Concept Album Corner - 'Pin Ups' by David Bowie
Covering songs can be a very tricky and oftentimes thankless task in the music industry, especially nowadays. Generally speaking, any art form that is remade or ‘reimagined’, to put it more pretentiously, is not often going to be greeted with respect, especially today. The connotation to redoing something is that the ‘remaker’ suffers from a lack of originality, relying on copying straight from another piece of work. As they say, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Admittedly, while I’m personally not a huge fan of remaking anything at all, good can come of it. The entire idea behind remaking something is to put a twist on the original work in some way, like if turning a Renaissance masterpiece in the style of a German Expressionist painting. With this in mind, this idea applies in the exact same way to covering a song.
This will probably be the shortest blog I’ll do yet, but frankly there is very little to talk about here. Back in 1973, Bowie was still hitting it big. In fact, by this point, Bowie was such a superstar that critics and fans everywhere all agreed that he could truly do no wrong. This was a guy who could turn steaming, greasy turds into shimmering bricks of gold. Or, at the very least, this was the beginning of that great, majestic level of idolization for Bowie. But before he really hit his peak – or right as he hit his peak, depending on how you view his work – he decided to take part in a little bit of self indulgence in two concept albums he wanted to release. His name for these two albums were affectionately referred to as his “Nostalgic 60s” albums. The concept behind the two would be that each album would be an entire cover album of songs from the 60s, just before Bowie hit it big, that influenced him greatly. While one of them entitled Bowie-ing Out, an album of American songs at the time that influenced him, fell through and was never recorded, the more fitting choice made it out alive: a compilation of British Invasion Era rock songs entitled Pin Ups.
We’ve seen from Aladdin Sane and Ziggy Stardust that Bowie does have a fondness for covering songs. Outside of those two albums, Bowie has had at least one cover song on practically all of his albums since the pre-Stardust hit Hunky Dory, including ‘Across the Universe’ by The Beatles, ‘China Girl’ by Iggy Pop, and ‘Fill Your Heart’ by Biff Rose, among countless others. Personally, I don’t think Bowie has ever attempted to put a truly unique spin or twist on a song that he has covered, as I feel is evidenced by this album in particular. Though that may seem insulting, allow me to explain.
As said before, I think that if one wishes to redo a piece of work, the best way to do so is to simply twist it and do the same thing from a new perspective. If you’re not following what I mean, allow me to give an example. Shock-rocker Marilyn Manson’s cover of ‘Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This)’ by The Eurythmics took an already strange 80s pop single about human desire and, simply with the style of music that Manson plays, turned into something ugly and disturbing, taking away the synth pop sound of the 80s that could’ve simply portrayed vanity for the original, replacing it with warbling guitar riffs and demonic wailing as if portraying the sinful, ugly desires that mankind holds. While the quality of either song is debatable, I still think this is a good way to cover a song. Without changing a single lyric, Manson was able to work around them and morph something sleek and sly into something subtly frightening and Hellish. To me, anyway, that is the sign of a great cover when you can change the meaning of a song.
While I would not say Bowie covers songs badly – this is David Bowie we’re talking about; he at least puts some effort into his work – I don’t see his covers as awe-inspiring or absolutely fascinating. The original meaning and lyrics of the song are kept intact and his musical style, for the most part, matches this. So imagine a whole album of songs like this. I have nothing to talk about here because, outside of Bowie paying tribute to some of his favorite bands, there is no other big theme that ties it all together. No further depth can be read into these outside of the songs’ original meanings.
I do feel somewhat guilty, though, for making that sound like a bad thing. It isn’t, really. Not every song needs to be a masterpiece and certainly complexity and ‘artfulness’ can be a touch overrated at times (trust me, I’m well aware of this). Perhaps when one is spoiled with enough of David Bowie’s original concepts and the rather intricate ideas behind them, expecting more from basic ‘single material’ is maybe asking a bit too much. Plus of which, this says nothing of the quality of the original songs themselves. Having listened to most of the originals, Bowie plays each song practically note for note with just a few sound differences that fit his unique style (honky-tonk piano, saxophone, alien-ish backing vocals). If they’re anything to go by, the songs themselves are just as good as the covers, mostly because Bowie plays them in almost the exact same way. He has nailed down his style and this is merely an album to show where he got that style.
Some personal favorites of mine include his covers of ‘I Can’t Explain’ and ‘Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere’ by The Who, ‘Rosalyn’ by The Pretty Things, ‘See Emily Play’ by Pink Floyd, and probably the most famous track, ‘Sorrow’ by The Merseys.
As far as Bowie’s concept album career goes, I see this as a minor halt in his progression. The next step he’d take, however, would lead to one of his most fascinating albums and, at the time being, my personal favorite Bowie album…