Seven (Omikron: The Nomad Soul version).
Seven (Marius De Vries mix).
Seven (Beck Mix 1).
Seven (Beck Mix 2).
Seven (VH1 Storytellers, 1999).
Seven (Musique Plus, 1999).
Seven (Nulle Part Ailleurs, 1999).
Seven (TVE, 1999).
Seven (live, 1999).
Seven (Bowie at the Beeb, 2000).
I’d be so unhappy if I’d got myself into a…rut, as my mother used to say. My dear old mum. (Loudly) “You’re in a bit of rut, aren’t you?” She said it about herself. “I’m in a rut.” I think I probably thought then, “I’m never gonna be in a rut if that’s how you turn out.”
“Seven” also mentions both your parents and your brother…
They’re not necessarily my mother, father and brother; it was the nuclear unit thing. Obviously I am totally aware of how people read things into stuff like this. I’m quite sure that some silly cow will come along and say, (adopts silly cow voice) “Oh, that’s about Terry, his brother, and he was very disappointed about this girl back in 1969, whenever he got over her…” That sort of thing comes with the territory, and because I have been an elliptical writer, I think people have—quite rightly–gotten used to interpreting the lyrics in their own way. I am only the person the greatest number of people believe that I am.
Bowie, interview with David Quantick, Q, October 1999.
Silly cow voice: “I forgot what my father said…” he begins, then quickly has to remind himself he’s still forgotten it. “I forgot what my mother said, as we lay on your bed.” The same goes for his brother. Of course, it’s presumptuous and dully literal to argue that Bowie has to be referring to Haywood and Peggy Jones (the latter causing grief as far back as “Can’t Help Thinking About Me“) and Terry Burns here. Of course, he is, in a way. He knows, if you’re a deep fan or a lazy journalist, that the words may call up long-gone Haywood and Terry (well, your ideas of them, of these people whom you’ll never know). So he plays with it: the family as a set of blank faces; the song an orphan’s.
Peggy Jones would die in 2001; Haywood and Terry had been dead for years, or decades. Losing your parents is the last act of becoming an adult: it’s as though you look up one day to find there’s no roof on your house. The gods forgot they made me/so I forgot them, too. It’s one of Bowie’s most Gnostic lines. God’s forgotten that He made our world; the archon ruling in His place has forgotten that he isn’t God; people on the sad earth have forgotten to believe in any of them. The latter line’s tense is key. Bowie forgot them a while ago: is he regretting it now?
Memory, they say, is fate’s shorthand. I do recall at some time in the Seventies the revolutionary Abbie Hoffman saying to me over a drink: “Tomorrow isn’t promised.”
Bowie, introducing “Seven” on VH1 Storytellers, 1999.
There’s a disenchantment in “Seven”; something about it feels half-finished. There’s arguably no final version of the song: its “demo” can sound more ornate than the album mix in places (the demo has Reeves Gabrels’ slide guitar hook in the intro, while acoustic guitars and organ are pushed up), as does the Omikron mix, with its thunking bassline. A Marius De Vries mix, pushed up in key, was the lead track on the single.
The singer has seven days left, so he plays in churches (graves of the gods), wanders through empty cities trying to remember what his parents sounded like. It’s a world as a set of monuments, honoring forgotten ghosts. His movements resound in the verses’ simple C major progression: he starts alone on C (“I forgot what my“), strikes out to G (“father said”), spends a wistful moment in A minor (“I forgot what he..”), uses an F major chord as a means to avoid going back home (“..said..“). And then he goes back home, alone, to start over again.
“Seven” also answers “Five Years,” which Bowie had written when he was 24, back when he seemed to welcome the apocalypse. “That’s all we’ve got!” he’d choked out, weeping in the vocal booth. But catastrophes can lose their charm with age. Life can seem a run of disappointed apocalypses. So the song he wrote on acoustic guitar in Bermuda at the close of 1998 was what he called, in its debut live performance, “a song of nowness.”
“Seven days to live, seven ways to die,” he told Quantick. “I’d actually reduce that further to twenty-four hours to live. I’m very happy to deal and only deal with the existing twenty-four hours I’m going through. I’m not inclined to even think too heavily about the end of the week or the week I’ve just come through. The present is really the place to be.” Five years would’ve been nice, but seven days are enough. (Given the references to gods, these might be the seven “days” of biblical creation, each of which could’ve been eons. So Bowie may have some time to kill.)
As if to frustrate his “nowness” intentions, he used as a central image “seven,” with its millennia of signifiers—the deadly sins and holy virtues, the seals and veils and hells and penitential psalms, the days (and ‘hours…‘) of the week. He once called “Seven” a “hippy dippy” thing, too: a song for Hoffman, who hadn’t made it out of the Eighties (in one mix, Bowie sang lines from “Sorrow” in the outro). A subtle bit of wordplay—the city “full of flowers” has a bridge full of “viole(n)t people“—offers that the hippies have let down the side as well; they turned out to be just another lost cause.
David Bowie: see you in the new year!
David Bowie: happy hols from all of us to all of you…
David Bowie: from over here to over there… happy trails, sweat dreams, good luck, you’ve got a lucky face… the drinks are on me…
David Bowie: …do you know where your children are?
David Bowie: do you know who your parents are?
David Bowie: Good night from David, and the man with rusty hair
Bowie’s last public words of the 20th Century, BowieNet, 23 December 1999.
He was supposed to end the millennium on stage in Vienna with Brian Eno, performing some massive conclusion to the Outside project. That idea shuffled off. Undeterred, he decided he’d go to the Antipodes. He was slated to headline the Gisborne 2000 “First Light” Festival, to be held in the most easterly city on the globe to greet the new millennium, along with a reunited Split Enz and Dame Kiri Te Kanawa. He said he would write a new song to welcome the new era. The promoters grossly overpriced the show: in August 1999, with only 1,000 of a proposed 35,000 seats sold, Bowie pulled out.
So after chatting with fans on BowieNet the night before Christmas Eve 1999, he saw off the century in private. Maybe just watching TV like the rest of us, to see if the lights would go out in Gisborne City or Sydney or Hong Kong once 2000 began to sweep westward. But it was just another year. No Bowie millennial song, either, which is as just well, as he’d already written one. Quiet and lovely, ash-emptied out, “Seven” was as good a way as any to close a chapter. A goodbye to the already-forgotten, it rang with the sound of Gabrels’ slide guitar, sustaining notes just long enough that it seemed as if they could break, then bending them anew.
Recorded ca. April-May 1999, Seaview Studio, Bermuda; overdubs at Chung King Studio and/or Looking Glass Studio, NYC. Released on ‘Hours’ and as the album’s third single, 17 July 2000 (Virgin 7243 8 96928 2 2, UK #32), a disc that led off with the DeVries Mix and included the demo, the album version, a live version from the Kit Kat Club, NYC, on 19 November 1999 (another live recording is on the “Survive” single) and Beck Mix #1. All but the live version were included (along with Beck Mix #2) on the 2004 ‘hours’ reissue.
Top: Aaron Miller, still from “December 31, 1999-January 1, 2000.” (“We got power! The lights are on!”)
So what was that millennium song he had written ?
Nice dissertation by the way.
Best song on the album, in my opinion, realized quite nicely on the Beeb version. In fact, it’s the only song from Hours that is found on any playlist of mine.
So what has the new Millennium brought us? Religious fanaticism and repeated terror attacks, rising oceans and soaring temperatures, an overpopulated and under-resourced world. Still, don’t despair people, the latest i-phone is on its’ way.
The lesson I should learn, when everyone ignores me like this, is to stick to the topic at hand. Although, with Chris suggesting that this was a song for the new millennium I don’t think I wandered too far off the point.
As for Seven, for me it’s a song that’s equal parts affecting and frustrating. Even if we take Bowie at his word that the song isn’t necessarily about his own family, the scenario that he paints in the opening verse is unsatisfying in that he teases us with the promise to confide with us something about A family, and ends up really telling us nothing. By the next line he’s already skipped ahead to something about a city full of flowers and a city full of rain, which isn’t very enlightening.
Similarly, I find lines like “still my trembling heart” and “lighting the darkness of my soul” from Thursday’s Child, both cloying and clichéd, with Bowie perhaps on autopilot lyrically.
On the other hand, the lines about forgetting the Gods who have forgotten about us, and playing among their graves is quite touching and fairly consistent with Bowie’s mostly ambivalent attitude towards the creator in his songbook.
So sorry Spider – I really thought your Millennium rant was rhetorical, so no reply needed. You did make me laugh tho’.
I’ve finally succumbed to a smart phone, although my naked selfies keep getting returned – by my missus! A quarter of a century on, she’s still playing hard to get, lol.
I’m joking of course, I was only topless. I’m not a slut.
Still got the flip phone, and an iPod “classic!” Hopefully this protects me from all that religious fanaticism, terror attacks, rising oceans, etc.
just because we only felt religious fanaticism after the year 2000 it doesn’t mean it never existed before.
So men are still at war in Ireland
For certain songs and certain dates
The tender gave way to the firebrand
And Europe gave way to the States…
Never meant to suggest otherwise Ramzi. I’m sure that ever since Gronk the caveman invented the fire God, and clubbed the guy in cave 7 to death for worshipping the rain God, man has been using religion to treat everyone else crappily. Me, I’d love to live in an enlightened world with no religion whatsoever, hey I can dream can’t I??
Can I be in your dream too?
Why certainly twinkle. I might have said, “When I live my dream I’ll take you with me, riding on a golden horse”, except that sounds too suss.
Bliney. That single mix is very chirpy for the lyrics. I always thought of Seven as a distant relative of Conversation Piece, wallowing in failings (in a beautiful, fragile way); the single mix tries its best but the song does not want to go to the party. Beck’s deconstructions are much more fun, graft bits, delete bits, make it a cyborg. Thanks.
Nice write-up. A bittersweet finale to a bittersweet era.
Of the poppier songs on Hours, this is the one I really tried to love. Musically, I can hear its relation to Quicksand and Tired of My Life. After years of production gimmicks, it was nice to finally hear a simple folkie tune. The song really woos with its clean sound, its sweet melancholy melody.
But…the love never comes. Truth be told, the acoustic guitar is just as close to What’s Up by 4 Non Blondes as is it to Quicksand, and I find most of its lyrics to be forced and simplistic.
The one exception is the “gods” lyric. I like that one, though I think of it as opportunistic rather than Gnostic. He doesn’t seem to be saying that the gods are false or corrupt like a Demiurge; instead the gods don’t satisfy. The line has a wry defiance to it, like Quicksand’s snark on “the great salvation of bullshit faith,” except that it also indicates a neediness on the part of the narrator. In that sense, the line is a perfect precursor to his later chorus of: “I demand a better future, or I might just stop loving you.”
A nice moment, but the rest of the lyrics fail to resonate with me. Bowie’s best work isn’t overly faithful to rhyme schemes. There may have been a seed of early 70’s songwriting in here, but its growth was stifled by the limited confines.
It was around the time of Hours that Glen Ballard was making his mark streamlining rock into friendly radio ballads, and Seven sounds exactly what I would imagine a Ballard makeover of Bowie would be like. Tasteful, yet bland.
The single remix release of Seven was the last time Bowie made the pop radio station playlists in Ireland (until WAWN). It actually got quite heavy airplay.
radios played it here in the Czech Republic a lot too. so I’d heard Bowie a few years before I started listening to him properly. they definitely didn’t play anything from Heathen as much as they played stuff from Hours (mostly Seven, maybe also Thursday’s Child), funnily enough.
It starts off promising. His voice sounds brighter, stronger, less exhausted than the other Hours tracks. There is clear, confident, retro production. The melody and lyrics all seem like they are going somewhere. Oooh, his brother! This could be Bewlay Brothers, Part 2. He’s got my attention now.
Then he gets lazy. Seven days. Seven ways. Seven coffee trays. Seven blahs. Does he even care about this seven thing? I know I sure don’t. Bang out the lyrics quickly and go for a walk on a beautiful Bermuda beach. I think a young Bowie, who had something to prove, would’ve tried harder than this.
Sorry, I have to disagree. I think this is wonderfully economic and rich lyrically. I find it a wonderful balance of sign-posting and ambiguity.
The lightness of touch musically shows someone who sees life in all it’s complexity and pain, yet is, perhaps just for a moment, accepting that such things were ever thus. Mistakes will always be made, a price will be paid. The lucky ones, like the narrator, make it through to another stage.
Ya, this is probably the best song on the album. All of the production issues we’ve discussed to death over the last month don’t seem as out of place here. The vocals are strong and kind of fit everything. And it’s a voice he hadn’t really used since Honky Dory.
I agree, the production works on this song.
Over the course of commenting on these entries for hours, I have noticed that I have often been negative. Hours makes for an easy target for criticism, but I DO like the album and listen to it on regular rotation. it may not be challenging music to listen to(I vaguely forget how many listens Teenage Wildlife needed to become such a favourite) but it is, to use an uncomfortable phrase ‘easy listening’. This very fact does not sit well with many Bowie fans, but equally offers a more accessible side to his work. hours is like a less determined Let’s Dance for the 90s.
This song is no different. I would dare say C, G, F, Am are the most used chords in popular 20th Century music and I find the musical side of this song familiar to the point of dullness. The faceless slide guitar could be any session musician. The lyric is better and more forgiving for Bowie fans, allowing them to fill in the blanks as they are happy to do. The overall effect though is a pleasing one, Despite the flaws it’s a song I am glad to hear.
C-F-G-Am is about as basic as it gets, yes, but I again, as with the lyric, DB’s aware of this & is playing with the cliche (or i’m wrong & he just ran out of ideas).
I wouldn’t rule out Bowie asking Gabrels for something that’s very straight and Reeves responding with the most stock answer he could.
Though the remark is likely apocryfal (there are a few theories about what he actually did say), “Thank you very much, you’ve got a lucky face…” is supposedly the sum total of John Lennon’s Speech at the Foyle’s Literary Luncheon honouring his first book, In His Own Write. It’s likely DB was referencing this in his pre-Millennial posts.
The album version sounds a little bit stiff to me. I much prefer the Bowie at the Beeb version. Proves it’s a really good song.
It irritated me when this album came out that it was marketed as a return to the song craftsmanship of Hunky Dory, as far as I could see purely on the strength of the acoustic guitar in Seven.
It’s a bit like Preliminaires being marketed as Iggy Pop’s “jazz” album on the basis of a single song.
Lot of truth to that. It shows how one or two songs can affect the perception of an entire album. For me, though, the “Beckenham” album Hours is reminiscent of is Space Oddity, and not because of the acoustic guitars on a couple of tracks. Something about the album’s dour cast, plus the general unnevenness of quality, and the overarching feeling of the artiste at decade’s end groping uncertainly for a new direction. (Needless to say, Hours lacks a song to equal the earlier lp’s title track, or Cygnet Committee for that matter).
I’d categorise Space Oddity, Tonight, Black Tie White Noise and Hours as the least cohesive DB albums, the ones whose songs don’t seem to add up to a single musical statement.
That’s not to say that there isn’t stuff I like on all of them.
Beautifully written post on a beautiful song. The melody and lyrics for me have something of the uncanniness of the likes of Bewlay Brothers; here we find something like the sense of mystery that effortlessly permeated Bowie’s music in the early 70’s. My one quibble with Seven, and the reason I’d rank it behind Survive ultimately, has to do with the arrangement. The string synth is one thing, but I’ve always been bothered by the tastefully layered congas in the latter part of the song. They’re a bit like a security blanket thrown over the proceedings, when the track could really use the cold severity of something like After All.
Musically, is this David’s attempt to write “#9 Dream?”
1. “It”. We know it when we hear it, even if we can’t quite define what it is.
2. I probably shouldn’t have followed Magnus’ suggestion and listened to John Lennon’s #9 Dream right after Seven, because the Lennon song so manifestly has “it” and the Bowie song only provides fleeting reminders of times (various) when Bowie had “it”.
3. The Marius De Vries mix is very good, though. If a cake can be successfully over-iced…
4. I probably shouldn’t have listened to The Complete Young Americans Sessions on Soundcloud right before Seven because “it” (spontaneity, confidence, sex, soul, concentration, inspiration, talent) infuses those sessions so thoroughly.
5. I probably shouldn’t have read my own diary entry for New Year’s Eve 1999 (imomus.com/thought010100.html) which wonders about what’s going to be fresh in the 21st century and suggests: “We should be trying to make a 21st Century which stuns us, makes us reel, makes us say ‘This has to be a joke!’ The interesting moment is the one just before we adapt and collaborate to make the joke solemn and accepted, before eventually turning it into something boring and super-known.”
6. Because, in terms of that thinking, this song is comfort food: super-known (but only half-remembered) Bowie, clinging to his past (but half slipping off the mast) rather than reaching out to the future. That 12-string guitar! That vocal style!
7. But since I did listen to #9 Dream I’ll try to identify the moment when the Lennon song goes from “touching” to “genius”: Lennon holds the G chord unusually long, echoing his vocal with an Indian string motif, and then suddenly melts down into an E minor chord with a G vocal over it. Utter magic, and something the Bowie song doesn’t even approach.
8. And let’s not even mention the tempo change and the nonsense-language refrain and “I thought I could feel… FEEL!” “It” Bowie has done all these things, but this isn’t “it” Bowie. It’s Bowie putting something over a Gabrels strum and quite liking the results, which certainly do have something fetching about them.
9. That’s why the YouTube figures for Seven struggle, in many instances, to hit four figures (one of them had 777 views when I looked), whereas #9 Dream hovers around a million. Not that view counts say everything, but they do say something.
10. And we’re only here because we’re progressing chronologically through an archive, and just happen to have reached an interesting moment: the turn of a century our man really did mark quite strongly with his “it”, when it was on. Because when it was on it was really on, and “Lennon called me brother”.
As a casual Thelemite, Bowie would be proud of those 777 views on YouTube!
Well, I’m sorry I ruined it for you!
In my ears, there’s a similar feel, instrumentation and delivery to Lennon’s track. It’s almost an homage and it wouldn’t be the first time. “Never Let Me Down” is also a Lennon homage, in this case “Jealous Guy.” The latter Bowie composition, I controversially suggest, succeeds when viewed in that guise.
“Seven” does fall short and I wonder sometimes if the song would be vastly improved by a bridge, an area David often ignores in his songwriting, mostly to great effect. (“Life on Mars?” doesn’t really have one, does it?) Just eight bars with a new chord (in lieu of Reeves’ solo) to clean the plate before returning with “the gods…”
In it’s current form, I rank it fourth or fifth on the album… “Survive” is still stunning, especially the live versions. It’s the best of the bunch. “Something In The Air” is a terrific art rock track. “Thursday’s Child” is a little passive, but still somehow heartfelt and memorable. “Seven” and “New Angels of Promise” pull up behind these songs.
I’d have to disagree with you on this one Magnus. To me “Thursday’s Child” has a beautiful melody, and is a very strong opening track. But then having “Something In The Air”, “Survive” and “If I’m Dreaming My Life”, three dull, overlong, go-nowhere songs in succession, is where the album gets bogged down, and for me at least, the attention starts to wander.
I remember the reviews at the time saying a lot of the song writing on this album was dull, and I wondered for how many people, fans included, who expressed similar sentiments, that particular trio of songs proved the sticking point.
After those three tracks though, I pretty much like everything on the album, (yes, even “What’s Really Happening”, which didn’t seem to fare too well on this forum). With the possible exception of “Brilliant Adventure”, which sounds like a Heroes out-take, and doesn’t feel like it belongs on hours.
Although Lennon was a complicated man, he chose after the Beatles to simplify his art in order to figure out his life, erasing the boundaries between the two. As he explained it, he started trying “to shave off all imagery, pretensions of poetry, illusions of grandeur…Just say what it is, simple English, make it rhyme and put a backbeat on it, and express yourself as simply [and] straightforwardly as possible.” – See more at: http://rockhall.com/inductees/john-lennon/bio/#sthash.NHxwhG3D.dpuf
Lennon was one of the few songwriters who could make clear and cogent conversational language fit perfectly into a song.
The George Orwell of rock music?
Agree. But this also meant suppressing his near-Joycean gift for language. JL always seemed to separate his “art” writing (the books) from his pop writing, and he grew increasingly suspicious of images/puns/surrealism as he went on: he once credited “Cry Baby Cry” (a beautiful little song) to McCartney in a fit of apparent revulsion. I think that’s why people respond to “#9 Dream” so much, as it was the last time he let this side of himself out to play.
I think you’re right Colin. Perhaps “solo Lennon” could be your next project. 😉
Lennon certainly had a great facility and enjoyed playing with words, but some of his songs, especially for Yoko or concerning utopian dreams, would have seemed much more cloying and trite coming from McCartney.
I think Lennon’s acerbic and iconoclastic nature gave a balance to some of his other leanings. Imagine ‘Imagine’ as a Cliff Richard song. Are we still waving our lighters in the air, or throwing up?
One or two lines in these Bowie songs could be seen as cliche, but cliche used knowingly, because sometimes there is no other way of saying, “have a nice day”, or whatever. I also think the way lines like, ‘still my trembling heart’, are sung – very understated – shows Bowie knows what he is doing.
It’s amusing to watch in the Gimme Some Truth documentary how Lennon was very tetchy during the recording of the backing vocals to Oh Yoko.
Just seems so at odds with the intent of the song. And knowing the manner of the recording kind of makes it easier to like the song.
Mind you, I think there was always a touch of Lennon’s sense of the ridiculous behind even fulsome love declarations like Oh Yoko.
Oh, don’t get me wrong, I do love them – the songs and Lennon; I know exactly where I was when I heard he had been murdered, I know how awful the day was and how everything stood still as we sat around the radio waiting for hourly bulletins and musings.
Weirdly, I shed tears for Lennon that I never came close to feeling for Bolan, my first true musical hero. I think it was, ‘The Old Grey Whistle Test’, BBC special around the time of the ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll’ album, which touched me quite deeply.
And you’re right about the use of humour in his work which, as Bruised P noted, I think Bowie uses here too.
Yes indeed, although I would argue that Meat City – another one of my favourites on that album – is more ‘Joycean’ than ‘Orwellian’.
Oh, hang on. It’s not on that album.
Perfect way to end the ‘Hours…’ entries. Lovely song and post.
I agree Seven takes us full circle back to Bowie’s spiritual/folkie days, which fits in well with the inevitable fin de siecle/millenium nostalgia. I find the stripped down quality makes for a refreshing contrast to the era’s abundance of electronic pop/dance music; David’s minor rebellion against the mainstream perhaps?
As for the song itself, it’s one of my favourites of the album, despite the fact I rarely listen the album version. My go-to is the live recording from 19 November 1999 at the Kit Kat Klub in New York City. There’s something really warm and intimate about this performance that I just haven’t found in the other live recordings. (I don’t see a link above, so I’ll see if I can’t track down and post a link.)
For me, this song is about the accepting responsibility for one’s own personal happiness, by striving for inner peace. Through the snipets of personal memories the singer demonstrates that the path to enlightenment cannot be found through family, friends, lovers, society, faith or fate but through deliberatly persuing the path of one’s own personal truth. It doesn’t matter what his father/mother/brother said, or that he’s forgotten what they said, what matters is that they contributed to the collective wisdome that has brough him to a spiritual crossroads. I think “Seven days to live” is a metaphore for choosing the path of love and “Seven ways to die” is about avoiding the divergent paths that take one way from love. “Hold my face before you/still my trembling heart” strikes me as a moment of prayer; a request for the external guidance that he knows he cannot get because his family is only a memory and his childhood god(s) have forgotten him. Yet, his god’s neglect isn’t a point of sorrow but a reason for joviality, through their silence he’s found a new liberation. By the end of the song the singer has abandoned his narration for meditation; the word “seven” is his mantra.
It strikes me that the unfinished quality of the album version ties into of the incomplete spiritual journey depicted in the lyrics, but I have a tendancy to over think things, lol.
To finish this comment off here’s seven thoughts about the number seven:
1. There’s seven days in a week
2. There’s seven colours in a rainbow
3. There are seven points of location: up, down, left. right, forwards, backwards and center
4. In the Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition God made the world in seven days
5. In Kabbalist/biblical traditions seven represents a state of completion
6. In Buddism there are seven factors in enlightenment
7. There’s seven notes in a scale
thanks for the number seven trivia! some of it I knew, some of it I didn’t realise, and some of it I didn’t know. cool stuff, actually.
God made the world in six days, actually. He rests on ‘7’, I guess.
Lovely. I agree wholeheartedly, including the Kit-Kat Klub version being so good. And thanks for the ‘7’ list too.
I was really looking forward to the entries on this album, as “Hours” is the one Bowie album I’ve had the most difficulty finding my way into. You certainly didn’t disappoint, in fact, how you managed to bring some clarity to, for me, what is such an opaque project is beyond my ken. Since it’s release I’ve tried many different ways to enjoy this album, from listening to it straight through, to taking it a bit at a time, to making multiple compilations using the various and sundry alternate mixes, but I could never find anything that worked for me. Your writes ups encouraged me to give the album another go when I’ve got some time.
As Mr. Tagomi mentioned above there was a fair bit of pre-release hype touting “Hours’ as a return to “Hunky Dory” territory, so I was really looking forward to hearing this the day of release. After the first spin my reaction was pretty much along the lines of: I know “Hunky Dory”, Hunky Dory” was a friend of mine, this Mr. Bowie is no “Hunky Dory”. It also didn’t help that it was coming after what I considered to be a real return to form with “Buddha”, “Outside”, and “Earthling”. So after a few more listens and coming away with nothing but “huh”, “meh” and “zzzz”, I did something I thought I’d never do, I gave up on Dave. I stopped paying attention to what he was up to, skipped every one of the five borough shows he performed here in the New York area (still kicking myself for that idiot move), and only finally picked up “Heathen” after all the glowing reviews wore down my resistance. Luckily, that one primed the pump.
There’s some really top notch Bowie coming up after this and I can’t wait to read what’s next. Don’t mean to be greedy, but are we going to get a full assessment of “Toy”, or just the tracks you haven’t already covered?
As always, thanks for the amazing work.
Toy is going to be a bit tricky. I’m not going to revisit the songs that I’ve written about earlier, but will mention them in passing (if interested, there is a decent amount about their Toy versions in the book revisions of stuff like “I Dig Everything” and “Liza Jane”). So that leaves us w/about five or six entries, a couple of which are “Heathen” songs as well.
The revision of Liza Jane is one of my very favourite Bowie songs. I’m not even sure why, feels filthy.
Is this the final song Reeves worked on-or was he involved in the Toy sessions?
we say goodbye to RG in the next entry
This is my special Bowie song. This is one of the few of his I can take somewhat personally. For reasons I’m not prepared to get into.
And additionally, even though I’m not into astrology and numerology and what have you, my “life number” apparently is 7. I only learned this after falling in love with the song but still, one more reason to like this one.
Back in 2002 when I started listening to Bowie and learning about his discography, the 2nd Bowie album I ever bought was Hours and was surprised to learn it featured this song I’d heard on the radio a few times, and that that singer-songwriter-y dude was this Heathen dude. I’d never have guessed Heathen, the album, and Seven, the song, were recorded by the same guy…and I knew nothing yet! 🙂
(But after Hours I bought the 2-part 70’s Bowie best of on a cassette, and the songs from late 60’s, early 70’s featured on it fit into this picture perfectly. The comparisons with Hunky Dory are not out of place for Hours, it’s just that the former album is produced better, created by a young guy full of ideas.)
I don’t listen to Seven as much as I used to, but it’s still one of my favourite songs of his and the lyrics, as I said at the top, are somehow relatable even if you’re not a Rock God with a weird family trying not to be too biographical.
And “the gods forgot they made me, so I forgot them too. I listen to their shadows, I play among their graves” is a pretty great lyric from Bowie (who although he’s my favourite solo male artist would not even make it to my lyricist top 10).
Maj, I’m intrigued. Who are the ten others keeping him off the podium?
I don’t think I have a top 10 per sé, it was my way of saying that even though he has good moments as a lyricist he’s not among my favourites.
Let’s see…Leonard Cohen, Neil Tennant, Lou Reed, Cole Porter, Kate Bush, Bernie Taupin, Rufus Wainwright, George Harrison (well John & Paul too), maybe Amanda Palmer, perhaps even Brandon Flowers. Whoever was writing ABBA’s lyrics did a great job too. Bryan Ferry had some great moments as a lyricist too but I don’t think I’d rate him above Bowie there. And all the singer songwriter-y types I don’t listen to as much like Dylan or Simon, also definitely better at lyrics than Bowie. But hey, this is subjective.
I admire your bravery, I admire several of your choices – some I find curious. As you say these things are subjective. I wonder if part of the subjectivity has to do with the lyrical content of most of your choices. Almost all the people mentioned deal mainly with relationships and personal emotions – love – often in an accessible, if clever way.
This has never been Bowie’s forte, which is why I think he admired early Bryan Ferry so much – ‘There’s only you, Bryan’, db once said around 1979.
As for Bowie, I think he’s a classic case of “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”.
Interesting picks. I wonder what a list of preferred lyricists reflects about a person. For instance, I prefer the more elliptical, detached writers: Beatles-Lennon, Barrett, early-Ferry, Eno, later-Yorke, and yes, Bowie. And I love Kate Bush, but particularly her artier early 80’s stuff, like The Dreaming. Maybe I’m only comfortable approaching emotions from behind? Either that or too many drugs as a youth.
It’s like the immortal words of Dave Thomas: “Yellow walls, yellow walls! Dishes! Dishes! Dishes! Dishes! All for the love of you.”
…Or maybe not?
well I was thinking about this some more, two random Roxy songs played…and both had great lyrics. so I’d like to backtrack on the Ferry issue, yeah as a lyricist I prefer him over Bowie.
Twinkle, labelling my picks as mainly about emotions and personal relationships is crudely oversimplifying. 😉
Porter, a lot about double meanings, word play and humour; Cohen…all the philosophical pondering (Democracy, Anthem being among my favourites) & humour; Tennant…similar to Porter, but a wider range, clever use of words with actual thinking behind it, not just cutting and pasting ;); Kate Bush…a very wide range from stories to a very effective use of symbolism (Pi); Lou Reed…excellent story teller etc.
I do love a good pop lyric. I’m not necessarily a love song lover though, so when someone can write a love song in an interesting way they get extra bonus points. Don’t Get Me Wrong, Your Song, My Funny Valentine… a song with Kabala references is always going to be interesting, any idiot can do that. ;D
Thank you for the wink, Maj, and I would also like to stress that I think interesting emotional/love songs which speak directly to a wide number of people are probably the hardest things to do well, it wasn’t a criticism.
As for Leonard Cohen, you mention my favourite songs there too; rather like Ian McCulloch’s musical Pantheon, I’d say Lenny’s the only person I would put next to Bowie in my affections, and the embrace from that poet will remain one of my most treasured memories.
‘Down in the Depths’, is a Cole Porter song which I think influenced the theme of ‘Queen Bitch’ as much as the VU. ‘My hearts in the basement’ etc.
As a fan of Lou Reed I can think of many dum-de-dum obvious rhymes in pointless songs, but his best are wonderful. I didn’t and don’t want to name the ones on your list I’m less enamoured of, it is subjective. I will say that over the years I’ve grown to appreciate Paul Simon and would rate his best lyrics higher than McCartney’s and others on the list.
You chose many strong examples, but even mediocre ‘story-telling/love songs’ are likely to appear better than they are and connect with people more than songs which tend to avoid such songwriting, as Bowie’s purposely has. That was my main point, really.
One thing though, as this blog has shown, although there is a through-line in Bowie’s work, the musical means of expression is very wide, and yes sometimes erratic, and that can make him appear more patchy than he actually is.
Springsteen, Costello, Lou Reed, Cohen, Ferry, Lennon, McCartney, Tom Waits, you sort of know what you’re going to get sonically. They have a ‘sound’, and their sound is in a narrower range,(nothing wrong with that either), so even if they have weak albums, taken as a whole, their work can appear more consistent; it would be easier to line each of those artists albums up and listen to them consecutively, as a whole. And it makes the ‘whole’ seem larger.
Every Bowie album has a very clear and unique sound, including the so-called Berlin trilogy, and they don’t flow into each other with ease. This tends to make for a great deal of personal cherry-picking of individual albums which we see here, which also tends to diminish the ‘whole’ canon; a couple of albums you don’t rate and suddenly you see years of artistic squalor. Did anyone notice the decade between the last two Tom Waits albums? Here’s a new quality TW’s album and it joins like a link in a chain to the previous less good album.
Cutting and pasting, Kabbalah – cheeky, lol. I think the knowledge of using cut-ups and now the Verbasizer has affected how people view Bowie’s lyrics. Bowie is just using an artier method to do what most writers do with pen, paper and a thesaurus. Plus their knowledge of other songs they admire. The Stones learned how to write songs by jamming Beatle and Chuck Berry songs till they morphed into something original of their own. Nothing comes from nothing.
Love songs are probably my favourite. Einstein had E=MC2. My formula is less useful, more idiosyncratic and certainly inexact, but it works for me in unifying my disparate musical passions.
Leonard Cohen + Mark E. Smith = Bowie.
Right on the money about Tom Waits. He’s very talented, and is quite consistent from album to album…but that becomes a problem after so many releases. Each new album I’ve picked up (Real Gone & Oprhans were the last I’ve heard) were excellent in their own right, but they’re not different enough from the older classics to warrant my attention. Truth be told, I almost always opt for Rain Dogs, and then maybe Bone Machine or Frank’s Wild Years. Consistency is commendable, but we primates also need some variety to make for an exciting forage!
As far as great lyricists go Maj, yeah I’d definitely have Lou Reed on the list. With the exception of the rather grating line, “Just like poison in a vial, she was often very vile”, and the extremely throwaway nature of, “I live with thirteen dead cats, a purple dog that wears spats”, he generally pretty much always nailed it.
Iggy Pop on a good day, like when he wrote “The Passenger”, can be list-worthy too. And a perfect lyric like, “I’m a street-walking cheetah with a heart full of napalm”, more than makes up for those times when he sinks into awful self-parody like (urgh)”Pussy Power”.
As for some of your other selections: The Beatles -yep! Paul Simon -for sure.Kate Bush- absolutely. Abba -is this a wind-up?
Bryan Ferry’s an interesting one. Early Roxy were brilliant. But much like McCartney without Lennon’s goading, once Eno left, Ferry as a lyricist and an arranger slipped too often into the heartbroken last guest at a cocktail party mode for my liking. Waltzing around the empty tables in his white tuxedo, he became a bit of a bore.
As for Dylan: I have a friend who’s a bit of a Dylan nut, and for 25 years I’ve been trying in vain to convince him of Bowie’s worth (I know, after this long I should just give up right??)
For him, he just can’t get past the make-up, the costumes, and the notion that Bowie is a self-confessed (gasp) faker. Heresy to anyone who worships the 60s, right? I tell him, without success, that even his hero is a construct, he isn’t Bob Dylan from Greenwich Village, but little Bobby Zimmerman from Minnesota. So anyway, this ongoing attitude has tended to drive me away from the genius of Bob for all time.
But as you say Maj, taste is subjective isn’t it?
Iggy, yes, I was considering him but he’s too uneven at the end of the day.
Don’t get me wrong, Bowie is perfectly adequate lyricist for his songs, I just rarely marvel at his choice of words or can connect to the content. I suppose I really like the like of Five Years or Station…all dramarama. I’d have to think about the topic of Bowie and his lyrics some more, I’ve been listening to him for too long to be able to just make a snap judgement from outside…I suppose I know him the best (apart from the Beatles & Kate) so I’m harder on him.
This may not be a widely held view, I don’t know, but I think DB has been better lyrically on more recent albums than he generally was in his younger days. I’m thinking of the way he weds imagery and sound, and the occasional brilliant turn of phrase.
Particularly on the latest album. ‘If You Can See Me’ works superbly on many levels, but one of them is lyrically (to take an outstanding example).
Mind you, I think the words on Low are exceptionally good too.
I’ve said way more than enough, but – yes!
Sorry this took so long folks, hope the link works, I only pretend to be computer-literate.
Seven – Live at the Kit Kat Klub, NYC
This melody is simply excessively great I listened all the tunes of the collection it is exceptionally interesting voice ans sang it marvelous.
The more I (re)read the comments on this blog, the more I realize I’m very much out of the “mainstream” of Bowie fandom. While I rate ‘hours…’ on the whole a bit higher than most who come here, “Seven” has never been a standout track to me. In particular, the “gods forgot they made me” line made me roll my eyes the first time I heard it; it felt too much like something an angry seventh grader would scribble in his notebook.
I guess the whole lyric felt a bit too “easy”? I’m not sure. Not as articulate as the folks who regularly post here, so I’ll stop now.
That quote from Bowie about people trying to see his life in his lyrics is really interesting, because I also tend to do that with his songs–but I’ve never felt compelled to do that with any of his lyrics on ‘hours…’. The general air of sadness, perhaps, but never any specific lyrics. I’m not really sure why, because sometimes I’ve noticed myself bending over backwards to try and find autobiographical meaning in his words (especially ‘Heathen’ and ‘Reality’ songs, for whatever reason).
I adore Seven. It has that Neil Young simpleness and naturalness to it. I’m glad many people seem to pay it respect.