May. 30th, 2012

[identity profile]

Big Brother
Artist: David Bowie
Album: Diamond Dogs
Year: 1974
: Alright. Shut up. Because I tried, honestly -- I went through my dad's old LPs; year-searched iTunes a dozen times; racked my brains for a week.
But let's be serious: there is no 1970s for me without David Bowie (and, truthfully, there would probably be no obsessive love of music -- and thus no [ profile] 5pm_weds -- for me without David Bowie. Fuck, there'd probably be no me without David Bowie. I'm barely giving him his due by posting him for the..cough..fourth time).

Once I accepted that, it came down to selecting a song.
[slash perhaps the most initially difficult/eventually simplest task of my song-selecting life.]

Bowie was most universally acclaimed in the 1970s; from this decade, you get all those hits you'll hear on classic rock radio every now and then: "Ziggy Stardust" and "Rebel Rebel" and "Changes" and ""Heroes"" and so on. Bowie knows how to write a lasting radio hit, no question -- but, and it's not just my bias talking, he also writes a beautiful album. In the 70s, he was prolific, coming out with essentially an album a year -- and they were good. Each has its own flavour and its own individual gems, and it is ABSOLUTELY IMPOSSIBLE to pick a single song from his 70s career. So cue Jill tearing out her hair, trying to find a song that encapsulates "70s Bowie" and/or "the 70s generally" and/or something emotionally powerful ---- every song is all of those things. shdjksgk.

And then, this morning, I was skimming the tracklist for Diamond Dogs -- which is in my top 3 Bowie records. It is a brilliant, though aborted, attempt to set George Orwell's 1984 to music, and the literary influence runs through every song. Though I can't claim to know 1984 as well as I know Animal Farm, it's a book -- and a genre, i.e. dystopian future fiction -- that affects me deeply. And people play with the concept, Radiohead had "2 + 2 = 5", but Bowie went full-stop fucking CONCEPT ALBUM with it. Winding into the emotional intricacies of the characters, the unsettling atmosphere of the setting, both musically and lyrically, Bowie creates a broken, dusty, yet eminently futuristic mood that carries throughout this beautiful, beautiful album. And it is, ultimately, so 70s: the decade before the year 1984, when the message that Orwell was trying to convey was most pertinent.

Initially, I thought I'd post another unknown (the gorgeous "Candidate," part of a song triptych -- as is the case with many concept albums, the songs on Diamond Dogs bleed into each other). I was preparing my post, mentally, when my eye caught on track 10 -- "Big Brother" -- and I tilted my head, slightly confused...then BAM. It was like I'd been hit by a train. "OH YEAH," I clapped my hand over my mouth. "How did I forget this song?!"

I have no idea.
This is one of my absolute, all-time favourite Bowie songs, and for about three years I've completely forgotten it existed.

Listening to it again this morning, I was overcome with a sense of the sublime. "Big Brother" is everything I love about Bowie: perfect melody and instrumentation; his gorgeous voice shouting and warbling and still so pure, somehow vocally dancing through the poetry that passes for lyrics.
"Oh give me steel, give me steel / Give me pulsars unreal
He'll build a glass asylum / with just a hint of mayhem
He'll build a better whirlpool
We'll be living from sin, then we can really begin.

There are so many stories I have associated with this song and this album, but that first-listen-in-three-years made me so aware of what really strikes me about Bowie -- I love him. Period. He stands alone. I can leave him for ages but, like no other media in my life (except Leonard Cohen), I will come back to him, and he will be as intense and incredible and influential as he was when I was 11, when I was 13, when I was 16, when I was 21.

"Big Brother" continues into the last track on the album -- "Chant of the Ever Circling Skeletal Family." This means that the last "brother" of the song is never sung -- or at least, not within the confines the form dictates. I thought about stitching the two together or posting both, but the fact that this song doesn't actually end -- set aside that it creates that fantastic feeling of being unsettled, incomplete -- says everything I want to say.
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Hanging On the Telephone
Parallel Lines

I found this an even bigger theme to grapple with than our foray into the music of the eighties.  The seventies were a pretty fruitful decade, with music going in so many different directions.  I found that I had the opportunity to pick from dozens and dozens of potential songs and artists, but in the end, decided to go with Blondie.

Blondie appealed to me during my bands-fronted-by-female-singers phase.  In high school I loved bands like Garbage, Letters to Cleo, The Cardigans and No Doubt.  I loved the music they made, but also the idea of this front-and-center female performer leading the pack.  My Dad had Parallel Lines on vinyl.  I plucked it from his record collection after he had moved out, when I had the record player set up in my hanging-out room in the basement. Around that time I was obsessed with the movie Almost Famous, I wanted to live music like that, to write about it, to write for Rolling Stone in the 1970s.  I liked to hold on to this kind of romanticized idea of the way music was made at that time...the freedom of it...collaboration...nurtured opportunities for creativity...the sex, drugs, rock 'n roll aspect.

I really like this album cover and the way it has become iconic.  I saw it the other day propped up in a milk crate at a garage sale on Sherbrooke and it was reassuring, somehow.  I love the contrast of black and white, the loopy 'B' of Blondie, Debbie Harry's facial expression, her two-toned hair, her don't-mess-with-me stance, the way she is standing in the foreground, the grins on the faces of the other band members. 

I chose "Hanging On the Telephone" over "One Way or Another" or "Heart of Glass" because it is the song I immediately associate with this album.  "Hanging On the Telephone" is the album's opening track and a perfect introduction to the rest of the album.  A blend of power pop, new wave, floaty disco and punk.  (Aside: I just learned that "Hanging On the Telephone" was originally composed and performed by a group called The Nerves.  Their version is also enjoyable...but less aggressive, more surf-beach-pop).  I love the frenetic pace of Blondie's version.  It sounds like anxiety.  Like a jiggling knee or a pencil tapping on a desk.  There's this crazed desperation that comes out of both the lyrics and the music itself.  I think Debbie Harry's voice is interesting, especially in this ranges from sweet to tough; I can almost imagine her singing the words with a pout or a snarl.  I love when a throaty growl inches in, "Ohhhh, I can't control myself".  This song combined with the image on the album cover made Debbie Harry this awesomely confident woman in my mind's eye.  I'm glad I found this album when I did.  It appeared at just the right moment to have an impact.


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