6 Unforgettable Tracks from the Bowie Vault

“David Bowie: Dead at 69.”  The headline hardly seemed real.  How could an artist who had been through so much, be taken down so unexpectedly by something as pedestrian as cancer? When we finally reached the dreaded day Bowie would be taken from us, I thoroughly expected the headline would be something like “David Bowie abducted by aliens, returned to home planet at 69.”   

Needless to say, the death of this multi-faceted Picasso of pop has touched many music fans deeply, so I asked the Rocker staff to share their thoughts and remembrances with you about their favorite Bowie songs.  In the end, we’ve come up with a brief list sure to act as a jumping off point for your own meditations on Bowie’s meaning to you and the world.  – Ed.

“Under Pressure” – Erin Amar

Under Pressure is a deceptively simple song.  A distinctive bass line with a bit of snapping, clapping and piano stabs hardly seem much to write home about.  But in the hands of Queen and David Bowie these humble components rise to epic proportions. Infectious beats channel and reinterpret contemporary hip hop as song dynamics build, soar, and finally retreat to darkness.  By the time Bowie and Mercury hit the crescendo two and a half minutes in, they have no problem selling you on their message: “Why can’t we give love just one more chance?”  Rock music is so often dismissed as lowbrow, but collaborations like this remind us well-crafted singles are nothing to sniff at, they’re in fact some of the most important things in the world.

“Rebel Rebel” – Katy Dang

Watch what happens when the first notes of Bowie’s “Rebel Rebel” come on the sound system in any pub worth its salt. Heads will start bobbing. It’s one of those undeniable openings. People nod along, dance along, and sing along to some (if not all) of the words: at least the “Doo doo doo-doo doo doo doo doos” and of course, the shouted chorus. The slightly discordant guitar belies the confidant swagger: don’t ever forget that it is hard to be different. This song could be about anyone: it can be about you, or him, or her, or your girlfriends, or your boyfriends, or your lover, or your pal. It’s not didactic: Bowie lets you make it your own.

Hot Tramp, we loved you so.

“Heroes” – Tom Lawton

In my mid-seventies suburban town, I grew up hearing plenty of David Bowie, courtesy of, “New York’s Best Rock” WPLJ-FM. “Fame,” “Rebel Rebel,” and “Changes” were all fine for hanging out at Jones Beach or cruising Sunrise Highway, and what middle-class white boy of the time didn’t love shouting out “whambamthankyouma’am!” during “Suffragette City”?

“Heroes,” however, has proven to be something very different, especially with the passage of time. It’s a promise that redemptive love will triumph over forces both mundane – she’s mean; he drinks too much – and monolithic – governments and ideologies conspiring to force lovers apart. And if love turned out not to be quotidian bliss, one shouldn’t be afraid of grasping for it anyway. A victory that lasts but one day is still a victory. All of this might have come across as treacly seduction had it been set to Beatle-esque pop/rock or, god help us, Doobie Brothers boogie. But just listen to that man sing – he really meant it. Along with the sturm/drang of synths and guitars, it proved to be very heady stuff for a kid who wouldn’t go on his first date for another three years. When I learned that it had been recorded in Berlin where the Cold War was still very much in effect, well, the whole thing seemed that much more, um…heroic.

Some 40 years later, rapidly dissipating dreams and the humdrum grind of adult routine are the enemies. The difference is that I’m no longer a kid pining for love; I’ve found it and with that in my back pocket, I know I can beat them, forever and ever.

Space Oddity – Amy Prohaska

For here / Am I sitting in a tin can / Far above the world / Planet Earth is blue / And there’s nothing I can do…

Isolation, wonder, stark beauty, loneliness. “Space Oddity” is a haunting tale both epic and personal. When I first heard “Space Oddity” on the radio I thought the name of the song was Major Tom (probably like everyone else who heard it first without having the record and liner notes in front of them). I listened to lots of radio from an early age, but this song was different, darker, sadder. I know that there are deeper meanings to the song, Major Tom representing Bowie as a junkie when he was going through drug withdrawals, but I prefer thinking of it literally as a space tragedy.

Sometimes I still wonder about Major Tom floating in a most pecular way. I know Peter Schilling kinda answered this question in 1984 with his song Major Tom (Coming Home), but I prefer to think about this astronaut orbiting Earth in some sort of suspended animation.

The Heart’s Filthy Lesson – Timothy Sprague

There was a moment in time when I turned my back on David Bowie.  I am sure many of you can relate.  The “Serious Moonlight Tour” had come and gone from by the time I was old enough to buy tickets to a concert without needing my parents’ permission.  So I was elated that he was coming back to town in support of his latest album “Never Let Me Down” and the exotic-sounding “Glass Spider Tour”.

The album was not good.  I restrained myself from buying it out of sheer devotion to Bowie several times when I came across it in the record racks.  But all of this did not detract from my excitement at seeing the man himself for the first time (with The Neighborhoods as support), after all, my friends and I had waited out all night in front of Boston’s Orpheum Theatre to get tickets. But when the time finally arrived I watched in horror as Peter Frampton and Toni Basil’s troupe of “Avant-garde” dancers accompanied Bowie in perhaps the lamest concert I have ever seen.  A year later Tin Machine followed and I could not have cared less.  I wrote The Thin White Duke off as a has-been and resigned myself to never hearing anything new from him that was any good ever again.

Years later I heard Bowie was working with Brian Eno again, and he had been spending a good deal of time with Trent Reznor!  The results were astonishing.  Finally, I knew my idol had regained his senses and returned to form.  The next time I saw Bowie it was on the tour for “Outside”, co-headlining with Nine Inch Nails.  When he came out on stage to join NIN and transition into his part of the show, a bunch of people walked out of the venue.  In a way, I couldn’t blame them.  It was obvious they had not heard the album and had no idea that Lazarus had come back from the dead.  I assume that many of them feel foolish today.

I’m Afraid of Americans – Keith Valcourt
I picked this song from Bowie’s “Experimental” period (joking, everything he did was experimental), because it came out around the time I got to meet and work with the man (Bowie was then signed to Virgin Records, which was part of the Capitol-EMI company that employed me).  We did an in-store appearance in New York City, and I later ran a meet and greet where he played an intimate show for WBCN-FM at Fort Apache in Boston.  His grace and charm were almost as overwhelming as his talent.  And I made him laugh.  I’m still not sure what I said, but he said to me, “You made me laugh. Thanks for that.”

This song perfectly captured my own feelings about America at the time, and how we were transforming into a society or rude, sweatpant-clad, mal-informed individuals. Sadly, those feelings have grown truer with age.  The song however has not.  Bowie was not just ahead of his time, he defined it.