Music Review: David Bowie’s ‘Five Years 1969–1973’

David Bowie Five Years cover

The first in a series of box sets documenting David Bowie’s career, Five Years 1969–1973 includes six of his early studio albums, four of which have been newly remastered; two live albums from the period; an alternate 2003 remix of The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars; and the two-disc Re:Call 1, which collects non-album singles, single versions of album tracks and obscure B sides. While you’re listening to this nearly nine hours of music, you can read through the accompanying 128-page hardcover book, which features notes about the tracks plus period photos.

The album’s title references the apocalyptic “Five Years,” an anthemic ballad on Ziggy Stardust, in which Bowie sings, “Five years, that’s all we’ve got.” In fact, five years turned out to be plenty of time for the singer to launch a career, produce all the music in this 12-CD box, achieve international fame and reinvent himself repeatedly.

The package begins with Bowie’s eponymous 1969 second album, which is better known by the name of its most famous track, “Space Oddity.” (Apparently, the compilers opted to pass over the artist’s other eponymous album, his 1967 debut, either because they deemed it below par or because they lacked rights to the music.) Folk-rock dominates the ’69 collection, which includes all sorts of hints of Bowie’s potential and versatility but proves largely forgettable aside from the perfectly wrought “Space Oddity,” a sci-fi fantasy that gave Bowie his first top 20 hit.

On 1970’s The Man Who Sold the World, the artist rocks out more. With producer Tony Visconti and guitarist Mick Ronson on board, he comes up with a sound that would not be entirely out of place on the later Ziggy Stardust. But the music just isn’t that great. You get the sense that Bowie is still trying to find his groove.

With 1971’s theatrical Hunky Dory, he discovers it, assuming a variety of personas and delivering a nuanced collection, much of which sounds like little else from its era. Tracks range from the hard-rocking “Queen Bitch” (a bit reminiscent of the Velvet Underground’s “Rock and Roll”) and the folky “Song for Bob Dylan” to the catchy mid-tempo “Changes” and the frenetic “Andy Warhol.” Nearly everything works.

The music sounds better than ever on this box’s 2003 alternate mix of Ziggy Stardust, which is considerably less muddy than the original.

But it was Bowie’s next album, 1972’s The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, that initially hooked me on his music and attracted enough other listeners to cement his position as a worldwide star. From first note to last, this concept album is a self-assured rock and roll tour de force. There’s not a rotten apple in the bunch, but Ziggy would be worth having if only for its two best tracks—the ominous-sounding “Five Years” and “Suffragette City,” a high-octane rocker. (Particularly for this latter song, you’d be well advised to heed the album jacket’s advice: “To be played at maximum volume.”) The music sounds better than ever on this box’s 2003 alternate mix of the album, which is considerably less muddy than the original.

Bowie followed Ziggy with Alladin Sane, a record that rocks just as hard as its predecessor while suggesting greater versatility. Highlights include the catchy “Prettiest Star”; “The Jean Genie,” which would have fit right in on Ziggy; a fast-paced cover of the Stones’ “Let’s Spend the Night Together”; and “Time,” which begins like a cabaret number before veering into rock territory. If there’s anything wrong with this record, it’s that its mostly excellent material isn’t quite as cohesive as that on Ziggy.

Pinups, the last of the studio albums in this box, finds Bowie covering some of his favorite 60s tracks, most of which originally issued from other British rock acts. His readings of some of them add little or nothing to the originals. But versions of such tunes as Pink Floyd’s “See Emily Play,” the Who’s “Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere” and the Yardbirds’ “Shapes of Things” stand out. And I’d buy the album just to have Bowie’s fantastic rendition of the Merseys’ “Sorrow,” with its unforgettable string intro, terrific vocal, and stunning sax solo.

Like Pinups, the rest of this box has its ups and downs. Much of Re:Call 1 consists of dispensable, only minimally different versions of tracks that are available elsewhere in this same package. But “Holy Holy,” which is included in two versions, was previously released only as a 1971 single and is worth hearing. There are a few other goodies, too, among them a sax-spiced “John, I’m Only Dancing” and a reading of Ziggy’s “Moonage Daydream” that differs significantly from the original.

The two-disc Live in Santa Monica ’72, a concert broadcast live on the radio and first released on CD in the mid-90s, offers creditable performances of many of the best-known songs on Bowie’s studio albums up to this point. It is a true live recording, apparently straight from the soundboard, and its crowd noise and lack of breaks between tracks will have you feeling as if you’re there.

The other live album—which serves as the motion-picture soundtrack version of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars—preserves a 1973 London gig. The sound quality and mix aren’t on a par with the Santa Monica recording but the program is interesting. In addition to featuring songs from the Ziggy studio album, it incorporates versions of tunes that first appeared on Alladin Sane and Hunky Dory. There’s also a performance of Bowie’s glam rocker, “All the Young Dudes,” which became a hit for Mott the Hoople; and a hard-driving cover of the Velvet Underground’s “White Light/White Heat.”

The album ends with a shocker: before wrapping up the concert with “Rock ’n’ Roll Suicide,” the tale of desperation that also closes the Ziggy studio album, Bowie tells the crowd that “not only is it the last show of the tour but it’s the last show that we’ll ever do.”

It sounded as if he were retiring, at least from live performance, but in fact, he was apparently just trying to say goodbye to the Ziggy persona. Not only did he appear in concert again; he released even better albums after the period covered here, not to mention such landmark singles as “Young Americans,” “Golden Years” and “Heroes.”

I eagerly await the next box in this series.

David Bowie Five Years box contents

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