previous material, the first side closer “Right” does feature an excellent short guitar lead by Alomar. The beginning of side two starts with much of the same style. “Somebody Up There Likes Me” is the album’s longest and (seemingly) most vocally improvised of the album tracks as Bowie’s vocals reach for the next level, even briefly going falsetto in the coda section. Then, in a break in genre, comes a bluesy rock cover of The Beatles’ “Across the Universe”. However, there are some distinct divergences, such as the chorus mantra “jai guru deva om” omitted and the song changing keys for the third verse and newly extended coda section.

David Bowie

The album ends strong with two distinctive tracks. “Can You Hear Me?” is an excellent Soul ballad with cool rhythms and a potent outro which dissolves to solo vocals. The closing track “Fame” was a smash hit written by Bowie, Alomar and John Lennon. This catchy dance track at the forefront of disco became Bowie’s first number 1 single in the US and Canada as it explored the mixed blessings of being famous.

Bowie’s foray into Soul music partially persisted into his transitional follow-up Station to Station in early 1976, after which he reflected back with the compilation Changesonebowie later that year.

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1975 Images

Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of 1975 albums.

Hours by David Bowie

Hours by David Bowie

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Hours by David BowieFor the 21st studio album of his incredibly eclectic career, David Bowie forged a collection of songs written as the soundtrack for a new video game. Hours was released in October 1999 and features tracks co-written by guitarist Reeves Gabrels for the adventure game Omikron: The Nomad Soul. The material on this album ranges from soft, lush acoustic ballads to poignant, layered classic riff-driven rock with the slightest moments of reflection to Bowie’s early 1970s heyday.

During much of the 1990s, Bowie’s output focused on electronic music. 1993’s Black Tie White Noise made prominent use of electronic instruments while this the soul, jazz, and hip-hop influence album reunited him with producer Nile Rodgers, who had helped forge great success a decade earlier with Let’s Dance. Another reunion took place with 1995’s industrial-laden Outside, as Bowie once again worked with Brian Eno, who had collaborated on each of the late seventies “Berlin Trilogy” albums. This was followed by the experimental 1997 album Earthling, which spawned a couple of Top 40 singles, proving David Bowie remained commercially viable as he bypassed his 50th birthday.

Spawned from dedicated writing sessions, Bowie and Gabrels had actually recorded much of the material for Hours twice, with the original rough cut of the album being rejected. Beyond the 10 album tracks, Gabrels also wrote and recorded over 3 hours of instrumental pieces exclusively for the video game.

In September 1998, BowieNet was launched as an Internet service provider which offered exclusive content for fans. This would soon be the exclusive home of Hours for two weeks before the album was released elsewhere, making this album the first by a major artist available to download on the Internet.


Hours by David Bowie
Released: October 4, 1999 (Virgin)
Produced by: David Bowie & Reeves Gabrels
Recorded: 1998–1999
Track Listing Primary Musicians
Thursday’s Child
Something In the Air
Survive
If I’m Dreaming My Life
Seven
What’s Really Happening?
The Pretty Things Are Going to Hell
New Angels of Promise
Brilliant Adventure
The Dreamers
David Bowie – Lead Vocals, Guitars, Synths
Reeves Gabrels – Guitars, Synths
Mark Plati – Bass, Guitars, Synths
 
Hours by David Bowie

Smooth to the point where it feels like elevator psychedelia, “Thursday’s Child” opens the album with lush, synthesized orchestration and fine backing vocals by guest Holly Palmer. This also acted as the album’s first single. The interesting “Something in the Air” is fashioned much more like a classic Bowie song, highlighted by Gabrels’ various guitar tones and a thumping bass by Mark Plati. The acoustic ballad “Survive” is slightly melancholy with beautifully layered electric guitars added strategically throughout, while the slow rocker “If I’m Dreaming My Life” features vocals which seem to be interjected intentionally off time.

Rich, strummed acoustic guitars highlight “Seven”, a track which is musically steady throughout. The lyrics and overall feel of this song has a definitive Pink Floyd vibe with ethereal sustained electric guitar layers added on top. A similar vibe is continued on “What’s Really Happening?”, albeit with all electric and electronic instrumentation and featuring lyrics by Alex Grant, making this the only track not composed solely by Bowie and Gabrels.

David Bowie

“The Pretty Things Are Going to Hell” is like proto-punk for older folks, with plenty of new wave effects over some simple and steady guitar riffs and a song title which suggests a sequel to “Oh! You Pretty Things” from the 1971 album Hunky Dory. “New Angels of Promise” begins with synth flutes and other orchestration before settling into a Boomtown Rats-like rock screed with a psychedelic backing to the later guitar lead, Following the short, jungle-influenced instrumental “Brilliant Adventure”, we reach the closing track and initial title for the album, “The Dreamers”. Here, some rich synths back Bowie’s deep crooning before the song eventually picks up with various sections getting more rhythmic and melodic before we reach an abrupt ending to the song and album.

While infamous for being first David Bowie studio album to not reach the US Top 40 since the early 1970s, Hours was (on balance) a worldwide hit as it reached the Top 10 in more than half a dozen nations. As the new millennium began, Bowie continued his experimentation with a planned 2000 album called Toy, which was intended to feature new versions of some of Bowie’s earliest pieces. However, that album was never released and Bowie moved on to produce a new album of original songs with 2002’s Heathen.

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1999 images

Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of 1999 albums.

Aladdin Sane by David Bowie

Aladdin Sane by David Bowie

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Aladdin Sane by David BowieThe sixth studio album by David Bowie, 1973’s Aladdin Sane furthers the narrative, begun on the previous year’s hit album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, of the fictional Ziggy Stardust character in what Bowie deemed “Ziggy goes to America”. In fact, the majority of the album was written and recorded during the previous album’s tour and it’s music reflects the pros of performing in new found superstardom and the cons of the wear and tear of constant touring.

Many have compared the approach of this album with that of Bowie’s 1970 third album, The Man Who Sold the World, which had a heavier-than-typical rock sound, marking a departure from Bowie’s previous predominant folk rock style. Another similarity is in lyrical content, with The Man Who Sold the World referencing schizophrenia, paranoia and delusion while In contrast, Aladdin Sane is a pun on “A Lad Insane”, believed to have been inspired by the recent diagnosis of David’s brother Terry Jones with schizophrenia.

Co-produced by Ken Scott, most of Aladdin Sane was recorded at Trident Studios in London in early 1973, the album is the fourth to feature a solid rock backing band, led by guitarist Mick Ronson, along with several guest musicians to provide a rich diversity of musical sub-genres.


Aladdin Sane by David Bowie
Released: April 13, 1973 (Columbia)
Produced by: Ken Scott & David Bowie
Recorded: Trident Studios, London & RCA Studios, New York, October 1972-January 1973
Side One Side Two
Watch That Man
Aladdin Sane (1913-1938-197?)
Drive-In Saturday
Panic in Detroit
Cracked Actor
Time
The Prettiest Star
Let’s Spend the Night Together
The Jean Genie
Lady Grinning Soul
Primary Musicians
David Bowie – Lead Vocals, Guitar, Synths, Saxophone, Harmonica
Mick Ronson – Guitar, Piano, Vocals
Mike Garson – Piano, Keyboards
Trevor Bolder – Bass
Woody Woodmansey – Drums

The sloshy opener, “Watch That Man”, features heavily distorted guitars over a steady rock beat. The thick arrangement includes a backing chorus harmony during the hook sections and the overall vibe represents a slight change of musical direction. The title track, fashioned “Aladdin Sane (1913-1938-197?)”, alternates between the ethereal, avant- garde piano verses, musically led by Mike Garson, and the more rocking choruses which combine for a psychedelic feel throughout. Adding a further dimension, the song’s coda includes a short quote from the popular song “On Broadway”.

“Drive-In Saturday” has a doo-wop-like bass line and beat but with a Bowie-esque vocal melody before the tune works towards a more standard pop/rock tune musically. Lyrically, the song describes a post-apocalyptic, futuristic world where inhabitants watch old porn films in a drive in theater to learn how sex is performed. “Panic in Detroit” comes back to the topical present as it is lyrically based  on Iggy Pop’s descriptions to Bowie about experiencing the 1967 Detroit riots. The song employs a Bo Diddley-like “hand-jive” beat by Woody Woodmansey before a more complex bass line by Trevor Bolder takes over in the verses. Closing out the original first side, “Cracked Actor” features straight forward rock music with some raunchy, risque sexual lyrics.

David Bowie in 1973

The burlesque verses of “Time” feature music hall piano by Garson before the track explodes into a full rock arrangement led by Ronson’s strategically clear riffs. The track reaches a nice climax in the long coda section as Bowie provides scat vocals over the guitar lead. “The Prettiest Star” is another old-timey structured song with doo-wop backing vocals and topped with modern sonic rock elements, while the album’s only cover song, “Let’s Spend the Night Together”, has a short, spaced out intro before breaking into a jazzed-up, pre-punk version of the Rolling Stones classic. This is slightly interesting upon first listen but ultimately a forgettable version of song.

A refreshing rebound of two fine tracks close album , starting with the sloshy, riff-driven, bluesy rock jam of “The Jean Genie”. Recorded in New York, this is one track with a nice amount of sonic space to let the listener enjoy this simple but entertaining song, which became Bowie’s biggest pop hit to date when it peaked at #2 in the UK. “Lady Grinning Soul” starts with a final long piano intro by Garson before the song proper kicks in with gently strummed acoustic, rapid, staccato piano and high-pitched but soft lead vocals, Compared in style to a James Bond theme, there is a slight flamenco guitar lead before another verse and a climatic coda to complete the album.

With over 100,000 advance orders, Aladdin Sane debuted on top of the UK charts, reaching the Top 20 in the US. Over time, it would go on to sell over 4 million copies worldwide. A few months after the album’s release, Bowie dramatically announced the “death” of the Ziggy Stardust character towards the end of a live concert.

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1973 Images

Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of 1973 albums.

 

Station to Station by David Bowie

Station to Station by David Bowie

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Station to Station by David BowieHis tenth overall studio album, Station to Station was a transitional album for David Bowie. Musically, this 1976 album seamlessly bridges the gap between the glam rock of Bowie’s early 1970s work, the Soul sound he explored in the middle of the decade, and the experimental, synth-driven “krautrock” works to come later in the decade. This was also one of the last album’s where Bowie employed a musical alter ego with “The Thin White Duke” persona.

Bowie had moved to the United States in 1974, first to New York, after he completed recording Diamond Dogs. The following year, Bowie recorded the soul-influenced Young Americans in Philadelphia. This album spawned Bowie’s first number one hit with “Fame”, co-written by John Lennon, and elevated Bowie to becoming a worldwide pop superstar. Not all was well, however, as Bowie had major financial issues with his manager and developed a significant cocaine habit.

Station to Station was recorded after Bowie migrated to Los Angeles and completed the film “The Man Who Fell to Earth”. Recorded in late 1975, the album was co-produced by Harry Maslin and featured guitarist Carlos Alomar, who had worked on the previous Young Americans. Seven songs were recorded during the sessions, with a cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “It’s Hard to Be a Saint in the City” being ultimately omitted from the six-track album.

 

CRR logo
Station to Station by David Bowie
Released: January 23, 1976 (RCA)
Produced by: David Bowie & Harry Maslin
Recorded: Cherokee Studios, Los Angeles, September-November 1975
Side One Side Two
Station to Station
Golden Years
Word on a Wing
TVC 15
Stay
Wild Is the Wind
Primary Musicians
David Bowie – Lead Vocals, Guitars, Keyboards, Saxophone
Carlos Alomar – Guitars
Roy Bittan – Piano
George Murray – Bass
Dennis Davis – Drums

 

The album opens with the extended title song, “Station to Station”, which was the longest song Bowie had recorded to date at over ten minutes long. A long and methodical intro introduces the track before any vocals arrive for the first of two distinct parts. Shortly after the song’s five minute mark, the song picks up the pace which makes it feel more like a theatrical number.  It is rhythmically built with the bouncy bass of George Murray and the good, animated, disco-influenced drums Dennis Davis throughout the song. “Golden Years” is the closest to a pure pop song on the album, built on moderate funk groove with reserved backing hook, giving the vocals space for assertion. This repetitive but entertaining track was originally released as a single in late 1975 and it peaked in the Top Ten on both sides of the Atlantic in early 1976.

“Word on a Wing” is an exquisite, upbeat ballad, driven by the piano of Roy Bittan. Here Bowie’s lyrics and vocal delivery are delivered with a desperate passion throughout in a quasi-religious song written out of a drug-fueled spiritual despair which Bowie later described as the darkest days of his life. “TVC 15” comes from another side of the drug experience, when fellow rocker Iggy Pop hallucinated that the television set was swallowing his girlfriend. Musically, this interesting and entertaining track is built off Bittan’s bouncy, boogie-woogie piano, later breaking into a straight-forward disco/rock during the verses with nice vocal effects and atmosphere like a rock carnival throughout.

David Bowie in 1976

“Stay” commences with Alomar’s funky/blues guitar lead in an excellent, methodical rock lead-in. The rest of the track is a very inventive gem with funky bass and heavy rock guitars over a steady beat and multiple styles of vocals throughout. The album conclude’s with its sole cover, the pleasant ballad with layered guitars and seventies production, “Wild Is the Wind”. Originally recorded by Johnny Mathis, this track caught Bowie’s attention when recorded by Nina Simone, and his own vocal interpretation been praised through the years.

Station to Station reached #3 on the Billboard Album charts and would be David Bowie’s highest-charting album in the US for nearly four decades. Bowie later cited this album along with its 1977 follow-up, Low, as two of his finest works.

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1976 Images

Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of 1976 albums.

 

Hunky Dory by David Bowie

Hunky Dory by David Bowie

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Hunky Dory by David Bowie Classic Rock Review has launched a new feature called “What Did We Miss?” to revisit some albums that we overlooked the first time through our voyage into the classic rock years. We start with 1971, the very first year we covered when we launched in 2011, and a truly amazing year for music. And so it was that we overlooked a truly great release from 1971, David Bowie‘s fourth studio album, Hunky Dory. This was a landmark album for Bowie in many ways, as a transition between his folksy origins and his movement into what would become his signature sound for years to come. Thankfully some wrongs CAN be undone and in this is a big one.

Looking at this album with a larger lens, one can clearly see that this album is not only the opening of a new phase for Bowie but a loving goodbye to the sixties and those artists who inspired him. In fact, this album is filled with artistic, societal and pop culture references. Bowie refers to The Pretty Things, Bob Dylan, and Andy Warhol in the song titles and, in turn, a later band (The Kooks) and television show (Life On Mars) took their names from song titles on Hunky Dory. There are also historical references through the lyrics that mention Aleister Crowley, Winston Churchill, Heinrich Himmler, Juan Pujol, and the society Golden Dawn.

But the real magic on this album lies in the music and melodies. The first side of Hunky Dory may be as good a side of musical excellence that you’ll find anywhere and, throughout the album, none of the songs go exactly where your ear expects them to go, as they throw in subtle or sometimes blatant changes. Co-produced by Bowie and Ken Scott, the album is a departure from Bowie’s previous 1970 album, The Man Who Sold the World, which had a more solid rock sound. This album prominently features Rick Wakeman on piano, who comes to the forefront of the arrangement of most songs.


Hunky Dory by David Bowie
Released: December 17, 1971 (RCA)
Produced by: Ken Scott & David Bowie
Recorded: Trident Studios, London, June–August 1971
Side One Side Two
Changes
Oh! You Pretty Things
Eight Line Poem
Life On Mars?
Kooks
Quicksand
Fill Your Heart
Andy Warhol
Song for Bob Dylan
Queen Bitch
The Bewlay Brothers
Primary Musicians
David Bowie – Lead Vocals, Guitar, Piano, Saxophone
Mick Ronson – Guitars, Mellotron, Vocals
Rick Wakeman – Piano
Trevor Bolder – Bass, Trumpet
Mick Woodmansey – Drums

The album opens with “Changes”, which makes excellent use of layering Bowie’s unique voice on top of an entertaining pop rock and bluesy jazz mix. The lyrics of “Changes” evoke a sense of the upheaval of the past decade as well as the present state of Bowie himself as he would jump through multiple persona over the next few years. This is the most played radio song from the album and developed into the quintessential Bowie song of the era. “Oh! You Pretty Things” is a much softer piano-driven song through first verses but breaks into a rousing chorus halfway through as other instruments join the piano as Bowie’s vocals get more impassioned. The lyrics speak of discontent with humanity and technology in the Cold War setting,

“Homo Sapiens have outgrown their use…”

“Eight Line Poem” is a short track with Wakeman’s surreal piano topped by the bluesy guitar of Mick Ronson. The animated and emotional vocals recite Bowie’s “eight line poem” and feel like they’d fit perfectly in a small beat poet performance area. “Life On Mars?” is the real masterpiece of the album. Bowie’s emotional vocals lead Wakeman’s quietly beautiful piano into a full band, jazz-infused jam before Ronson’s guitar comes in with a quick riff leading back to the piano accompanied by the drums. Wild flute sounds add depth to the song. “It’s the Freakiest Show” and Life On Mars by David Bowie“Is there life on Mars?” are just a few of the poetic lines to which every person must add their own meaning, as this is the musical equivalent of the modernism movement in literature. The song has an orchestral sounding ending like some great show has just come to its climax, after which the piano gets the final say as it quietly fades out.

With the addition of bass player Trevor Bolder, all the members of the band that would become known as the “Spiders from Mars” were in place. On “Kooks”, this band shows their versatility as the pleasant traditional-sounding English pop song contains apt acoustic guitar, bass, piano, and melodically dances on the drum beats of Mick Woodmansey. It has a certain sort of grooviness to it as horns and violins enter into the mix. The words “A Trumpet you can blow” lead to the sound of a trumpet. The song was written for Bowie’s newborn son, Duncan Jones, with the “kooks” being Bowie and his wife Angie. “Quicksand” concludes the fantastic first side as a steady, dark folk, featuring double-tracked acoustic guitars and a string arrangement by Ronson. This song’s sad but beautiful melodies are accented by an ever-increasing intensity in the backing music and lyrics referring to occult magicians like “I’m closer to the dawn immersed in Crowley’s Uniform”. The theatrical inspirations come through on this song and if this album was a character’s journey, this would be the moment when the character hits rock bottom.

David Bowie band 1971

The album’s only cover song is the upbeat and philosophical jazz dance of “Fill Your Heart”. This old-time, sing-songy tune with piano, saxophone, driving bass, and especially pitched vocals by Bowie. There is a bit of a psychedelic bridge into the next track, “Andy Warhol”, using spacey synths and a vocal collage. When the song fully kicks in, it has a Spanish acoustic drive throughout with some creative percussive sounds by Woodmansey.

“A Song for Bob Dylan” is interesting because it refers to Dylan as a separate mythical character apart from Robert Zimmerman (Bob Dylan’s actual name). It’s an interesting reflection of him as his legend certainly grew beyond his control in the sixties leading to his famous slaughter of his folk only persona at the Newport Folk Festival. It would be hard to believe that Dylan’s own experimentation with changing persona didn’t directly influence Bowie’s future work. As Bowie states in the song,

“Now, hear this Robert Zimmerman, I wrote a song for you about a strange young man named Dylan, with a voice like sand and glue
Some words of truthful vengeance that can pin us to the floor…”

The album winds down with a couple of more unexpected twists. “Queen Bitch” is highly influenced by the Velvet Underground, but with their overall effect brought to the next level. This song sounds like it could have been fresh and new six or seven years later and may well be a precursor to “Rebel Rebel” on 1974’s Diamond Dogs, as both seem like anthems of strong women you’d dub punks in the best way. While this song features overt textures of acoustic and electric guitar, the song is real showcase for Bolder on bass. “The Bewlay Brothers” sounds like a quiet acoustic post party song when it starts but it gets louder as it goes. You can almost picture Bowie walking down a quiet street after a wild night before singing it. The multiple voices that suddenly break in are oddly disconcerting near the end of the song, as this masterpiece of an album concludes as oddly as possible.

Hunky Dory was not an immediate hit upon its release but it reach the Top 5 following the commercial breakthrough of Ziggy Stardust in 1972. “Life on Mars?” was released as a single the year after that, reaching #3 in the UK. Wakeman was not around to directly enjoy this success, as he had moved on to join the band Yes and make an immediate impact on their album Fragile. In short, Hunky Dory is a sublime listen and it feels like the true start of David Bowie’s super-stardom. It is a must listen for music fans of all kind.

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1971 Images

Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of 1971 albums.

Woodstock from behind the stage

Top 9 Rock Festivals of All Time

This week Classic Rock Review joins the celebration of the 45th Anniversary of the historic 1969 Woodstock Music Festival. In conjunction with Top 9 Lists, we present a list of the Top 9 Rock Festivals of all time, along with a bonus list of Top 9 Single Day, Single Location Concerts.

Woodstock from behind the stage

1. Woodstock

August 15-18, 1969
Bethel, New York

This remains the mother of all music festivals, held at a 600-acre dairy farm owned by Max Yasgur. A series of coincidental events unfolded which effected the location and operation of this festival, which grew to become a “free” event for over 400,000 attendees. Regarded as a pivotal moment in popular music history, 32 acts performed during the rainy weekend, starting with Richie Havens, and concluding with a memorable performance by Jimi Hendrix as the crowd dispersed mid-morning on Monday, August 18th. Woodstock was immortalized in a later documentary movie as well as a song by Joni Mitchell, who was one of many major acts that did not attend by later regretted it.

Woodstock Performers: Richie Havens, Sweetwater, Bert Sommer, Tim Hardin, Ravi Shankar, Melanie, Arlo Guthrie, Joan Baez, Quill, Country Joe McDonald, Santana, John Sebastian, Keef Hartley Band, The Incredible String Band, Canned Heat, Mountain, Grateful Dead, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Janis Joplin with The Kozmic Blues Band, Sly and the Family Stone, The Who, Jefferson Airplane, Joe Cocker and The Grease Band, Ten Years After, The Band, Johnny Winter, Blood, Sweat & Tears, Crosby, Stills, & Nash, Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Sha Na Na, Jimi Hendrix and Gypsy Sun Rainbows

Buy Woodstock soundtrack
Buy Woodstock: Three Days of Peace & Music DVD

2. Monterey Pop Festival

June 16-18, 1967
Monterey, California

Jimi Hendrix at MontereyCredited as the event which sparked the “The Summer of Love”, The three-day Monterey International Pop Music Festival had a rather modest attendance but was soon recognized for its importance to the performers and significance to the sixties pop scene. The lineup consisted of a blend of rock and pop acts with memorable performances by The Who and Jimi Hendrix Experience.

Monterey Pop Performers: Jefferson Airplane, The Who, The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Janis Joplin, Otis Redding, Booker T. & the MG’s, Ravi Shankar, The Mamas and the Papas

Buy Monterey Pop Festival Live album

3. Live Aid

July 13, 1985
London and Philadelphia

Live Aid, PhiladelphiaStill the largest benefit concert 30 years on, Live Aid was a also the first live multi-venue event, with over 70,000 at London’s Wembley Stadium and close to 100,000 at JFK Stadium in Philadelphia. Organized by musician Bob Geldof of the Boomtown Rats as relief for the Ethiopian famine, the concert evolved from Band Aid, a multi-artist group who recorded “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” in 1984. Live Aid was also one of the largest worldwide television broadcasts, with an estimated audience of 1.9 billion in about 150 nations. Memorable performances and moments included those by Queen, U2, Dire Straits, a reunited Black Sabbath, and a loose reunion by members Led Zeppelin, the first since their breakup in 1980.

Live Aid Performers: Status Quo, The Style Council, The Boomtown Rats, Adam Ant, Spandau Ballet, Elvis Costello, Nik Kershaw, Sade, Sting, Phil Collins, Branford Marsalis, Howard Jones, Bryan Ferry, David Gilmour, Paul Young, U2, Dire Straits, Queen, David Bowie, Thomas Dolby, The Who, Elton John, Paul McCartney, Band Aid, Joan Baez, The Hooters, Four Tops, Billy Ocean, Black Sabbath, Run–D.M.C., Rick Springfield, REO Speedwagon, Crosby, Stills and Nash, Judas Priest, Bryan Adams, The Beach Boys, George Thorogood and the Destroyers, Simple Minds, The Pretenders, Santana, Ashford & Simpson, Madonna, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Kenny Loggins, The Cars, Neil Young, The Power Station, Thompson Twins, Eric Clapton, Led Zeppelin (announced as “Jimmy Page, Robert Plant, John Paul Jones, Tony Thompson, Paul Martinez, Phil Collins”), Duran Duran, Patti LaBelle, Hall & Oates, Mick Jagger, Eddie Kendricks, David Ruffin, Tina Turner, Bob Dylan, Keith Richards, Ronnie Wood, USA for Africa

Buy Live Aid DVD

4. Isle of Wight Festival

August 26-30, 1970
Isle of Wight, UK

Isle Of Wight Festival, 1970In sheer numbers, the 1970 Isle of Wight Festival may be the largest ever, with estimates of over 600,000, which is an increase of about 50% over Woodstock. Promoted by local brothers Ronnie, Ray and Bill Foulk, the 5-day event caused such logistical problems (all attendees had to be ferried to the small island) that Parliament passed the “Isle of Wight Act” in 1971, preventing gatherings of more than 5,000 people on the island without a special license. Memorable performances included late career appearances by Jimi Hendrix and The Doors, and The Who, who released their entire set on the 1996 album Live at the Isle of Wight Festival 1970.

Isle of Wight 1970 Performers: Judas Jump, Kathy Smith, Rosalie Sorrels, David Bromberg, Redbone, Kris Kristofferson, Mighty Baby, Gary Farr, Supertramp, Howl, Black Widow, The Groundhogs, Terry Reid, Gilberto Gil and Caetano Veloso, Fairfield Parlour, Arrival, Lighthouse, Taste, Rory Gallagher, Chicago, Procol Harum, Voices of East Harlem, Cactus, John Sebastian, Shawn Phillips, Joni Mitchell, Tiny Tim, Miles Davis, Ten Years After, Emerson, Lake & Palmer, The Doors, The Who, Sly & the Family Stone, Melanie, Good News, Ralph McTell, Heaven, Free, Donovan, Pentangle, The Moody Blues, Jethro Tull, Jimi Hendrix, Joan Baez, Leonard Cohen, Richie Havens

Buy Message to Love, The Isle of Wight Festival DVD

5. Ozark Music Festival

July 19-21, 1974
Sedalia, Missouri

Ozark Music Festival stage“No Hassles Guaranteed” was the motto of the Ozark Music Festival, held at the Missouri State Fairgrounds in 1974. While this festival offered an impressive lineup of artists as well as a crowd upwards of 350,000 people, the Missouri Senate later described the festival as a disaster, due to the behaviors and destructive tendencies of the crowd.

Ozark Music Festival Performers: Bachman–Turner Overdrive, Aerosmith, Premiata Forneria Marconi, Blue Öyster Cult, The Eagles, America, Marshall Tucker Band, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Boz Scaggs, Ted Nugent, David Bromberg, Leo Kottke, Cactus, The Earl Scruggs Revue, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Electric Flag, Bob Seger & the Silver Bullet Band, Joe Walsh and Barnstorm, The Souther Hillman Furay Band, The Ozark Mountain Daredevils, Charlie Daniels Band, REO Speedwagon, Spirit

6. US Festival

May 28-30, 1983
Devore, California

Steve Wozniak’s US Festivals were staged on two occasions in September 1982 and May 1983. The second of these was packed with a lineup of top-notch eighties acts who performed in an enormous state-of-the-art temporary amphitheatre at Glen Helen Regional Park.

1983 US Festival Performers: Divinyls, INXS, Wall of Voodoo, Oingo Boingo, The English Beat, A Flock of Seagulls, Stray Cats, Men at Work, The Clash, Quiet Riot, Mötley Crüe, Ozzy Osbourne, Judas Priest, Triumph, Scorpions, Van Halen, Los Lobos, Little Steven & the Disciples of Soul, Berlin, Quarterflash, U2, Missing Persons, The Pretenders, Joe Walsh, Stevie Nicks, David Bowie

7. The Crossroads Guitar Festival

June 4-6, 2004
Dallas, Texas

Crossroads Festival 2004 adStarting in 2004, the Crossroads Guitar Festivals have been held every three years to benefit the Crossroads Centre for drug treatment in Antigua, founded by Eric Clapton. These concerts showcase a variety of guitarists, with the first lineup at the Cotton Bowl stadium in 2004 featuring some legends along with up-and-comers hand-picked by Clapton himself.

2004 Crossroads Guitar Festival Performers: Eric Clapton, Johnny A, Vishwa Mohan Bhatt, Ron Block, Booker T. & the M.G.’s, Doyle Bramhall II, JJ Cale, Larry Carlton, Robert Cray, Sheryl Crow, Bo Diddley, Jerry Douglas, David Honeyboy Edwards, Vince Gill, Buddy Guy, David Hidalgo, Zakir Hussain, Eric Johnson, B.B. King, Sonny Landreth, Jonny Lang, Robert Lockwood, Jr., John Mayer, John McLaughlin, Robert Randolph, Duke Robillard, Carlos Santana, Hubert Sumlin, James Taylor, Dan Tyminski, Steve Vai, Jimmie Vaughan, Joe Walsh, ZZ Top, David Johansen

Buy Eric Clapton: Crossroads Guitar Festival 2004 DVD

8. Live 8

July 2, 2005
Locations world wide

Pink Floyd at Live 8Held 20 years after he organized Live Aid, Bob Geldof’s Live 8 was even more ambitious, being held in nine different locations around the world on the same day. Timed to coincide with the G8 conference in Scotland that year, the goal was to raise money to fight poverty in Africa. The most memorable moment from the concerts was at Hyde Park in London where the classic lineup of Pink Floyd reunited for the first time in over two decades.

Live 8 Performers: U2, Paul McCartney, Annie Lennox, Mariah Carey, R.E.M. The Killers, The Who, UB40, Pink Floyd, Elton John, Bob Geldof, Velvet Revolver, Madonna, Coldplay, Robbie Williams, Will Smith, Alicia Keys, The Black Eyed Peas, Kanye West, Linkin Park, Jay-Z, Rob Thomas, Sarah McLachlan, Stevie Wonder, Maroon 5, Deep Purple, Neil Young, Buck Cherry, Bryan Adams, Mötley Crüe, Brian Wilson, Green Day, a-Ha, Roxy Music, Dido, Peter Gabriel, Snow Patrol, The Corrs, Zola, Lucky Dube, Jungo, Pet Shop Boys, Muse, The Cure

Buy Live 8 DVD

9. Woodstock ’94

August 12-14, 1994
Saugerties, New York

Organized to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the original Woodstock festival, Woodstock ’94 was promoted as “3 More Days of Peace and Music”. in fact, this concert took place near the originally intended location of that first show and other similarities such as common performers, similar crowd size, rain, and mud.

Woodstock ’94 Performers: Blues Traveler, Candlebox, Collective Soul, Jackyl, King’s X, Live, Orleans, Sheryl Crow, Violent Femmes, Joe Cocker, Blind Melon, Cypress Hill, Rollins Band, Melissa Etheridge, Crosby, Stills, & Nash, John Sebastian, Nine Inch Nails, Metallica, Aerosmith, Country Joe McDonald, Sisters of Glory, Arrested Development, Allman Brothers Band, Traffic, Santana, Green Day, Paul Rodgers Rock and Blues Revue, Spin Doctors, Porno For Pyros, Bob Dylan, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Peter Gabriel

Read more on Woodstock ’94 from our recent Comebacks and Reunions special feature


Bonus Top 9 List: Best Single Day, Single Location Shows

The Who at Concert for New York City

1. The Concert for New York City October 20, 2001. New York, NY
2. The Band’s Last Waltz November 25, 1976. San Francisco, CA
3. Atlantic Records 40th Anniversary Celebration May 14, 1988. New York, NY
4. Concert for Bangladesh August 1, 1971. New York, NY
5. Knebworh Festival June 30, 1990. Knebworth, UK
6. Texxas Jam July 1, 1978. Dallas, TX
7. Farm Aid September 22, 1985. Champaign, IL
8. Canada Jam August 26, 1990. Bowmanville, Ontario
9. Altamont Free Concert December 6, 1969. Tracy, CA

~

Ric Albano

Diamond Dogs by David Bowie

Diamond Dogs by David Bowie

Buy Diamond Dogs

Diamond Dogs by David BowieFollowing the successful album and tours of the conceptual The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, David Bowie decided to try another rock-opera-style piece based on George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. However, when the author’s estate refused publishing rights, Bowie shifted slightly to the New York based, post-apocalyptic world of Diamond Dogs, with much of the Orwell related material reserved for the second side. The album is also transitional on several levels. It was the first release in five years not to feature Bowie’s early seventies backing band, which had featured guitarist Mick Ronson, as Bowie took over all guitar duties himself. Further, it was stylistically the final album to contain “glam” elements musically. This album is unique and the raw approach has been credited as an early influence of the emerging punk sound.

Bowie had tasted his first bit of stardom in 1972 as both Hunky Dory and Ziggy Stardust charted and and his non-album single “John, I’m Only Dancing” became a hit in the UK. Further, Bowie wrote and produced the smash hit “All the Young Dudes” for Mott the Hoople and co-produced Lou Reed’s solo breakthrough album Transformer with Mick Ronson. His 1973 album Aladdin Sane became his first number one album and a follow-up album of covers called Pin Ups also did well. All the while, Bowie continued to tour as “Ziggy Stardust” but got so entangled in the persona that it started to effect his offstage personality. Finally, Bowie decided to give the persona an abrupt “death” after a July 1973 press conferences and show in London, where footage for a film was shot.

In 1974 Bowie moved to New York, leaving his former backing band behind and gaining inspiration for this new concept album. Diamond Dogs does feature its own lead character “Halloween Jack”. While Bowie self produced this album, it was the first of many in which he collaborated with Tony Visconti, who would co-produce much of Bowie’s future work.


Diamond Dogs by David Bowie
Released: May 24, 1974 (RCA)
Produced by: David Bowie
Recorded: Olympic Studios and Island Studios, London, October 1973-February 1974
Side One Side Two
Future Legend
Diamond Dogs
Sweet Thing
Candidate
Sweet Thing (Reprise)
Rebel Rebel
Rock ‘n’ Roll with Me
We Are the Dead
1984
Big Brother
Chant of the Ever Circling Skeletal Family
Primary Musicians
David Bowie – Lead Vocals, Guitars, Saxophone, Keyboards
Mike Garson – Keyboards
Herbie Flowers – Bass
Aynsley Dunbar – Drums

The long droning synths with spoken word, doomy lyrics make up the short intro track “Future Legend”, where the stage for Diamond Dogs is set with “fleas the size of rats and rats the size of cats”. The title track “Diamond Dogs” then begins with Bowie’s interesting intro guitar riff and settles in a theatrical rock n’ roll track which seems to hold back a bit from full-fledged production. Released as the album’s lead single, the track was a disappointment on the charts.

Next comes a mini-suite, centered around the track “Sweet Thing”, which starts with more doomy, backwards-masked effects before breaking into  a pleasant ballad with great singing. Bowie’s first real guitar lead is also featured at end of (the first) “Sweet Thing”. The avante garde “Candidate”, the middle part of the medley, contains rolling drums, piano, saxophone, and distorted guitars. Lou Reed-inspired, this builds into a more upbeat and intense number before abruptly coming back down for “Sweet Thing (Reprise)” A sax solo and calmer demeanor, this piece was recorded during album sessions in 1973. The outro piano is interrupted by Herbie Flowers‘ thumping bass to complete the piece on an up note.

Rebel Rebel singleThe most upbeat moment on the record, “Rebel Rebel” is a simple, fun, and direct rocker, where the repetition and unrelenting riff actually work to enhance the song. Dating back to 1973, the song became a glam rock anthem. Driven by its infectious guitar riff, “Rebel Rebel” reached Number five on the UK charts.

The second side begins with “Rock n’ Roll with Me”, co-written by Warren Peace. This piano ballad with edge, is much like Bowie’s earlier seventies work but with anthemic elements such as the harmonized chorus and great lead notes in the second verse. “We Are the Dead” is perhaps the most moody and theatrical track on the album. It starts as a ballad but soon morphs into a long lyrical litany in the ‘B’ section before returning back to the pleasant, electric piano driven track with steady, rounded bass notes.

David Bowie

“1984” is built on pure 1970s funk, with squeezed chords, high strings, much hi-hat action by drummer Aynsley Dunbar. This Orwell-inspired track has a good hook and sounds like Bowie was trying to take the most futuristic approach possible in this song written about a time then ten years in the future. The album closes with a medley starting with “Big Brother”, as a trumpet intro morphs into the thumping bass of the song proper. Lyrically, the song mirrors the finale of Nineteen Eighty-Four, with the character’s love of “Big Brother”. “Chant of the Ever Circling Skeletal Family” contains scat vocals of barely legible chants under rotating riff and percussion, as the last, classic-style Bowie track on record, throwing in the kitchen sink stylistically.

Diamond Dogs reached the Top five on both sides of the Atlantic and spawned a lavish North American Tour that was recorded for the live album, David Live, released later in 1974.

~

1974 images

Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of 1974 albums.

Let's Dance by David Bowie

Let’s Dance by David Bowie

Buy Let’s Dance

Let's Dance by David BowieAn artist who seemed to constantly reinvent himself, David Bowie created a stylized and soulful new-wave album with a romantic signature on the 1983 album Let’s Dance. It was Bowie’s 15th overall studio album and was co-produced by Nile Rodgers, formerly of Chic, which gave the album (through implicit and explicit suggestion) a post-disco novelty. The result was an album which broke a long commercial slump (Bowie hadn’t had a Top Ten album in seven years) while sacrificing some of the critical cred that Bowie had built with his previous three releases known as the “Berlin Trilogy”, (1977′s Low, 1979′s Lodger and 1980′s Scary Monsters and Super Creeps. )

Rodgers was not Bowie’s original choice for the album, as he planned to once again use producer Tony Visconti as he had on the previous five studio albums (including the three listed above). However, Bowie suddenly switched to Rodgers and Visconti was not informed until two weeks into the recording process for Let’s Dance. Bowie also used the album and its subsequent MTV videos to reinvent his image for the 1980s. Having just signed a big deal with EMI Records, Bowie and Rodgers worked to produce a commercially viable album that fused the popular sub-genres of party-funk with the “big drum” eighties dance with just enough Avant Garde edge to keep it interesting.

The album is also notable as one of the earlist recordings for blues guitar virtuoso Stevie Ray Vaughan, who met Bowie at the 1982 Montreux Jazz Festival and agreed to play on the project despite admitting to being unfamiliar with much of Bowie’s music. However, Vaughan was impressed with Bowie’s knowledge of funky Texas blues and the two talked for hours on the subject.

 


Let’s Dance by David Bowie
Released: April 14, 1983 (EMI)
Produced by: David Bowie & Nile Rodgers
Recorded: Power Station, New York City, December 1982
Side One Side Two
Modern Love
China Grove
Let’s Dance
Without You
Ricochet
Criminal World
Cat People (Putting Out Fire)
Shake It
Primary Musicians
David Bowie – Lead Vocals, Horn Arrangements
Nile Rodgers – Guitars, Horn Arrangements
Carmine Rojas – Bass
Tony Thompson – Drums

 

Let’s Dance comes tearing out of the gate with “Modern Love”, about as upbeat and effervescent rocker by David Bowie as you will find in his vast catalog. The track starts with a unique, deadened-guitar sound, which quickly blends with the strong and consistent drum beat by Tony Thompson, who provides this quality throughout the album. Bowie has claimed the song is inspired by Little Richard, and he uses a “rock voice” which almost to the point of being strained. The third single released from the album, “Modern Love” peaked at #2 in the UK while hitting the Top 20 in America.

“China Girl” is a reinterpreted version of a song Bowie wrote for Iggy Pop on that artist’s 1977 album The Idiot. An almost deceptive track, which morphs from a light and poppy tune into something much deeper (even darker) during the bridges with ever-odd sections that build the tension until returning to the original chorus. This song (which also peaked at #2 in the UK) contains a strong bass riff by Carmine Rojas along with bright guitar chords beneath the soft and directed vocals by Bowie.

“Let’s Dance” is David Bowie’s fastest ever selling single, reaching the top of the charts. Released ahead of the album by the same name, the song set the pace for the great commercial success Bowie enjoyed in 1983. It is built on a moderate but methodical bass line with Bowie using yet another style of singing voice above a perfect dance drumbeat. There are some great extended middle parts, which go ludicrously far near in hammering home the brittle funk intent of the song and album, as well as Bowie’s latest image transformation.

The fine original first side of the album concludes with “Without You”. A bit off-beat, yet still very refined, this song is almost like soft version of disco with its high-register vocals, strong bass presence, slight female backing vocals, and just a touch of funky guitar overlay.

However, Let’s Dance is a very uneven record, as the second side sounds like a much cheaper version of the first. “Ricochet” seems to try a bit too hard to get the off-beat syncopation and the result is a song which sounds forced, especially with the elongated arrangement and overuse of spoken voice effect. “Criminal World” is a remake of a track by the glam rock group Metro and employs some eighties production techniques and arrangements. “Cat People (Putting Out Fire)” is a bit more intense but still kind of standard track, with the only real highlight being Vaughan’s lead guitar. The closer “Shake It”, returns to the very funky dance formula (almost an alternate version of “Let’s Dance”) which, if nothing else, solidifies Rodgers influence on this album.

Let’s Dance peaked at #4 and actually Bowie’s first-ever Platinum-selling album, although later sales of earlier albums surpassed that feat. The surprise commercial success of the album proved to be a double-edged sword – it did introduce a whole new generation to the artist but also initiated a prolonged artistic “slump” starting with the disappointing follow-up Tonight a year later, and lasting the better part of a decade.

~

1983 Images

Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of the 30th anniversary of 1983 albums.

 

Classic Christmas Rock Songs

Classic Rock Christmas Songs

Classic Christmas Rock SongsNearly from its inception, rock and roll and Christmas songs have made for a potent mixture of holiday-flavored punch. This marriage dates back to 1957 with the first Elvis Presley Christmas Album and Bobby Helms’s timeless “Jingle Bell Rock”, a rockabilly Christmas classic which was actually written by an advertising executive and a publicist, joining together the overt commercialism with these early anthems. However, it wasn’t all about dollars and cents, as demonstrated in 1963 when major Christmas initiatives by producer Phil Spector and The Beach Boys were pulled off the shelf after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

Below we review our favorite songs during the classic rock era. Please be sure to let us know which ones you like best, including those that we omit.

Christmas by The Who, 1969“Christmas” by The Who, 1969

This is a truly fantastic song from the rock opera Tommy but, as such, this song is only about Christmas for a short period of the song, the rest of the song is spent pondering whether the aforementioned Tommy’s soul can be saved as he is deaf, dumb and blind – lacking the capacity to accept Jesus Christ. This aspect of the song works exceptionally well in the scheme of the album, but not so much in the scheme of it being a Christmas song. That said, no song captures the majesty of children on Christmas day as well as this one.

Happy Xmas by John Lennon, 1971“Happy Christmas (War Is Over)” by John Lennon, 1971

John Lennon’s voice is fantastic and the song itself evokes the kind of melancholy Christmas spirit I find in great Christmas songs. The backing vocals work very well and the bass guitar, sleigh bells, chimes, glockenspiel all play their part as well, a testament to the excellent production by Phil Spector. It does sound a little dated with the overt political correctness and, of course ant-war sentiment. Then there is a bit of irony, foe, although the song advocates “War is Over”, the personal war between Lennon and Paul McCartney was at a fevered pitch with Lennon poaching McCartney’s lead guitarist for this very song just to stick him in the eye a bit. So, in that sense, I guess war was not quite over.

I Believe In Father Christmas, 1975“I Believe In Father Christmas” by Greg Lake, 1975

You really do learn something new every day. In fact while doing research into this song’s origin I discovered that this is actually a Greg Lake solo song and not an Emerson, Lake, and Palmer song which I had always believed because of its inclusion on their 1977 Works compilation album. This new revelation does not diminish my love of the song one iota. The song was written by Lake with lyrics by Peter Sinfield. Lake says the song was written in protest at the commercialization of Christmas, while Sinfield says it is more about a loss of innocence and childhood belief. I tend to believe them both, as I’ve always found the melancholy song to be much too complex to be written about any single subject or incident. Musically and melodically, the song is a masterpiece, with Lake’s finger-picked acoustic ballad complemented by ever-increasing orchestration and choral arrangements. Each verse is more intense than the last and the arrangement elicits all kinds of emotions, far deeper than the typical “feel good” Christmas song.

Father Christmas by The Kinks, 1977“Father Christmas” by The Kinks, 1977

Just listen to the first fifteen seconds of this song and you will see, it’s amazing! Starting with a Christmas-y happy piano melody and sleigh bells before punk-influenced guitar and drums crash in with the impact of a meteor. Lead singer Ray Davies sings as two characters in the song; the first is a department store Santa (“Father Christmas”), the second is a gang of poor kids. Davies makes his vocals more forceful for their demands, “Father Christmas give us some money!” I have long thought Davies is probably the most underrated singer in Rock, and the Kinks may be the most underrated band in rock history. What other band appeared in the British invasion did a few concept albums and then practically invented punk rock!? Dave Davies lead guitar is fantastic, definitely the most entertaining work in any of the Christmas songs on this list. The drums are also a huge high point as they roll franticly between verses. If you needed a definition of it, this IS Christmas Rock!

Peace On Earth / Little Drummer Boy, 1977“Peace On Earth/Little Drummer Boy”
by David Bowie & Bing Crosby, 1977

This partial cover (Bowie’s “Peace On Earth” part was original, while Crosby sang the traditional “Little Drummer Boy”) was actually as about as original a compositions as any Christmas song with a rock theme to it. So why does this song make the cut? Well it is fantastic! It’s DAVID BOWIE and BING CROSBY! It’s a great little song that feels like Christmas. Two totally different artists from different genres and eras coming together to sing a song for a television special, only around Christmas could this happen. Well, in fact it was recorded in London in August of 1977 for an upcoming Christmas special and Crosby passed away in October, before it aired, making it even more special.

A Wonderful Christmas Time, 1979“A Wonderful Christmas Time” by Paul McCartney, 1979

Not to be out done by his former Beatle mate turned musical rival (see above), Paul McCartney launched the post-Wings phase of his solo career with “Wonderful Christmas Time”. A song with an uncanny ability to instantly put one into the Christmas spirit, this synth-driven, new-wave ballad showcased McCartney’s mastery at writing pleasant pop songs in just about any sub-genre. Unfortunately, his “wonderful Christmas” was interrupted soon after the new year of 1980, when he got busted In Japan for marijuana possession and spent ten days in prison before he was released.

Christmas Wrapping, 1981“Christmas Wrapping” by The Waitresses, 1981

“Christmas Wrapping” is a really fun new-wave style song that jives musically by an otherwise obscure group. The song goes through quite a few little progressions – a little guitar rift and some jolly percussion instruments introduce the listener to the song’s primary beat of guitar and drums. Lead singer Patty Donahue flirts with actually rapping through the song which comes out really cool despite my less than enthused relationship to that genre. The interlude of horns really makes this song fun as they bridge the gap between verses.

2000 Miles, 1983“2000 Miles” by The Pretenders, 1983

Not really intended to be so much a Christmas song as a lament about missing someone with the hope they return at Christmas. It was nevertheless released in 1983 in advance of the band’s 1984 album Learning To Crawl because of its holiday season potential. The vivid lyrics which paint the Christmas landscape and activity, along with the masterful delivery by lead vocalist Chrissie Hynde above the simple folk-guitar riff, makes this one for the ages.

Thank God Its Christmas, 1984“Thank God It’s Christmas” by Queen, 1984

This is a Christmas rock song that often gets overlooked but is virtually impossible to ignore due to Freddie Mercury’s singing. Co-written by drummer Roger Taylor, the drums have a smooth grooving feeling, albeit very processed. Mercury’s backing keyboards and occasional Christmas bells give the song that holiday feeling it needs. The addition of the guitar later in the song by the other co-writer, Brian May adds some earthiness, but the song would benefit from more of it. The piece never quite transcends the mellowness or the karaoke-like quality of the song, but is still a Christmas classic.

Do They Know Its Christmas, 1984Do They Know It’s Christmas?” by Band Aid, 1984

Sure, it is outrageously corny, especially when you are watching Boy George and other eighties has-beens singing next to the likes of Bono and Sting. But underneath all the silliness lies a pretty good song, written in a decent style of British pop. This song is the brainchild of Bob Geldof, lead singer of the Boomtown Rats, who co-wrote this song along with Midge Ure, and then they brought together these top-notch English musicians to perform under the name Band Aid as all proceeds went to relief for the Ethiopian famine of 1984-1985. The success of this single eventually lead to the worldwide benefit concert Live Aid, the following summer.

Santa Claus Is Coming to Town, 1985“Santa Claus Is Coming to Town”
by Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, 1985

The only true cover of a “traditional” Christmas song on this list, this song was actually recorded in December 1975, but was not released for a solid decade when Bruce Springsteen began putting together his triple live album 1975-1985. It was put out as the B-Side to his single “My Hometown” in 1985 and has since become a holiday staple and rock and pop stations worldwide.

Another Christmas Song, 1989“Another Christmas Song” by Jethro Tull, 1989

We conclude with a beautiful and elegant song put out by Ian Anderson and Jethro Tull during their leaner years, this May be one that many do not know. From the 1989 album Rock Island, this is actually a sequel to “A Christmas Song” put out by Jethro Tull on their 1968 debut album two decades earlier, but is far superior in beauty elegance than the original. With some light flute, drums, and the occasional wood block sound and other percussive effects, the song features Tull’s traditional guitarist Martin Barre who nicely accents the flute line from Anderson in the interweaving musical passages. Lyrically, it describes an old man who is calling his children home to him for Christmas and subtly drawing their attention to other parts of the world and other people;

Everyone is from somewhere, even if you’ve never been there
So take a minute to remember the part of you that might be the old man calling me…”

Through the 1990s and early 2000s, the Christmas rock tradition continued with fine originals such as “Christmas All Over Again” by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, a rendition of “Heat Miser” by The Badlees, “Don’t Shoot Me Santa Clause” by The Killers, and Coldplay’s “Christmas Lights”. It is likely this tradition will continue for years to come.

~
J.D. Cook and Ric Albano