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The Album’s The Thing

March 13th, 2014 | by admin
The Album’s The Thing
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I feel like I should be ashamed to admit this, as a lifelong Bowie fan, but I had never listened to The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars until last year. At least, not in its entirety. I knew the songs of course – it was from playing ChangesOneBowie as a pre-teen that I learned the word “suffragette,” which, like many things that entered my consciousness through David Bowie, I had to look up in a dictionary. I intuitively knew the riffs from Moonage Daydream and Lady Stardust… oh yes, but I, like others, always thought that one was by Elton John. It wasn’t until The Next Day came out that my world was opened again by Bowie’s return and I went back and filled the gaps of my long-depleted music collection. When it came to Ziggy, I made a conscious decision to start from Track 1 and listen in sequence to the end.
(Trust me – I am still a fan. A real fan. I was just born too late.)

This idea, of the experience of a complete album, was not completely unknown to me. At the times of their releases I knew all the songs on Never Let Me Down — even the now-wiped from the catalogue “Too Dizzy” – and played Earthling in a loop. But like many of us who grew up in the 80s, I was scared by the purchase of too many records with a lot of bad songs. In that era, if you brought home a record with at least half the songs of listenable quality, you hit the jackpot. Somewhere I learned the individual tracks were more important, and not the disc as a whole. Which of course, is not the old way of making music. None of the greats did it this way, and certainly not David Bowie. It is only from the philosophy of “the album’s the thing” that we would get Station to Station, with a lead off track that is 10 minutes long, or Low, where fully half the disc is experimental music.
NPR commentator Ken Tucker noted in his review of The Next Day  that the album feels current in its structure, each track with a unique mood that could be an individual download. However, the record is still “a unified statement that can be listened to at full length, to tell a story about one man’s progression through innocence, experience, arrogance, cynicism, doubt, redemption and inspiration.” Which sounds right to me, who to this day has difficulty pulling out the songs from The Next Day without listening to the album as a whole.

I’ve got most of the catalogue now and I shuffle the songs, but am often compelled to listen to certain albums from beginning to end: Earthling, probably my all-time favourite, The Next Day, sometimes Low and Ziggy Stardust, which I listened to, with focused attention, during one afternoon last year. It was a different kind of experience. It made me think of all those stories I’d read of people who’d had their lives changed by the record in 1972, and how this is how they must have heard it. Cohesive and, for them and for me, new. Unique, distinctive, special. Like Bowie himself. Maybe for some it was not the music but the image; certainly for me in the 1980s, it wasn’t the record but the interviews, Bowie’s seemingly unlimited intellect. An intellect that, in the present day, drove him to find the perfect balance of audiences – those who have returned to vinyl and those with an obsessive need to skip through songs with a tap or a click.

Catherine Lovering

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