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Bowie sure knew how to start an album!

Back on June 2nd, I posted a long piece about how Bowie closed his albums. This is the companion piece about his openers. Its long and I thought about doing it in parts, but I’m not going to keep anyone in suspense, so here it is:

1. “Space Oddity,” Space Oddity (1969). Bowie chronicler Nicholas Pegg wrote of this song, “Even after all these years, ‘Space Oddity” remains Bowie’s best known, most influential and perhaps most remarkable song.” It’s also quite a way to start and album, and from a retrospective stance, a career. “Space Oddity” is not literally Bowie’s first song— he had recorded songs, and even a forgettable debut album for a few years before this, his first hit. But there’s a certain continuity that begins with “Space Oddity” and continues right to “I Can’t Give Everything Away,” the last song on Bowie’s last album. As an album opener, “Space Oddity” fades in so subtly that it’s hard to pick up on the exact moment it actually begins. And as I observed in discussing the album’s last track, “Memory of a Free Festival” that serves as a bookend in the sense that “Space Oddity” is about a man who end up drifting out to space, while the latter song involves aliens coming to Earth. Out with the conventional old man who loves his wife and is interesting in what shirts he wears and in with “tall Venusians passing through.” In that sense, the song signals the beginning of a musical journey that would last half a century and take us to outer space and back again.

2. “Station to Station,” Station to Station (1976). Like “Space Oddity,” this epic-length song begins so softly it is tough to hear. That’s good because it would be too much of a shock to the system to just plunge into. The faux-train sounds, along, of course, with its name, signal that the song itself is a journey, but exactly through what is ambiguous. That’s Bowie at his best— the song is evocative but leaves much to interpretation. It was enough to establish the Thin White Duke as a character, despite mentioning him in one cryptic (though repeated) sentence. By the time the song is over, it feels like we’ve been taken somewhere before being deposited into “Golden Years,” which is quite a contrast. The album of the same name is fairly short and not really thematic, but its hard to imagine a better opener. In a sense, this song opens not just the album but Bowie’s entire late 70s period that ends with Scary Monsters.

3. “Five Years,” The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1972). The funny thing about “Five Years” is I’m not sure if it was originally meant to be part of a coherent narrative about Ziggy Stardust. Yet that’s the function its serves, setting the stage of impending apocalypse, prepping the world for an outer-space rock and roll messiah. As with other Bowie openers, it starts soft and slow— just percussion at first— easing the listener into what’s about to become a whirlwind song and album. Independent of the album, it is also a precursor to Bowie’s many other songs about dystopia and societal breakdown (though “Five Years” presages the end of the whole world, not just the collapse of society as we know it). “Five Years” works well as an opening track, but it doesn’t absolutely need to be the opening— Bowie placed it in the middle of side one of the live album, Stage, which devotes that entire side to songs from the Ziggy album. He also performed the song stand-alone on the BBC and in concert.

4. “It’s No Game (No. 1),” Scary Monsters (1980). Perhaps Bowie’s very most deliberately placed song, my favorite album opens with this loud statement of anger and defiance. Though not a concept album, most of the album’s songs are thematically about societal (or governmental) pressures wearing down on the individual. Here, at the start, the individual has some fight left. Not so much by the end of the album, where a spent Bowie reprises the song as a concession to defeat.

5. “Blackstar,” Blackstar (2016). The leadoff song of Bowie’s last album was released as a single in November of 2015, so for a little more than a month I remember listening to this and wondering what Bowie was up to. He was getting us ready for his death. The song is the beginning of the end.

6. “Sunday,” Heathen (2002). “Nothing remains…” Bowie begins his first post-9/11 album with this devastating statement. As with much of the album as a whole, “Sunday” seems to capture the anxiety of the moment without explicitly describing anything in particular. Is it about the aftermath of 9/11? No, but it’s about a feeling that those of us who lived through the period remember.

7. “Beauty and the Beast,” “Heroes” (1977). My all-time favorite song also does a great job of establishing that while “Heroes” is going to have some similarities to its predecessor, Low, that it will also have an entirely different level of energy.

8. “Let’s Dance,” Let’s Dance (1983). Though the buildup to “Let’s Dance” moves swifter than that of say, “Space Oddity” or “Station to Station,” it’s surely there. Some of Bowie’s later performances of the song include a slow-paced opening in which he sings an almost reflective version before breaking into the more familiar high-energy song. I think that speaks to the idea that Bowie wants to ready us for the opening lines, which is the big reveal and announcement to the world of the album. This is the only solo Bowie album that shares its names with the first words of its first song. Also, Bowie seemed to want to make a big impression early. In general side one, and specifically this song did a lot of work for Bowie for the next half-decade.

9. “The Next Day,” The Next Day (2013). Someone else observed that Bowie admonishes us in this song to “listen,” as if he’s giving us instructions about what to do with his comeback album. There’s much I like about this song— it stands up on its own, but also the title is evocative of an answer to the question, “what happened?” Amidst illness and second-time parenthood, Bowie virtually vanished for a decade. Rather than reflect on that decade, he tells us about what comes next. Of course, that’s not literally what this song is about, but that’s Bowie’s way.

10. “The Width of a Circle,” The Man Who Sold the World (1970). The song, and album begin with a single electric guitar chord before slowly being joined by other instruments and ultimately Bowie’s voice. What begins quietly and not especially melodically swiftly becomes Bowie’s preeminent contribution to the heavy metal musical genre. Its also the first example of Bowie beginning an album with a song of near-epic length (well, more than eight minutes anyway), something he does even more notably with “Station to Station.” With its religious-bordering-on-supernatural themes and cryptic title, the song sets the stage for the rest of the album, where Bowie explores madness, the occult and a guy in his early 20s version of introspection.

11. “Future Legend,” Diamond Dogs (1974). Much like its ending, Diamond Dogs begins with something that isn’t actually a song. The only place to listen to “Future Legend” is exactly here, and while it doesn’t make much of a musical contribution, it does a lot of work. The brief piece establishes Bowie’s post-apocalyptic context in which the rest of the album should be interpreted. In so doing, he also distinguishes his own work from George Orwell’s 1984, which inspired several of the songs. On top of that, Bowie introduces the nonsensical product of his new (for the time) cut up method.

12. “Young Americans,” Young Americans (1975). Bowie starts one of his slowest-paced albums from the 70s with its most energetic song. To my ears it is dissimilar to the “plastic soul” songs that follow. “Young Americans” doesn’t so much ease us into the album as snag us out of the gates, leaving us to keep listening, hoping for the payoff we eventually get with “Fame” at the end. In between Bowie wants us to listen to his mid-70s experiment. You might sense that this isn’t my favorite Bowie album, but I certainly like the title track. Of note, it is the third album opener that appears on the compilation album, Changesonebowie (as it does others), and this one appears in the middle of side-two. I mention this because it works fine on its own and doesn’t need to come first.

13. “Changes,” Hunky Dory (1971). This song is so iconic and so representative of Bowie himself that derivations of it became the basis of multiple compilation albums. It is an undeniably great song. That said, it doesn’t necessarily have to be the first song on the album, as demonstrated in the compilation album, Changesonebowie (the album that inspired the name for this blog). There, it appears third, after “John, I’m Only Dancing,” which is actually a more recent song (so its placement isn ‘t just chronological). Does it set the stage for “Hunky Dory?” Well, the album is more eclectic that Bowie’s three previous albums, but the song isn’t really about Bowie’s changing musical styles and the rest of the album isn’t really so much about life changes…so I’m going to say, no. But it’s still a great song!

14. “Tin Machine,” Tin Machine (1989). Like Let’s Dance, this album opens with a song that shares its title, which is repeated in the opening lines. My understanding is that the band named itself after the song. The point is— this is us— we’re Tin Machine— we won’t let you forget it. We’re going to repeat “Tin Machine” over and over before the song is done. Like the band as a whole and much of the rest of the album, there’s not a whole lot of subtlety going on.

15. “Speed of Life,” Low (1977). By opening with a synth-heavy instrumental, Bowie signals that Low is going to be unconventional. He follows this song with five short vocal songs before ending album Side One with another instrumental, “A New Career in a New Town,” setting up the entirely instrumental Side Two. Bowie seems to have deliberately chose to start the albums with its most energetic component before gradually slowing down and ending with “Subterraneans.” Even the names seem to contrast one another— speed, life versus subterranean. Not exactly opposites, but seen as the beginning and end, they seem to evoke a downward motion— you know, lower.

16. “Fantastic Voyage,” Lodger (1979). The song is essentially a title for side one of the album, which consists entirely of songs that have something to do with travel. Side two has better known songs like “D.J.” and “Boys Keep Swinging” and has nothing to do with travel. In that sense, this last of the Berlin Trilogy is consistent with its two predecessors in that the two sides of the album are almost like separate works. One last thing about “Fantastic Voyage”— like many Bowie songs that aren’t actually about what they seem to be about, this one isn’t actually about travel at all but rather that voyage of life, existence, humanity— not a trip.

17. “The Buddha of Suburbia,” The Buddha of Suburbia (1993). This is the third and final album that Bowie begins and ends with two versions of the same song. In this case, the opener is distinctly better than the extremely similar closer. It sets the musical tone of the album and gives the listener Bowie singing, which cannot be said about many of the instrumentals that follow. I never saw the show for which this album serves as a soundtrack, but my understanding is that this song is the album’s strongest connection to its source material.

18. “Leon Takes Us Outside,” 1. Outside (1995). Much like “Future Legend,” this piece is hardly a song at all but sets the stage for Bowie’s last flat-out concept album. The piece cannot stand alone, though interestingly it is actually a reworked fragment of a longer piece of music that appears on what’s sometimes called The Leon Suites (what I think might be the last great unreleased coherent body of work by Bowie). Very atmospheric.

19. “New Killer Star,” Reality (2003). If Heathen seemed to be inspired by 9/11 but actually wasn’t, I’m pretty sure this song actually was. In that sense and unlike any other opening song on a Bowie album, its like unfinished business form the last album. Its not a bad song, and as one of the album’s higher energy components it revs us up for what follows, but the title track, which includes the line “welcome to reality,” seems like it would have been the more obvious opener.

20. “The Wedding,” Black Tie White Noise (1993). Like Scary Monsters, Bowie opens and closes this album with two versions of the same song. The only problems are that “The Wedding” isn’t nearly as memorable or impactful as “It’s No Game.” Also, though it might imply a reason for Bowie’s renewed optimism, the two versions of the song do little to tie together the components of this eclectic collection.

21. “Rosalyn,” Pin Ups (1973). What this song does is establish Pin Ups as a high-energy cover album. Not much more complicated than that. Interestingly, the song originated with a band called the Pretty Things, which is a term Bowie adopted as his own.

22. “Little Wonder,” Earthling (1997). There’s nothing thematic about this song that places it as the first track. It signals a shift in Bowie’s style and establishes an energy level for the rest of the album (and is possibly my favorite song from the album), but it could just as well have appeared as a later track.

23. “Thursday’s Child,” hours…, (1999). Tonally setting the stage for the newly dialed-back, reflective Bowie, “Thursday’s Child” could have easily been swapped for “Something in the Air,” “Survive,” or “Seven.” I have long thought of hours… as Bowie’s weakest later album but have recently been reassessing it in part because it has a core of good songs that speak to the middle-aged me— including this one.

24. “Loving the Alien,” Tonight (1984). This is a good song that has little to do with the rest of the album. It doesn’t set the stage musically or thematically. While I think Tonight gets a bad rap, there’s no question it is one of Bowie fans’ least favorite. That wouldn’t have been the case had it contained more songs of the caliber of “Loving the Alien.”

25. “Aladdin Sane,” Aladdin Sane (1973). This one might be controversial because I don’t actually think the song works as an opening to the album. Atmospheric, experimental, and memorable for Mike Garson’s improvisational jazz-like piano solo, the title track does little to herald an album that is mostly otherwise raucous and grounded in American style rock and roll. Interestingly, it is also the opening track for the compilation Changestwobowie, which is doubly odd since that album pays no heed to chronology. Clearly someone thought it was a good way to open an album.

26. “Baby Universal,” Tin Machine 2 (1991). A not bad but low-impact song that has little to do with the rest of the album. I’m not sure that there’s another song on the album that makes more sense as an opener, but I’m also not sure what this one does to prepare us for what follows.

27. “Day-in-Day-Out,” Never Let Me Down (1987). I don’t hate this song, but it it is far from Bowie at his best. More to the point of this list, it could have appeared anywhere on the album and does little by way of introduction.

28. “Uncle Arthur,” David Bowie (1967). Utterly forgettable first song on Bowie’s first album. An inauspicious start. This is not one of those obscure 60s Bowie songs that some hip contemporary band has covered, or that Bowie himself reworked for Toy. There’s not enough redeeming value for the song to be reworked (although dropping its faux-medieval instrumental aspects would be an immediate improvement). Bowie wasn’t giving us a lot of reason to keep listening to his album, or buy another one.

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