Ten Underrated David Bowie Songs From His Early Career

RIP, David Bowie: The iconic rock legend passed away January 10 in New York after a battle with cancer.
RIP, David Bowie: The iconic rock legend passed away January 10 in New York after a battle with cancer.

David Bowie always epitomized what it means to be a true musical chameleon. Some artists evolve. Bowie transformed. From his beginnings in the late-‘60s as a fair-haired folkie to his drag-queen persona, on to his iconic role as Ziggy Stardust and the androgynous guise he adopted early on, through to his roles as the Thin White Duke, a cool crooner and master of Euro-electro ambiance, the former David Jones always kept his admirers guessing as to how he’d reinvent himself next. 

Along the way, the iconic rock legend offered any number of classic songs, music that made an indelible mark in the modern rock firmament. As we look back on the glittering expanse of his career, inevitably there are those tracks that fell below the surface — overlooked, unappreciated, and paling by comparison. In honor of David Bowie, who passed away yesterday, January 10, at the age of 69 after an 18-month battle with cancer in New York, we present to you a list of ten songs that may have been underappreciated the first time around but still loom large in the Bowie songbook.

1. "Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud" — Man of Words, Man of Music (1969) AKA Space Oddity (1972)
An early example of Bowie in a more abstract and expansive mode, the meaning of this song is somewhat ambiguous — hardly a surprise, considering the fact that Bowie’s neo-folk musings were an essential part of his early designs. Originally the B-side to his single “Space Oddity,” it marked the debut of Mick Ronson as Bowie’s chief guitar foil. The string arrangement, courtesy of erstwhile producer Tony Visconti, is another key element, lending a grandiosity, although the theme of the song is far more insular, having to do with the isolation the introverted young artist was said to have suffered from at the time. 

2. "Oh! You Pretty Things" — Hunky Dory (1972)
With its highlighted exclamation point, cooing vocal, and seemingly pandering lyric, “Oh! You Pretty Things” remains one of Bowie’s most overt pop songs, sugary almost to the point of becoming saccharine. It’s little wonder then that Peter Noone of Herman's Hermits chose to cover it, enlisting Bowie to play piano. (Noone altered the original lyric that described the Earth as a “bitch” by substituting the word “beast” instead, making it decidedly G-rated in the process.) Still, there is an unmistakable air of sarcasm wafting through the irrepressible chorus, and, if some pundits are to be believed, the entire theme is a lot darker than the catchy melody might suggest. It’s said it’s really related to the teachings of philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche and occult idol Aleister Crowley, in that it foretells the end of human dominance on Earth and the coming of a superior alien presence. Whatever the ultimate meaning, it’s still a superb sing-along.

3. Life on Mars? — Hunky Dory (1972)
Although it appears to be a song sung from the perspective of someone pondering life in outer space, thereby creating a thematic link between “Space Oddity” and the subsequent emergence of Ziggy Stardust, in truth, its origins are far more muddled. Try to follow along with the explanation offered by Wikipedia: “In 1968 Bowie wrote the lyrics 'Even a Fool Learns to Love,' set to the music of a 1967 French song 'Commed'habitude,' composed by Claude François and Jacques Revaux. Bowie's version was never released, but Paul Anka bought the rights to the original French version, and rewrote it into 'My Way,' the song made famous by Frank Sinatra in a 1969 recording on his album of the same name. Its success prompted Bowie to write 'Life on Mars?' as a parody of Sinatra's recording.' Indeed, in the album liner notes it references the fact that the song was 'inspired by Frankie.' Other observers suggested that it was really a love song written after a failed affair, but BBC Radio summed it up more succinctly by saying it had 'one of the strangest lyrics ever.' Bowie himself claimed the song revolved around a young girl’s struggle with reality. Whatever the meaning, its powerful, passionate performance ranks it as one of Bowie’s best. 

4. "Moonage Daydream" — The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars (1972)
With its stirring refrain and defiant call to arms, “Moonage Daydream” deserves to be called one of the standout songs from its parent album, even though other tracks were played more frequently and gained greater notoriety. Originally released under the pseudonym of “Arnold Corns” (an early incarnation of the future Spiders), it was rerecorded for the Ziggy Stardust album. It remains one of the critical songs in its narrative arc, describing an impending disaster and Ziggy’s emergence as the rock star savior who gave the planet its last gasp of hope, both physically and philosophically. It was later adapted as the title of photographer Mick Rock’s book, Moonage Daydream: The Life and Times of Ziggy Stardust — quite appropriately, we might add.

5. "Hang On to Yourself" — The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars (1972)
Another grabbing and engaging extract from the Ziggy songbook and one that boasts one of its most relentless refrains, this song cautions listeners to keep their wits about them as Ziggy and the Spiders prepare to tackle the coming apocalypse. Like “Moonage Daydream,” it was originally recorded by Bowie and his band Arnold Corns, and then remade for Ziggy Stardust. An excellent example of Bowie in his glam-rock mode; it’s both compelling and compulsory.

  6. "Panic in Detroit" — Aladdin Sane (1973)
The sense of urgency is absolutely palatable in this track, supposedly inspired by Iggy Pop’s recollections of the revolutionaries he had known as a kid growing up in Michigan. It also might have been written about the riots that took place in 1967, marking it as one of the few Bowie songs to actually have historical precedent. Not surprisingly, radicals John Sinclair and Che Guevara are referenced in the lyric. It’s also distinguished by the unlikely musical references inscribed in its refrain, a combination Bo Diddley beat with hints of Latin melody conveyed through a prominent conga drum and the backup vocals. 

7. "1984" — Diamond Dogs (1974)
Here again, Bowie foretells an era of dramatic change and autocratic rule, using George Orwell’s classic tome as its template. “Come see, come see/Remember me” — Bowie urges his flock to take action before it becomes too late. Much like the early Ziggy Stardust opus, it fits into an overall concept, one that was originally intended to be a stage play until Orwell’s heirs denied him permission. The one real break from the motif comes in the form of some wah-wah guitar and hints of funk that would later be fully realized on the album Young Americans.

8. "TVC15" — Station to Station (1976)
Bowie was not at his best during his residency in Berlin. Despite the fact he kept company with such notables as Brian Eno and Iggy Pop, he became entrapped in a cocaine haze and later admitted that he barely remembers recording much of the material that emerged from that era. Still, with its catchy hooks and dance-ready rhythm, “TVC15” is the most accessible song Station to Station has to offer, even though its origins are slightly suspect. It was supposedly inspired by a hallucination Iggy Pop claims to have had, and indeed, the lyric about a woman sucked into a television set would seem the ideal fodder for such delusional decadence.

9. "Sound and Vision" — Low (1977)
It bears a catchy title, one that eventually came to symbolize Bowie’s career up until that point. Indeed, when his first box set was compiled, it took its name from this song. The original arrangement by Tony Visconti featured the synthesized setting that characterized Low overall, but the striking guitar work and backing vocal by Visconti’s wife, Mary Hopkin (“Those Were the Days”), allowed it to stand out. The lengthy instrumental intro makes it apparent that Bowie wasn’t quite sure about the song’s direction, but he needn’t have worried. It still managed to scale the British charts, even though it failed to register in the States.

10. "Ashes to Ashes" — Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps) (1980)
Major Tom had it tough to begin with. As noted originally in the song “Space Oddity” (which, by the way, was allegedly written with the Bee Gees in mind), he was separated from his family by the cold, cruel orb of outer space and left wondering if he’d ever see them again. With an overall ambiance as icy as the original, “Ashes to Ashes” becomes a sequel of sorts, one that finds the good major a junkie and lost in a wilderness of his own making. Coolly catchy, it ranks easily as one of Scary Monster’s standout selections.


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