The lesser-known Bowie: 19 gems and deep cuts

The lesser-known Bowie: 19 gems and deep cuts

(Photo by: Getty Images)
(Photo by: Getty Images)

One of the most accomplished and dynamic popular artists of the last century, the late David Bowie produced an unbelievable number of enduring classics; so many of his early songs remain popular that it’s easy to forget he actually reached his commercial peak in the 1980s. But beyond the hits, Bowie’s varied catalogue—spanning five decades and countless styles and personas—represents one of the great treasure troves of rock and pop music. We’ve dug into it for some of our favorites, from deep cuts beloved by fans to singles that failed to chart to standouts from some of his lesser albums.

1. “Look Back In Anger,” Lodger (1979)

The most song-oriented of Bowie’s “Berlin trilogy,” Lodger puts the experimental soundscapes and global scope of Low and Heroes into a stronger pop/rock context, in 10 short and loose (but still densely layered) musical sketches. “Look Back In Anger” is one of the album’s boldest statements, slapping the title of a classic British kitchen sink drama onto an incongruously fantastic scenario, describing a visitation by the Angel Of Death. The music, meanwhile, is as driving and soaring as nearly everything else on Lodger—as befits a record partially about traveling. This is a song of exciting contradictions: a vignette in a grandiose setting, scoring a grim encounter with guitars that sound strangely uplifting. [Noel Murray]

2. “Strangers When We Meet,” Outside (1995)

“Humming Rheingold / We scavenge up our clothes.” Written for the BBC’s miniseries adaptation of Hanif Kureishi’s The Buddha Of Suburbia, and released on the accompanying soundtrack, this intoxicating pre-millennial love song was re-recorded with Brian Eno for Outside, Bowie’s concept album about art criminals in the dystopian near-future. Serving as a romantic counterpoint to Outside’s cut-up paranoia, “Strangers When We Meet” finds his voice effortlessly gliding between seduction and sorrow over howling guitar, piano textures, and a simple, driving beat. Though it barely charted as a single, it remains one of the most gorgeous songs of Bowie’s under-appreciated ’90s period. [Ignatiy Vishnevetsky]

3. “Without You,” Let’s Dance (1983)

The first three cuts on side one of Let’s Dance were hits: “Modern Love,” “China Girl,” and the title track. The fourth, “Without You”—also released as a single— barely made the charts, but is every bit the equal of the rest. A simple, slight love song, “Without You” takes full advantage of the performing and production team David Bowie put in place for Let’s Dance, with Nile Rodgers’ booming dancefloor-ready sound and Stevie Ray Vaughan’s melancholy blues guitar establishing the track’s two emotional poles. Bowie then bops between the two, crooning a straightforwardly sentimental ballad well-seasoned with ache. [Noel Murray]

4. “Andy Warhol,” Hunky Dory (1971)

It’s not surprising that Andy Warhol and Bowie would collide, two of the most forward-looking visionaries to be inhabiting various art scenes in the late ’60s and early ‘70s. On Hunky Dory, an album that featured many over-the-top orchestral arrangements, “Andy Warhol” starts with a weird space-age sound effect (Andy himself would totally approve), a frustrating conversation about the artist’s name, and then a burst of laughter when Bowie and the band realize that tape is rolling, at almost a minute in. The song itself, surprisingly, is stripped bare, only a flamenco-laced guitar and later, some hand-claps, to depict this sing-song anthem to the pop artist. When Bowie sings, “I’d like to be a gallery / Put you all inside my show,” he could be referring to Warhol, or himself: He often blurred the line between art and music, and this cut is a prime example. [Gwen Ihnat]

5. “Teenage Wildlife,” Scary Monsters (1980)

If there’s such a thing as a definitive, fan-favorite David Bowie deep cut, it’s the sprawling, textured “Teenage Wildlife,” which serves as the centerpiece of Scary Monsters. The album effectively summed up Bowie’s rapid creative and personal development over the course of the ’70s, and for the first (though hardly last) time, found Bowie looking back on his legacy. Poetic, personal, and surprisingly mean, “Teenage Wildlife” is a poison-pen letter to the New Wavers and synth-poppers who were imitating some of the sounds Bowie had pioneered (specifically Gary Numan), set against a gorgeous Robert Fripp guitar line based on his earlier work on “Heroes.” Given how many personas Bowie would adopt and reference over the years, it’s still disorienting to hear him refer to himself by name. [Ignatiy Vishnevetsky]

6. “Memory Of A Free Festival,” David Bowie (1969)

In August 1969, Bowie—living and playing regular pub gigs in the London district of Beckenham, literally and figuratively far from stardom—organized a free music festival. Big names didn’t come, so the man himself got on stage, playing solo acoustic renditions of songs from his self-titled second album. With big hair and hippie-friendly attire, Bowie was still of the moment rather than ahead of it, and the original version of “Memory Of A Free Festival” is lovely and acoustically based, conjuring a Wordsworthian moment of recollection about when the drugs go right, making the field and sun look lovely. The song was re-recorded shortly thereafter with a suitably glammy touch, but the original is one of the most successful songs from the era just before Bowie broke through. [Vadim Rizov]

7. “Panic In Detroit,” Aladdin Sane (1973)

Bowie cemented the harder rock elements of Ziggy Stardust in his follow-up album Aladdin Sane, which delivered a minor hit in the glam stomper “The Jean Genie” alongside multiple fan-favorites—include this snaky Bo Diddley/T. Rex-like track, which hearkens back to the spaced-out guitar effects of Ziggy while looking ahead to the soulfulness of Young Americans. Here the backup singers are meant to evoke the Motown side of Detroit, as Bowie describes riots in the streets, sparked by a celebrity revolutionary. Funky bongos and Mick Ronson’s thick guitar riff evoke a chaotic America—possibly in some near future, or possibly smack dab in the middle of 1973. [Noel Murray]

8. & 9. “Weeping Wall,” Low (1977) / “Sense Of Doubt,” Heroes (1977)

The first two chapters of the so-called “Berlin trilogy” immediately set themselves apart by restricting the use of Bowie’s most powerful instrument: His voice. Low opens with the wordless mutant disco of “Speed Of Life”; Heroes gives over most of its second side to a suite of atmospheric compositions aided by ambient pioneer and Berlin trilogy collaborator Brian Eno. Yet even as they pay tribute to their predecessors in the field, Bowie’s particular set of skills shows through: The avant-garde pulse of “Weeping Wall” owes a debt to Steve Reich, but the track’s interpolation of “Scarborough Fair” is the mark of David Bowie, chart-topping melody maker. He still had a way of establishing place and character without the assistance of a lyric sheet, too: “Sense Of Doubt” paints a noirish picture of Cold War-era Berlin, its piano-synth back-and-forth playing like two spies trading secrets in code. It’s a miniature movie that wound up going cinematic a few years later, when it turned up on the Bowie-curated soundtrack of Uli Edel’s junkie chronicle Christiane F. [Erik Adams]

10. “Slip Away,” Heathen (2002)

The third track on Heathen is the first to relax. Following the paranoid build-up of opener “Sunday” and Pixies cover “Cactus,” Bowie slips into less-stressed nostalgia. Reworking “Uncle Floyd,” a track from 2001’s ultimately unreleased Toy, Bowie takes a song that originally stitched together disparate parts and luxuriates in a sustained elegiac mood from start to finish. The lyrics pay tribute to wacky tristate-area variety children’s program The Uncle Floyd Show, with shout-outs to oddly named puppets. But—like much of the album—the tone is ecstatically end-of-days, reveling in the sudden cessation of tension. [Vadim Rizov]

11. “Win,” Young Americans (1975)

Young Americans’ title track is its masterpiece, and “Fame” was its smash hit, but the best example of what the misunderstood album had to offer is “Win,” a sultry R&B slow-jam that’s just abstract and arty enough to be recognizable as Bowie. The song has the basic form of a seductive ballad, albeit unusually deflated for one with a chorus that advises “all you’ve got to do is win.” Some major rock critics at the time felt that Young Americans was a Philly soul ripoff that Bowie was too aloof (and too white) to get right. But the way “Win” drifts off into the ether every few minutes suggests otherwise. Even with skilled funk session players steering the sound in an earthier direction, the man at the mike had kept eyes on the cosmos. [Noel Murray]

12. “The Bewlay Brothers,” Hunky Dory (1971)

The title immortalizes a now-defunct chain of British tobacco stores— theirs, Bowie said, was the only pipe he owned. Hunky Dory’s closer is virtually lyrically unparsable on a literal level, a series of private allusions making sense to the singer but perhaps none to the listener. (The song is thought to be about Bowie’s schizophrenic half-brother Terry, whose fits on the street “frightened the small children away.”) After the album’s cycling through one persona after another, “The Bewlay Brothers” ends Hunky Dory in a place of internal reflection so opaque as to be another mask, a mood of reverie interrupted by a chorus of grotesque Cockneys “starving for me gravy,” whose schizoid disruption warns listeners never to get too comfortable. [Vadim Rizov]

13. “Baal’s Hymn,” In Bertolt Brecht’s BAAL EP (1982)

Bowie’s longstanding interest in theater and the German art song tradition culminated in BAAL, an EP released to promote the BBC production of Bertolt Brecht’s play, in which he played the title role. An avid reader, Bowie had by this point become something of an amateur scholar on all things Brecht, and “Baal’s Hymn”—which combines several poems from the play into one song—is one of the finest showcases of his gift for interpretation and his sense of phrasing. Laid down in Bowie’s final sessions at Hansa By The Wall—the West Berlin studio where he recorded “Heroes” and mixed Low, and produced The Idiot and Lust For Life for Iggy Pop—the BAAL EP served as Bowie’s informal farewell to Germany and the avant-garde; his next release would be the mega-hit, Nile Rodgers-produced Let’s Dance. [Ignatiy Vishnevetsky]

14. “Station To Station,” Station To Station (1976)

“It’s not the side effects of the cocaine / I’m thinking that it must be love.” Often overlooked, Station To Station is the transitional album to beat all transitional albums; a seamless fusion of Bowie’s immediate past and immediate future, it combines the “plastic soul” of Young Americans with the Krautrock influences that would inform Low. The epic, terrifying title track chugs along for over five minutes of incantatory build-up before exploding into an incessant and energetic—suspiciously energetic, if you catch our drift—occult pop song. At this point in his career, Bowie was basically possessed by cocaine, and he would subsequently claim to have no memory of making the album. [Ignatiy Vishnevetsky]

15. “The London Boys (Alternate Version),” unreleased (2001)

First released as a B-side in 1966, “The London Boys” was one of several early songs Bowie re-visited for the scrapped Toy project. Hearing the original—a melancholy portrait of the period’s pill-popping London nightlife—it’s almost unbelievable how much Bowie’s singing voice developed over the subsequent decades, growing from a mousy yelp into one of the most dynamic instruments in pop music. There are two Toy-era versions of the song in circulation; the less well-known “alternate version,” arranged as baroque pop, is superior and more poignant. It’s the sound of the older Bowie traveling back in time; if the original sounded like it was addressed to a peer, the later version’s second-person “you” is Bowie’s younger self. [Ignatiy Vishnevetsky]

16. “Heroes (Aphex Twin Remix),” 26 Mixes For Cash (2003)

In remixing Philip Glass’ 1996 symphonic riff on Bowie’s big Berlin staple, Richard D. James showed an uncharacteristic amount of reverence toward his source materials. He slaps Bowie’s original vocals back on over Glass’s churning strings, stripping out the iconic original guitars entirely. There’s a little distortion and electronic cracking added, pointing out the strain Bowie was putting on his vocal chords. In this ferociously committed performance, nothing is held back, and the Aphex Twin version provides a whole new framework to re-appreciate a classic. [Vadim Rizov]

17. “Tumble And Twirl,” Tonight (1984)

There are a ridiculous number of candidates for Bowie’s most underrated album, but the one that’s maybe slept on the most is Tonight, the Let’s Dance follow-up that even the man himself dismissed as more commercially motivated than creatively vital. Like a lot of sequels to massive successes, Tonight retains plenty of its predecessor’s juice, even when it’s merely repeating what worked before: namely remakes of Bowie’s old Iggy Pop collaborations, left-field covers, and horn-pumped club tracks. The record’s at its best when it’s at its most off-handed—as on this giddy tour through Borneo, which could be dismissed as a throwaway were it not for the energetic horn arrangement, Mark King’s thumping bass, and Bowie’s vivid imagery. “Tumble And Twirl” is more akin to Lodger than Let’s Dance: a hooky travelogue from an experienced tourist. [Noel Murray]

18. “Everyone Says ‘Hi’,” Heathen (2002)

Per Bowie, this buoyant C-major track was loosely inspired by memories of being unable to process his father’s death in 1969. (“They said you moved away.”) Upon Heathen’s release, the song was also understandable as a plea from father to estranged son. Zowie Bowie (a.k.a. film director Duncan Jones) was born in 1971, growing up when the Thin White Duke was often in drug-possessed control of the artist’s often-absent body, and the lyrical offer “you can always come home” to someone permanently away from home comes with the knowledge that the agency for reconciliation lies with the other person. Either way, Bowie uses the time-honored trick of setting regretful sentiments against counterintuitively upbeat music to moving effect. [Vadim Rizov]

19. “Quicksand,” Hunky Dory (1971)

Among the most lyrically knotty of all of Bowie’s songs, “Quicksand” is like a glimpse into the mind of a philosophy major driven to madness. The track from 1971’s Hunky Dory teems with tossed-off references to Aleister Crowley and occultism; Nazi commander Heinrich Himmler, WWII double agent Joan Pujol Garcia, Winston Churchill, and both Nietzsche’s Übermensch and the Buddhist state of bardo. Bowie, meanwhile, said it was inspired by his first trip to America and the “epic of confusion” it produced within him. All that swirling, existential bewilderment is buoyed by the song’s gorgeously simple melody, created with layered acoustic guitars and Bowie’s alternately wavering and soaring voice. It’s a gem that Bowie more or less hid away until 1997, when he performed it with The Cure’s Robert Smith, then began working it into his sets. And it recently achieved new life thanks to the line, “I’m not a prophet or a stone age man / Just a mortal with the potential of a superman / I’m living on”—as fitting an epitaph for Bowie as any. [Sean O’Neal]