Tag Archives: review

Top 50: the best David Bowie songs of all time, ranked

22 Mar
Bowie Time Out covers

Ch-ch-changes: some of Time Out’s Bowie covers over the years (mine in the centre)

This weekend The Guardian published a list of the top 50 Bowie songs. I mostly loved Alexis Petridis’s choices, but, inevitably, started griping about the omissions. I mean – no Ziggy Stardust?! Anywhere?!?

I heard a voice say to me, “If you think you know so much, why don’t you make your own list?” So I did.

Those who know me know I’m a Bowie nut. I could sing most of his albums (the good ones!) word for word. I spent over an hour interviewing him in a hotel room (for the central Time Out cover, above). I’ve seen him playing Wembley Arena, and I’ve seen him playing to just 20 people when recording Later With Jools Holland. I bought a biography of him in my teens and then tore out the portrait pages to hang on my bedroom wall. He has visited me in dreams.

So whether or not you agree, know that this list is informed by at least dozens and in many cases hundreds of listens to these songs.

50. Various

I was left with a list of 20 “possibles”, from which to choose just one as my No. 50. It’s as random and doomed a task as pinning a tail on the Don Qui-xote at this stage, but I’ll pick… um… oh, sod it. I’ll say The London Boys, Prettiest Star, John I’m Only Dancing, Velvet Goldmine, Time, Lady Grinning Soul, Stay, Fascination, Breaking Glass, Move On, Yassassin, Because You’re Young, Blue Jean, Absolute Beginners, Slip Away, I Would Be Your Slave, Stars Come Out Tonight, 5.15 The Angels Have Gone, Seven Years in Tibet, Loving the Alien, Buddha of Suburbia and Blackstar.

49. Please Mr Gravedigger

I felt I should have something from Bowie’s early years, and chose this over sweet tunes like Love You Till Tuesday or the nearly great The London Boys because it’s a good example of Bowie’s storytelling – and his very dark streak. It starts off as a simple character study of a gravedigger: “He seems to spend all his days puffing fags and digging graves/ He hates the reverend vicar and he lives all alone.” It gets a little darker when the narrator reveals he’s seen “Mr. GD” take a locket of a girl’s hair; and darker still when the narrator reveals why the gravedigger sees him every day standing at her grave: “Mary-Ann was only 10 and full of life and oh-so gay/ And I was the wicked man who took her life away.” There’s one final dark twist I won’t spoil if you don’t know the song… Bowie was just 19 when he recorded this – and 69 when he recorded his final album.

48. Somebody Up There Likes Me

I hope so, David. I do hope so. But Somebody Up There is not in fact a religious paean, as you might think if you listened only to the chorus, rather a warning against charismatic, telegenic, autocratic leaders – “Hugging all the babies, kissing all the ladies… he’s the savage son of the TV tube.” If only US radio stations would play it before the next election. Extraordinary, soulful backing vocals from a trio that includes Luther Vandross, later a huge star in his own right.

47. Jump They Say

Bowie’s sputtering comeback after the failed experiment of Tin Machine is not one I’d play over and over, but its lyrics – “My friend don’t listen to the crowd/ They say ‘Jump’/ Gotta to believe somebody/ Got to believe” – are more affecting when you realise they are inspired by his schizophrenic half brother, who killed himself several years before.

46. Memory of a Free Festival

This song hit the news in 2013 when a fan started a campaign to save the Beckenham bandstand that inspired it. It’s some of Bowie’s best writing: essentially a poem set to music. “The Children of the summer’s end/ Gathered in the dampened grass/ We played our songs and felt the London sky/ Resting on our hands”. And the end: “And we walked back to the road… Unchained…”

45. We Are The Dead

One of the refugees on Diamond Dogs from Bowie’s failed 1984 musical project, this counterpoints garbled dystopian lyrics with some exquisitely tender verses about forbidden love. I particularly love Bowie’s breathy voice and dramatic delivery.

44. I’m Deranged

Bowie’s dreamy, siren-sinister vocals – “I’m deranged/ Deranged my love/ So cruise me cruise me cruise me baby” – sit over typically bonkers Mike Garson piano and a driving beat. The song sticks with me partly because David Lynch used it, in a tougher remix by Trent Reznor, above footage of a night-time road unfurling in the opening and closing credits of Lost Highway, Lynch’s weirdest and most baffling film – and there’s some pretty stiff competition for that title. If you’d like to read my interview with David Lynch on Lost Highway, in which I play “word association” with the director, it’s here.

43. Cat People

I remember this getting hella radio play in North America, where I lived at the time; it’s probably less well known in England. Giorgio Moroder wrote the music, Bowie the lyrics. It was originally released in a superior seven-minute version as the theme song to Paul Schrader’s 1982 horror movie of the same name, and later re-recorded, shorter, for the Let’s Dance album. It was also used over the opening credits of Atomic Blonde (really fun film, incidentally) and, thrillingly, over the arson scene of Inglourious Basterds.

42. Lazarus

Blackstar, Bowie’s last album, came out on January 8, 2016. Two days later, Bowie was dead. “Look up here, I’m in heaven/ I’ve got scars that can’t be seen” is how Lazarus begins. It ends: “Oh, I’ll be free just like that blue bird/ I’ll be free, ain’t that just like me.” I don’t know what else to say 😦

41. Fashion/ Fame/ Let’s Dance

Right, let’s get all these out of the way in one go. They’re all big and enduring hits, from successive albums (Young Americans, Scary Monsters, and Let’s Dance). They’re all brilliant in their own way. So I feel I have to include them. And I’m sure they “ought” to be higher. But tbh, after hundreds of hearings, I’ll usually skip past them if they come on. And Let’s Dance, despite the title, you can’t even dance to, despite Nile Rodgers’ best efforts, which pissed me off at the time. Despite their “classic” status, I’ve found them more and more irritating over the years. So sue me.

40. Queen Bitch

Inspired by Velvet Underground (a debt acknowledged in hand-writing on the sleeve of the album Hunky Dory), this is a precursor to glam rock, but the guitar riff also sounds thrillingly like punk – four years early. Great lyrics, too: “She’s an old-time ambassador/ of sweet-talking, night-walking games/ And she’s known in the darkest clubs/ for pushing ahead of the dames.”

39. Hallo Spaceboy

Another return to Major Tom, and to Brian Eno as producer. The album it’s from, Outside, also marked Bowie’s first real return to form since Let’s Dance. That was 12 years in the musical wilderness; 12 years treated as a figure of fun (anyone remember The Heebeegeebies parody “I think that I’m losin’ my miiiind/ I’m disappearing up my behiiiind”?), rather than a chameleonic genius. Something people gloss over, these days. But I remember vividly. I’d become Editor of Time Out, which meant I could realise a cherished dream: meeting and interviewing my teenage icon. But with a star of Bowie’s stature, it would have to be a cover. And I couldn’t in all conscience do that with the dross he’d been putting out. The experimental, baffling, often brilliant pseudo-concept album Outside was the excuse I’d been waiting for. My interview then is now enshrined in the book Bowie on Bowie, or you can read it here. Oh, and check out the Pet Shop Boys remix of Hallo Spaceboy. It’s a banger.

38. Soul Love

My favourite lyric is actually a misheard: “the bleeding hours of morning” brilliantly captures the raw sensitivity of staying up all night till the small hours, mixed with the look of the dawn sky. Years later, I looked up the lyrics and found it was the more prosaic “fleeting hours”, not “bleeding”. I told Bowie this, when I interviewed him. He laughed, agreed that would have been better, and said he’s always delighted when people read things into his songs that he didn’t intend.

37. Sweet Thing/Candidate/Sweet Thing

Absolutely not a clue what most of this apocalyptic love song is on about, mostly, but it features some of Bowie’s campest, most over-the-top vocal pyrotechnics, some wonderful imagery, and a skirling saxophone (played by Bowie himself) following the closing lines that always send a chill up my spine: “I guess we could cruise down one more time/ With you by my side, it should be fine/ We’ll buy some drugs and watch a band/ Then jump in the river holding hands.”

36. Sense of Doubt

I’ve got a soft spot for an album with an all-instrumental side, like Caravan’s gorgeous The Land of Grey and Pink, or Pink Floyd’s pretentious Atom Heart Mother or (apart from some brief singing) their lovely Echoes, whose seascape Sense of Doubt calls to mind. A repetitive series of four descending piano notes set an ominous tone, washed by simulated waves and the creak of ropes, giving away to a piping keyboard as though shafts of sunlight are breaking tentatively through the clouds. Eno’s ambient influence is clear.

35. It’s No Game

My God what an opener to the Scary Monsters album. In stark contrast to China Girl, co-written with Iggy Pop three years before, which presents Asian women as submissive victims of Western Imperialism, this starts with an assertive woman barking a string of Japanese. The usual dystopian worries follow, except this time it’s clear Bowie is talking about the present day, not some imagined future, and it all ends with a discordant guitar over which Bowie screeches, as to the voices in his head, “Shut up! SHUT UP!” It’s as ballsy as Muse starting Absolution with Apocalypse Please.

34. Quicksand

Pretentious, lui? I like to burst Bowie’s bubble by calling this “The Philosophers’ Song” – after Monty Python. I’m sure I thought it was deep in my early teens, and I got a thrill whenever I came across anything connected with the lyrics, but now I just love those blissful “aaah-aaahs” and Rick Wakeman’s swirling piano.

33. TVC15

The lyrics are hilariously preposterous: they are said to have been inspired by Iggy Pop hallucinating that his girlfriend was being eaten by the television. But it’s got the most extraordinary, tipsy-sounding boogie-woogie piano, courtesy of Roy Bittan of Springsteen’s E Street Band (so, yes: the God-like genius behind the piano on Jungleland and Thunder Road), who says Bowie asked him to play like Professor Longhair.

32. Always Crashing in the Same Car

I was tempted to include Breaking Glass, also from the album Low, but in truth this is the one I’d rather actually listen to. It’s the dreamiest evocation of alienation and isolation this side of Sound and Vision, worth it for the “yeah, oh oh ooh-ooh ooh-ooh ooooooh-oh” alone, which starts anguished and ends as an accepting croon.

31. Five Years

One of the most straightforwardly short-story-like of all Bowie’s songs, this details public reaction to the news that the end of the world is nigh. Which feels rather topical now… There are some detailed character observations and some wonderful lines: I particularly like the meta-ness of “Don’t think you knew you were in this song”, and the self-awareness of “It was cold and it rained so I felt like an actor”. But jeez – “Five years, what a surprise/ Five years, my brain hurts a lot”. Couldn’t someone have asked him for a rewrite?

30. Cygnet Committee

What a glorious mess this is: an overblown, relentlessly building, near ten minutes of pseudo-psychic-revolutionary dystopian babble. The lyrics are preposterous, pretentious, Sixth Form stuff, aspiring to Depth and Poetry and Meaning but never quite delivering, but God I love it all the same, and can sing along to every word.

29. Drive In Saturday

There are some awkward rhymes and lyrics in this evocation of a future world whose jaded inhabitants have forgotten how to have sex (“We’ll try to get it on like once before/ When people stared in Jagger’s eyes and scored”), but the massive chorus more than makes up for it. And I love the line, “She’s uncertain if she likes him/ but she knows she really loves him.”

28. China Girl

Nile Rodgers takes the credit for re-arranging this song, originally co-written by Bowie with Iggy Pop for his album The Idiot, into a commercial hit for Let’s Dance. It’s one of Bowie’s most assured vocal performances, and has some of the most coherent lyrics. The chorus is a straight love song to a man-pleasing Asian girlfriend, while the verses are a warning: “My little China girl/ You shouldn’t mess with me/ I’ll ruin everything you are/ You know it/ I’ll give you television/ I’ll give you eyes of blue/ I’ll give you a man/ who wants to rule the world.”

27. Modern Love

Bowie keeps reinventing himself. Even when dead. This time it’s as a meme that’s been circulating for the self-isolation, social-distancing age, that references Modern Love’s opening: “Bowie knows when to go out, and when to stay in. Be more like Bowie.” Gorgeous harmonies, great saxophone (not by Bowie himself this time). Side-note: I modelled my hair (and trousers) on Bowie’s at the time.

26. Jean Genie

With a blues-inspired riff nicked wholesale by labelmate Sweet on Blockbuster (though all concerned swear it was a coincidence), Jean Genie is a seemingly effortless, throwaway pop classic – the sort that would be a one-hit wonder in anyone else’s hands.

25. Slow Burn

I adore the album Heathen (his 24th studio album including Tin Machine!), and this is perhaps its most commercial song. It benefits from a virtuoso guitar part by The Who’s Pete Townshend, and lyrically returns to Bowie’s comfort zone of unspecified dystopia: “Oh, these are the days/ these are the strangest of all/ These are the nights/ these are the darkest to fall.” His voice on this album is stronger than ever: controlled, abandoning the pretentious pyrotechnics of yore, and justly nominated here for a Grammy for Best Rock Male Vocal Performance.

24. Boys Keep Swinging

A proudly silly song, all strut and swagger and mocking faux-machismo, but I love it, from the opening drum beat to the wandering bassline to a guitar solo by Adrian Belew so crazed it can still make me burst out laughing. I also love the story that, to get the garage band feel they wanted, they adopted a suggestion to swap roles from Eno’s deck of Oblique Strategies cards: guitarist Carlos Alamar played drums, and drummer Dennis Davis played bass.

23. Ashes to Ashes

Uniting ‘80s synth and a New Romantic look in the video with a crisp funk bass and off-beat percussion, the bits of the nonsense lyrics that are comprehensible (Bowie has described it as a “nursery rhyme”) are a dreamy revisit of Space Oddity’s Major Tom. Less “important” than it seemed at the time, it’s still accessibly strange and ethereally beautiful.

22. Where Are We Now?

Just when you thought Bowie had retired into a life of domestic bliss in New York, he comes back, aged 66, with his first album in ten years – crashing the internet by releasing it without any advance warning. This was the plangent, meditative, quietly beautiful single, and with hindsight it sounds like a man who’s heard he’s terminally ill – and is okay with that. The closing lines break my heart: “As long as there’s sun/ as long as there’s sun/ As long as there’s rain/ As long as there’s rain/ As long as there’s fire/ as long as there’s fire/ As long as there’s me/ As long as there’s you.”

21. Everyone Says Hi

A welcome return, on his 2002 album Heathen, to the days when Bowie was a fine short story writer, and not jumbling his lyrics with a computer programme inspired by Burroughs’ cut-up technique. This is incredibly British, with a world of repressed emotion beneath an apparently simple postcard to a friend who has gone abroad. You can see it in “Shoulda took a picture/ Something I could keep” being immediately undercut, as though realising he has been too bold, with “Buy a little frame/ Something cheap”. And, conversely, the platitude of “Hope the weather’s good/ And not too hot” is tenderly bookended by the single line, “for you”. He finally reveals himself in the doo-wop bridge, “If the money is lousy/ You can always come home/ We can do all the old things/ We can do all the bad things… We could do it, we could do it we could do it”, before retreating back into the polite, platitudinous chorus of “Everyone says hi”. <Sigh.> Only Springsteen and Dylan can match Bowie as a storyteller in song.

20. The Man Who Sold The World

Long before Kurt Cobain covered this song, helping to rescue Bowie from the remainder bin of uncool has-beens in which he was then languishing, I was obsessed by it. “We passed upon the stair, we spoke of was and when/ Although I was not there, he said I was his friend.” WTF? All with Mick Ronson’s hypnotically repetitive riff allowing the bass, unusually, to carry the tune.

19. Look Back In Anger

“‘You know who I am,’ he said/ The speaker was an angel/ He coughed and shook his crumpled wings/ Closed his eyes and moved his lips/ ‘It’s time we should be going’.” That opening line alone justifies the song’s inclusion, let alone the furious chorus and the driving percussion. I bought Lodger when it first came out, and was so baffled by the album that I assumed it was a joke, an unlistenable experiment/contractual obligation like Lou Reed’s recent Metal Machine Music. I took it back to the record shop (which was still a thing, back in the day), and swapped it for Diamond Dogs. Now that’s music, I thought. I say this because it’s hard for younger listeners to realise just how alien and experimental so many of Bowie’s albums were at the time, even to ardent fans – especially after they have influenced subsequent generations of bands and passed into the musical lexicon.

18. Oh You Pretty Things

Youth is wasted on the young, they say. I once conceived of a thriller set in two time periods – teens and middle age. I thought then, I have no idea what middle aged people are like – I’ll shelve it till I’m older. Now I have no idea how I felt back then. Bowie wrote with wry detachment about being young while he yet was, here counterpointing the deliriously beautiful chorus about pretty things driving their mamas and papas insane with the deep thoughts that are actually going through their supposedly pretty little heads.

17. Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide

What an extraordinary opening: “Time takes a cigarette/ Puts it in your mouth.” We’re all in front of the firing squad, we just don’t know when the trigger will get pulled. This is probably a song best listened to in your troubled teens, but it stands in good company with the anti-suicide ballads of REM (Everybody Hurts) and ELO (Living Thing) – and in contrast to Blue Oyster Cult (Don’t Fear the Reaper) and The Only Ones (“Why don’t you kill yourself, you ain’t no good to no one else”). But I digress. Bowie just about teeters on the cliff-edge of ridiculousness without toppling over in the “Give me your hands” finale (not helped by the bathetic backing vocals), and that final violin note that ends the whole Ziggy Stardust album is a tribute, I like to think, to the resounding piano chord that closes The Beatles’ Sgt Pepper’s.

16. Teenage Wildlife

Absurd, camp, overblown, over-dramatic, and utterly glorious. An anthem to all the young dudes who are cut down in their prime, it has moments of real poetry amid the bombast: “You fall to the ground/ Like a leaf from a tree/ And look up one time/ at that vast blue sky/ Scream out aloud as they shoot you down/ ‘No… I’m not a piece of teenage wildlife” still has the power to affect me, with that swirling, keening guitar. Though I could never get my kids to understand why “As ugly as a teenage millionaire/ pretending it’s a whizz-kid world” was a great metaphor. “Why would that be ugly?” they asked, dollar-signs lighting up their eyes. Somehow my friend Frank Wynne and I always end up singing it at two in the morning.

15. The Bewlay Brothers

This is supposedly about Bowie’s mad brother, but really it sounds like the gayest of his songs bar John I’m Only Dancing and Queen Bitch: “I was stone and he was wax so he could scream and still relax – unbelievable. And we frightened the small children away.” “The dress is hung, the ticket pawned, the Factor Max that proved the facts is melted down.” Not to mention “the crutch-hungry dark”. It’s mysterious, tragic and haunting: “Sighing they swirl through the streets like the crust of the sun, the Bewlay Brothers.” Another favourite late-night singalonga with my friend Frank.

14. ‘Tis a Pity She Was a Whore

If Bowie proved anything over a career spanning six decades, it’s that he always has another surprise up his sleeve. But how the hell could a 69-year-old come up with this? Long-time producer Tony Visconti says they were listening to a lot of Kendrick Lamar, which perhaps accounts for the hip-hop beat; Bowie had long experimented with jazz, hence the chant of the ever-circling skeletal sax; and it’s a fantastic, expectation-defying melody. Every time you think Bowie will soar up, as he so often does, he goes down instead. As to the lyrics, the title obviously comes from the Jacobean tragedy; the second line, “‘Hold your mad hands,’ I cried”, from a 1797 sonnet by Robert Southey; and Bowie has said the song was inspired by the destruction of the Vorticist movement by World War I. Hmm, if you say so, David. I just like “Man, she punched me like a dude.”

13. All The Young Dudes

Sorry, David: Mott the Hoople’s version of your song is way better than when you recorded it yourself. So it’s that one which makes this list. The way John Travolta walks down the street at the beginning of Saturday Night Fever – that’s how Ian Hunter sings this. You can hear the swagger. I particularly love the later remix with added Bowie where, as on Lou Reed’s Satellite of Love, he proves that even as backing singer he can lift a chorus to the heavens.

12. Ziggy Stardust

It was Alexis Petridis’s wilfully perverse omission of this song from his Guardian Top 50 that inspired me to compile my own. I get that it’s “nothing more” than a great classic rock song. It doesn’t innovate musically. But I love every note, down to the loud exhale after the thundering drums of the intro. And it’s a key part of the Bowie mythos: the first time he’d invented a character to “be” (followed by Aladdin Sane, Thin White Duke etc), and one that proved strangely prophetic. “Making love with his ego/ Ziggy sucked up into his mind” is pretty much what happened to Bowie in his coke years. “When the kids had killed the man/ I had to break up the band” is just what Bowie did (minus the killing) to the Spiders on stage at the Hammersmith Odeon, much to the surprise and dismay of the drummer and bassist, who had not been informed in advance. Extra points for inspiring the Rosette of Sirius on the forehead of The Mighty Tharg, editor of the sci-fi comic 2000AD.

11. Golden Years

What a beautiful, languid, honey-voiced dreamboat of a song, from the finger-snap, doo-wop opening through the soaring “Nothing’s gonna touch you” to the casually whistled outro – with it Bowie became only the second white guy (after Elton John) to appear on Soul Train. Superficially it’s one of his happiest, most optimistic love songs: “Look at that sky, life’s begun/ Nights are warm and the days are young”… “I’ll stick with you baby for a thousand years/ nothing’s gonna touch you in these Golden Years.” But you soon realise he’s pleading, not stating, and that the object of the song is a depressed, past-it diva: “There’s my baby lost that’s all/ Once I’m begging you save her little soul”… “Don’t cry my sweet don’t break my heart/ Doing all right you gotta get smart”… “Some of these days and it won’t be long/ Gonna drive back down/ Where you once belonged/ In the back of a dream car/ Twenty foot long.”

10. Lady Stardust

I so love this song. It’s partly because I read, way back, that it was about Marc Bolan, whom I had a crush on. But also, just everything. The held note on “stare”, the soaring “ooh” in “ooh how I sighed”, the piquancy of “I smiled sadly at a love I could not obey”, the depths hinted at in “Lady Stardust sang his songs of darkness and dismay” (quite at odds with Marc Bolan’s lyrics, that description, but never mind), the top piano note following “he was alright”. Perfection.

9. Starman

I’m amazed by the number of people I speak to who don’t know what this song is really about. So let me spell it out for you. The imminent descent of beneficent aliens is a cosmic chat-up line, an excuse for a young (I hope!) boy to get his end away with a credulous young girl. He tries to convince her that “He told me let the children use it [ie their dick], let the children lose it [ie their virginity], let all the children boogie [‘boogie’, or ‘rock’, is always a synonym in songs for ‘have sex’].” Still not convinced? Try “If we can sparkle he may land tonight/ Don’t tell your papa or he’ll get us locked up in fright.” So there you have it: the most original chat-up line ever committed to music. Have sex with me now, little virgin, or the nice alien man won’t visit. Oh, and the soaring chorus was, famously, nicked from Somewhere Over The Rainbow.

8. Changes

Oh my god, what a delirious chorus, underpinned by that gloriously descending bassline. It never gets old, no matter how many thousands of times I’ve heard it. Some of the lyrics are trite – Bowie was never a good editor of his own stuff – but THIS: “So I turned myself to face me/ But I’ve never caught a glimpse/ How the others must see the faker/ I’m much too fast to take that test.” Later, when David Live came out, I enjoyed the change of lyric from “these children that you spit on” to “these children that you shit on”.

7. Station to Station

This song! This long, long, crazy song! There are fully three minutes of guitars and keyboards somehow coalescing into train noises before Bowie even starts singing. And when he does, what the hell is he on about? Mystical Kabbalah stuff, he’s said in interview. Whatevs, it sounds amazing – that repetitive, slow-building beat, his purring vocals, then suddenly leaping ecstatically into “mountains on mountains and sun birds to soar with”… to hear that for the first time, discovering it in a rented house in Aix-en-Provence not long after release, was one of the most joyful and mind-blowing moments of my life. “It’s not the side effects of the cocaine,” he sings, self-referentially. Oh, but it is, David. It most certainly is.

6. Life on Mars

I admit it. This is finally getting old for me – a few years ago I might have placed it higher. I blame the radio stations who seem to have chosen this as the only Bowie song they will play. But it’s extraordinary, of course. Rick Wakeman’s “marzipan piano”, as Charles Shaar Murray memorably called it… that sudden octave jump in the chorus… and the near-nonsense lyrics of all the crazy stuff going on on the silver screen while the poor girl tries to escape her dead-end life and parents who don’t understand, but can’t – because she’s “lived it ten times or more”… then going all meta when Bowie changes the lyric at the end to “I wrote it ten times or more”. See, it’s not just because of the “take a look at the lawman beating up the wrong guy” lyric that the TV series chose it as a title.

5. Sound and Vision

I love that Alexis Petridis put this short, perfect song at No 1. As he says, “musically it transcends time: completely original, nothing about it tethers its sound to the mid-’70s”. It’s also, as I recently had to explain to a friend, one of the most beautiful songs ever written about depression – a state the song’s protagonist has slipped into acceptingly, almost gratefully, like a warm bath. “Blue blue, electric blue/ That’s the colour of my room/ Where I will live”… “Drifting into my solitude/ Over my head”. Major Tom recurs in several Bowie songs, and here it’s in spirit: the mind-set in Sound and Vision is the same as when Major Tom is “floating in my tin can”.

4. Diamond Dogs

What. The. F. Is this song. It makes more sense when you go to the V&A exhibit, and see the lavish musical Bowie conceived this as a part of. But my God! For a sci-fi obsessed teen, to hear this absurd, overblown post-apocalyptic romp was purest heaven. “Just another future song”, he sings at one point, in a typical meta self-reference. Perhaps, but it’s one of the rockin’est.

3. Space Oddity

In one of the great examples of the squares not listening to the lyrics (see also Reagan adopting Springsteen’s Born in the USA as a “rousing” campaign song), NASA made this its theme tune. It’s so well worn that it’s hard to listen to it fresh, but try: there’s the counterpoint between the urgency of Ground Control in the verse and Major Tom’s dreamy acceptance of his imminent death in the chorus; the pathetic fallacy in “Planet Earth is blue and there’s nothing I can do”; the dig at the tabloids in “the papers want to know what shirts you wear”. The stripped-down, orchestra-less version, which I still have somewhere as a B-side, is well worth checking out.

2. Young Americans

Lyrically one of Bowie’s most coherent and mordant songs. You’ve heard it a million times, but how often do you actually listen? Just the opening lines: “They pulled in just behind the bridge/ he lays her down, he frowns/ “Gee my life’s a funny thing/ am I still too young?”/ He kissed her then and there/ She took his ring, took his babies/ It took him minutes, took her nowhere/ Heaven knows, she’d have taken anything.” It’s all that good. And with backing vocals on the chorus to swoon to. When it came up, uncut, over photos of the Great Depression in the closing credits of Lars Von Trier’s remarkable, brilliant, exhausting Dogville, I could have died of happiness.

1. Heroes

It’s hard enough to whittle Bowie’s songs down to 50 (what other artist could you say that of, except perhaps The Beatles?), let alone pick the very best. But this crowd-pleaser stands the test of time. Where Bowie mostly does intimate songs that whisper stories in your ear, or sonic experiments that assault it, this is an unashamed, fist-in-the-air stadium anthem. The fact that it was inspired by seeing two people kissing under the Berlin Wall gives it an enduring resonance. But though the Wall has since been torn down, making the song sound prophetically optimistic, it is the reverse. The ironic quote marks around “Heroes”, the naked anguish with which he sings “Nothing could drive them away”, and the codicil that they could be heroes “just for one day”, show that the singer knows their love, and their defiance, and indeed life itself, are fragile, fleeting things. Unlike this song, which, 43 years later, still has the power to drag the odd fat tear from my eye on long drives.

Calling Aaron Sorkin’s bluff: Molly’s Game review

13 Jan
MOLLY'S GAME

Jessica Chastain as Molly Bloom and Idris Elba as her lawyer in Aaron Sorkin’s Molly’s Game. This courtroom scene, with its extended seat-switching gag, is cute on the page, but leaden and ludicrous on-screen, requiring a screwball comedy both performers lack.

Poker does not translate well to the big screen. The drama is mostly internal. Watch a YouTube video of any key hand, and it will last several minutes. For most of that time, one player remains deep in thought: “He bet this, but on the last street he bet that, which means he could have this, but then this player often bets like so, and also he probably believes I have this whereas in fact I have that, and therefore…”

Fellow poker players find this internal drama gripping, because they will be going through the same thought process as they watch. Non-players, ie the majority of the film-going public, just see someone sitting on a chair frowning.

Major movies with poker scenes usually solve this problem by going over the top with preposterous hands and stakes. The classic example is Casino Royale, in which James Bond wins a $115m pot with a straight flush vs Aces full vs eights full vs a flush. Only Rounders remains true to the thought processes and rituals of the game, by means of extensive voice-over to get us into the heads of the players.

Molly’s Game, the directorial debut of peerless screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, ducks the problem entirely. The few poker sequences are filmed in the now hackneyed slow/fast motion style that directors reach for when they want to jazz up a scene and make it look “cool”. As to the rituals of poker that make it so compelling to its acolytes – the secret language of trips, boats, nuts and check-raises, the banter and the unwritten codes of table etiquette – those, too, are sidelined. It’s a particular shame here, as Molly’s Game took place in a world of high-stakes home games open only to the privileged few: we would have liked to peer behind the curtain.

Instead, Aaron Sorkin makes it a character study of Molly herself: a high-achiever with a hard-driving father whose Olympic skiing ambitions were crushed early by injury, and who found herself, almost by accident, running an illegal high-stakes poker game to Hollywood A-listers, hedge-fund millionaires and – her downfall – a smattering of mobsters.

This should be right in Sorkin’s comfort zone. From A Few Good Men through The West Wing to The Social Network, he has made a speciality of fast, intelligent dialogue spoken by fast, intelligent people. That he fails even in this is down to the central performance, or possibly Sorkin’s direction of it. As becomes painfully obvious from the opening voice-over, Jessica Chastain just can’t get her mouth around his script. She rattles it out, but doesn’t own it, like a soap star called upon to do Shakespeare.

As the lawyer who defends her, Idris Elba, too, seems at sea. There is no chemistry between the two, and his American accent is ludicrous. Only Kevin Costner as Molly’s father gives any sense of being a complex, flesh-and-blood person with an emotional hinterland, rather than an actor reciting lines.

In fairness, I should point out that many of my fellow reviewers seem to disagree, praising at least outstanding performances by two great actors at the top of their game, if not Sorkin’s direction. All I can imagine is that they have fallen into a classic poker trap of being influenced by the players’ strong past records, and believed the bluff.

First full review of The Last Jedi (spoiler-free)

12 Dec
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Daisy Ridley as Rey and Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker in Star Wars: The Last Jedi

As someone who made a pact with God in my teens to spare my life until all nine films in the proposed Star Wars canon were completed, I watched Star Wars: The Last Jedi with mixed feelings. On the one hand it’s brilliantly acted, often funny, occasionally affecting, and with a climactic scene of startling beauty and grandeur. On the other hand, if I am to be struck down by a bolt of lightning after the next one, I’m not sure it’s entirely worth it.

Let’s start with the good stuff, and I promise to keep this spoiler-free. Daisy Ridley, already good in The Force Awakens, has grown into the role of Rey: she’s not just tough, she’s really funny. It seems like she’s been given all the best lines, until you write them down and realise they’re not that witty; it’s just the way she tells ‘em.

Adam Driver, of course, is a “proper” actor with an impressive indie CV that includes the sublime Paterson, and in this second film of the third trilogy he’s given much more scope to display his range. When he and Ridley share the screen, locked in a Jedi mind battle with a frisson of sexual tension, the effect is electric.

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Kawaii! One of the loveable Porgs in Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Benicio del Toro also briefly joins the cast, and enjoyably out-hams the lot with a stutter like Hannibal Lecter sniffing a liver with fava beans and a nice Chianti. He plays an incorrigible rogue of no fixed allegiance, which goes some way to filling a Han Solo-shaped hole. Non-human additions include the Porgs, fat birds that have evolved the very sensible defence mechanism of being so kawaii that predators feel too guilty to eat them; the Fathiers, which are like extra fast and strong horses with goat-like faces; and the friendly Vulptices or crystal foxes.

There are some knowing winks to the original trilogy: Kylo Ren spinning briefly out of control in his TIE fighter, as Darth Vader once did; a rather gratuitous sequence in a casino where the score echoes the music during the alien bar scene of the very first film; and Princess Leia’s brilliantly bathetic opener to Luke Skywalker when they finally meet again after many years apart: “I know what you’re going to say,” she tells Luke: “I changed my hair.”

And though some action scenes are underwhelming – once you’ve seen one spaceship chase, you’ve seen ‘em all, and by now we’ve seen dozens; plus there’s a key lightsaber battle that is flat-out badly choreographed – there is one extended scene so breathtaking that it would not be out of place in Hero or House of Flying Daggers. It’s on a planet of salt flats that cover hidden scarlet sands, such that the boundless white plains, when trod by boot or furrowed by laser cannon, become streaked with red. These few gashes, as vivid as a Rothko, by the end merge into a vast charnel field of red, in which a single figure stands alone…

This is a pay-off that has taken 40 years to build, and it’s worth the weight.

And now the negatives. The Last Jedi is busy. Very busy. Aside from some obligatory Force mumbo jumbo between Rey and Luke on “the most unfindable place in the galaxy” (in reality Ireland’s Skellig Michael), it’s all running around without really any place to go. The Resistance forces have no clear or noble goal, beyond trying not to get blown up. They engage in numerous red herring missions of questionable logic. And there are glaring and, frankly, unforgivable inconsistencies in plot and character motivation that I would love to enumerate but won’t (because spoilers). To pick just the biggest, the hot-headed Poe (Oscar Isaac) would in any other army be court-martialled and vilified for gross insubordination with disastrous consequences – not once, but twice! – yet here he’s somehow still treated as a hero. No wonder the First Order are winning.

All the same, massive kudos to writer/director Rian Johnson for taking the best-loved movie franchise of all time and making not just a film that the fans can get behind, but a movie that feels like it’s his own.

 

Raiders of the Lost Art: the singular MuBild exhibition of Frith Powell

2 Nov
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“Playing Field of a Circular Argument”, by Frith Powell

I saw two art exhibitions at the weekend: the magnificent collection of 50 Cézanne portraits and self-portraits at the National Portrait Gallery, and an astonishing retrospective of the work of Oxford-based artist Frith Powell.

Cézanne was termed “the father of us all” by Matisse and Picasso, yet he was at first ridiculed by art critics and achieved recognition only later in life. Though he first submitted work to the Paris Salon in 1863, the first (and last) of his paintings was not accepted until 19 years later.

It made me wonder how many great artists are currently hiding in plain sight, unheralded by their contemporaries.

Later this weekend, I got my answer. One, at least, is living in Oxford.

Stepping into the Barn Gallery at St John’s College, one feels something akin to what those Victorian explorers hacking through the jungle must have felt when the undergrowth suddenly gave way to a lost civilisation. Frith Powell’s major exhibition, “The MuBild of Arte Normale and the Singular Apprenticeship of Fabio Penitenti”, is not just an extraordinary body of work, previously unseen. It feels like a whole new lost branch of art.

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“MuBild” translates as “nothing art”: “Mu” being Japanese for “nothing”, with “Bild” German for “art”. The term “Arte Normale” stems from a meeting in the ‘90s between the artist and Time Out’s then Art Editor, Sarah Kent, which in fact I helped engineer. Frith Powell says that Sarah looked at his paintings nonplussed, saying that this was not “normal abstraction”.

Indeed it’s not. This “nothing art” is like nothing else. It’s an attempt to make abstraction real: to give symbols and figures from Frith Powell’s id solidity and form, in an alternative language whose rules and syntax seem all clearly thought out but are tantalisingly not quite divinable to the outsider. The connection is made overt with a horned symbol that recurs in many paintings, but which Frith Powell has also given physical form in white marble. The sculpture is exquisite, a thing of beauty and mystery, alternately suggesting devil’s horns, a crown, or a plucked tooth.

Frith Powell himself says that “the essential challenge for me, as an abstract painter, is in creating what could be called a ‘fiction of reality’, something that looks as though it might be real, at first sight, or is at least highly suggestive of reality, but on closer examination is seen to be unrecognisable. Other.”

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“View from the Common Road, Beckley” by Frith Powell

Though the paintings vary in style and medium, having been created over several decades, the whole is astonishingly coherent. Only one work stands out like a sore thumb: “View from the Common Road, Beckley” is a detailed landscape in pen and ink, the perspective perfectly proportioned, the trees just right. One wonders if it is included as a definitive rebuke to the uncharitable viewer who might be wondering whether Frith Powell chooses abstraction only because he lacks the technical skill for representation.

And this is just one half of the exhibition. The other is “The Singular Apprenticeship of Fabio Penitenti”, which is a collection of sculptures and objects housed in glass display cabinets. The fact that this exhibition is just five minutes’ walk from Oxford’s ethnographic Pitt Rivers Museum gives it extra piquancy. These objects are like the artefacts of some lost tribe – some functional, some religious, some sexually charged.

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“Woodland Deities”, by Frith Powell

The anime director Hayao Miyazaki would appreciate the series of “Woodland Deities” carved from funguses in the remote forests of Northern Scandinavia, or the twisted branches that have been turned into fantastical flutes, or the faces found in or struck from pebbles. Conversely, Frith Powell (or rather his craftsman alter-ego, Fabio Penitenti) has returned civilisation to nature with three acorns that, if you look closely, were carved from Champagne corks, or spiralling Christmas trees fashioned from tin lids.

Also striking (and very funny; much of the exhibition is playful and raises a smile) are a gigantic spoon carved from a massive block of wood, that has a strong whiff of Christian iconography; and the “Poet’s bird feeder hat”, with bird seed stored in its brim for anyone wanting to play St Francis of Assissi for the day.

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Part of the Singular Apprenticeship of Fabio Penitenti

In the interests of journalistic balance, I must declare an interest: I was at Oxford with Frith Powell’s wife Louise, also an artist, and have known the couple, on and off, for three decades. But I have seen only the odd piece until now. If I hadn’t been impressed, I would have written nothing. It is as a critic, not a friend, that I say this is an exceptional body of work, all the more astonishing for having been hidden from the light for so many years – Frith Powell is now 70.

Will art critics make the trek to Oxford? Are any editors still interested in unearthing fresh talent rather than chasing the clicks of the more established names? Perhaps not. But take my word for it. If you are in Oxford between now and November 16, do visit the Barn Gallery at St John’s College.

Remember that even Cézanne was once unknown.

Why Rogue One is more historical drama than sci-fi – and all the better for it

18 Dec
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Felicity Jones leads the way in Rogue One: a Star Wars Story

Director Gareth Edwards has said he wants Rogue One: a Star Wars Story to be considered a heist movie as much as science-fiction. Actually, it occurred to me it was more like a historical drama.

Of course all the events in Star Wars do play out in the past, relative to our Earth (“a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away”). But Rogue One, unlike The Force Awakens, is also set in 1977 – or rather, whatever vision of an alternative world George Lucas was able to come up with in 1977, which is always dictated by the times. Look at any sci-fi film, and despite the attempts of futurity, you can always tell exactly when it was made. Lucas’s genius was to make his world pre-distressed, so that it seemed relatively ageless  but you’re still aware of the hydraulic whirrs on the machinery, the primitive (by now) recording systems that lie at the heart of Rogue One’s plot, the minimalist colour schemes that (like in Logan’s Run and Lucas’s own THX 1138) passed for futuristic in the ‘70s.

Edwards has recreated this world meticulously, so that it slots in seamlessly with the original trilogy. But just as BBC historical dramas sometimes get straitened and stifled by their corsets, there was always a danger he would follow the template too slavishly, to give us the Star Wars formula with none of the fun.

Instead, it’s a minor triumph. Rogue One is funny, exciting, moving, brilliantly acted, with plenty of surprises, and very much Gareth Edwards’ own.

Arrival: thank God (or alien equivalent) for sci-fi with a brain

13 Nov
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Amy Adams attempts to communicate with the visitors in Arrival

Arrival is that vanishingly rare thing: a major sci-fi release with a brain. When was the last one? Probably Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar in 2014, and its brain was pretty small: the whole film seemed based, as I wrote at the time, on a Queen song, while its striking time-dilation planet scene will be familiar to any fan, as Nolan is, of the works of Alan Moore (Halo Jones Book 3 on the planet Hispus, I’m looking at you).

Directed by the awesomely talented Denis Villeneuve (Sicario) and based on a short story, it imagines what would happen, and how people would feel, if alien ships suddenly took up position over the earth. Spoiler-free hint: it’s nothing like Independence Day.

I don’t want to give away too much about the film, as ever, but I will just give you one example of why and how it works. Doctor Strange has several striking fight scenes in which gravity is spectacularly upended. They are fun. But they don’t make you think. It’s all just special effects. The moment in Arrival when the heroes realise that gravity is no longer working according to accepted laws is a hundred times more powerful. Communicated through the panicked breath of Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner, it feels real. We’re there, with them, as the enormity of the situation takes hold. There really are aliens, and they really are changing the laws of physics.

It’s that level of realism, applied to a science-fictional premise, that makes this a great film. I had thought, coming out of a preview a few months ago, that Amy Adams would be a lock for Best Actress at the Oscars. I’ve since seen La La Land, and without question that will sweep the board, including, probably, for Emma Stone. Nevertheless, Adams is terrific: Arrival rests entirely on her slender shoulders, and she Atlases it. Go see.

David Bowie’s Lazarus musical hits London: first review

7 Nov
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Michael C Hall as Thomas Newton, with (left) Amy Lennox as the woman obsessed with him and Sophia Anne Caruso (right) as his guardian angel, in David Bowie’s Lazarus musical

Does Lazarus, the new David Bowie musical which has just transferred to King’s Cross in London from a sell-out run off-Broadway, live up to the mostly positive if faintly baffled reviews it received in New York? Put it this way: I went with four other people, three of them ardent Bowie fans, one so-so. By the end, I was the only one who hadn’t walked out. And I stayed largely on the basis that, having shelled out £75 for a ticket, I was damn well going to find something to enjoy. Then again, many in the audience gave it a standing ovation, so it hits the right note for some.

The plot – or more accurately premise, since there is nothing so jejune as a plot in evidence – is that we pick up where The Man Who Fell To Earth left off: with alien entrepreneur Thomas Newton trapped in a bare hotel room in unageing anhedonia, living off gin and Twinkies, and assailed by visitations of guardian angels and serial killers. Bowie songs begin and end pretty much at random, without troubling themselves to reflect the action.

The kindest thing one can say is that they demonstrate what a great singer Bowie was, because, delivered in musical style, they mostly sound hideous. Lyrics such as “It’s on America’s tortured brow, that Mickey Mouse has grown up a cow” are belted out as though profound rather than tossed off archly as Bowie would have done. Even Heroes, which you’d think was bullet-proof, sounds naff. Changes made me feel almost physically sick.

It’s not all bad: All The Young Dudes, The Man Who Sold the World, Valentine’s Day and It’s No Game work well, and the band, visible behind a perspex screen, are solid. Director Ivo van Hove pulls off the odd coup de théâtre, especially towards the end, making spectacular use of a floor-to-ceiling video screen. Michael C Hall of Dexter fame is in good voice as Newton, though he can’t rescue the bizarrely wooden dialogue. Michael Esper makes a convincing psycho.

But to me it’s all too little, too late, to save a production that feels like it was cobbled together in very little time from a few half-formed scraps of ideas – which, having subsequently read up on the genesis of the show, seems to be pretty much what happened in the rush to put on this “play with music” while Bowie yet lived.

Others will disagree. It’s a polarising, love-it-or-hate-it production. And in that, if nothing else, it’s a fitting testimonial to Bowie’s restlessly inventive and mercurial artistry.