Focus on the image if you want. David Bowie certainly went a long way to get people to pay attention to it. The songs, of course, helped. His striking arrangements, melodies and performances all made him one of the planet's biggest stars. But Bowie has always combined these elements with abstract and intellectual lyrics that are both universal and street-level smart. It wasn't easy, but we came up with a list of the Top 10 David Bowie Lyrics.
"Memory of a Free Festival"From: 'David Bowie' (1969)
"The sun machine is coming down, and we're gonna have a party."
Recorded in 1969, "Memory of a Free Festival" rings one of the final bells of the hippie dream. "The children of the summer's end gathered in the dampened grass, we played our songs and felt the London sky resting on our hands / It was God's light, it was ragged and naive / It was heaven," Bowie sings. As 1969 gave way to 1970, Bowie had other, more glittery roads to explore.
"The Man Who Sold the World"From: 'The Man Who Sold the World' (1970)
"For years and years I roamed, I gazed a gazeless stare."
The title track to Bowie's 1970 album is a tale of mystery. The main character has a chance meeting, but with whom? Is it a kindred spirit? An old friend? Or is it an encounter with another version of himself? "We passed upon the stair, we spoke of was and when / Although I wasn't there, he said I was his friend, which came as some surprise / I spoke into his eyes / I thought you died alone, a long long time ago," Bowie sings. It's a great song and a precursor to themes that would appear in Ziggy Stardust's story.
"TVC15"From: 'Station to Station' (1976)
"My baby's in there someplace, love's rating in the sky / So hologramic, oh my TVC15."
On this killer cut from the 1976 album Station to Station, Bowie envisions a sort of holographic television that so entices a friend that she ventures into the TV: "I brought my baby home / She sat around forlorn / She saw my TVC15, baby's gone / She crawled right in my ...hologramic TVC15 ... Oh, so demonic." Legend has it that the story was inspired by a real-life drug-induced freakout involving Iggy Pop, who thought a TV was devouring his girlfriend. Or maybe the song is just about the numbing effects of too much television.
"Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps)"From: 'Scary Monsters' (1980)
"She had a horror of rooms, she was tired, you can't hide beat / When I looked in her eyes, they were blue but nobody home."
As the 1980s dawned, Bowie delivered his last truly classic album. Scary Monsters' title track is a full-on rocker about a woman who gradually withdraws from the world, eventually leading to a downward spiral of madness: "She could've been a killer if she didn't walk the way she do, and she do / She opened strange doors that we'd never close again / She began to wail, jealousy scream, waiting at the light." Robert Fripp throws in a great guitar solo that adds tension of the lyrics.
"Diamond Dogs"From: 'Diamond Dogs' (1974)
"As they pulled you out of the oxygen tent, you asked for the latest party."
"This ain't rock 'n' roll; this is genocide" begins this post-apocalyptic tale set to dirty, straightforward rock 'n' roll. As a Stones-like riff surges forward, "Diamond Dogs"' heroine is "crawling down the alley on [her] hands and knees": "I'm sure you're not protected, for it's plain to see the Diamond Dogs are poachers and they hide behind trees / Hunt you to the ground they will / Mannequins with kill appeal." Cinematic widescreen rock 'n' roll all the way.
"Five Years"From: 'The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars' (1972)
"News guy wept when he told us Earth was really dying / Cried so much that his face was wet / Then I knew he was not lying."
This tale about the impending end of the world is delivered by Ziggy Stardust, the protagonist of Bowie's breakthrough album. Bathed in the light of the future, as seen through the eyes of 1972, Bowie tells this tale of doom with gritty beauty in the lyrics: "A cop knelt and kissed the feet of a priest, and a queer threw up at the sight of that," Bowie sings. The sing-a-long chorus juxtaposes Bowie's screams, adding to the song's tone of desperation.
"Life on Mars?"From: 'Hunky Dory' (1971)
"It's on America's tortured brow that Mickey Mouse has grown up a cow / Now the workers have struck for fame, 'cause Lennon's on sale again."
One of Bowie's most cinematic and surreal songs is full of wild imagery and striking visions of the past, present and future. What does it all mean? We can't say for sure. It may be commentary on our world and the circus of life. The sound of the words is almost as important as their meaning: "See the mice in their million hordes / From Ibeza to the Norfolk broads / Rule Britannia is out of bounds / To my mother, my dog and clowns." The feel and rhythm of the lines gel wonderfully with the music. Producer Tony Visconti adds a lovely string arrangement. Mick Ronson's guitar work is great too.
"Rock 'n' Roll Suicide"From: 'The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars' (1972)
"Time takes a cigarette, puts it in your mouth."
The closing song on the classic The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars pretty much sums up the entire album in three minutes. It also serves as an anthem to fans who connected with Ziggy's plight. "Oh no, love! You're not alone /You're watching yourself, but you're too unfair /You got your head all tangled up, but if I could only make you care," Bowie sings.
"The Jean Genie"From: 'Aladdin Sane' (1973)
"Strung out on lasers and slash back blazers."
Even though the title was a riff on the French writer Jean Genet, the main character of 'The Jean Genie' was based in part on Iggy Pop. Bowie uses some Bob Dylan-style rhyme schemes on one of his most perfect rock 'n' roll songs. The chugging riff jumps out on this slice of glam rock, as Bowie spits out his words: "Sits like a man but he smiles like a reptile / She love him but just for a short while / She'll scratch in the sand, won't let go his hand / He says he's a beautician and sells you nutrition and keeps all your dead hair for making up underwear."
"Heroes"From: 'Heroes' (1977)
"I will be king, and you, you will be queen."
A simple, genuine and straightforward love song by Bowie, set to a basic Velvet Underground-inspired rhythm, 'Heroes' ranks as one of the all-time greats. The song hasn't lost any of its potency or beauty after 35 years. Lines like "Nothing will keep us together / We can beat them for ever and ever / We can be heroes, just for one day" capture an emotion that's as primal as it is timeless.