David Bowie: 15 great songs you might not know
With his influence stretching from music, to film, to fashion, David Bowie is considered among the greatest and most groundbreaking artists and musicians of all time.
However, despite being best known for songs such as “Let’s Dance”, “Space Oddity”, and “Life on Mars?”, there are many great tracks within his back catalogue which often go unnoticed.
On the fifth anniversary of his death, here are fifteen great tracks from the late singer-songwriter’s back catalogue which you might not know.
“Memory of a Free Festival”, David Bowie (Space Oddity) (1969)
A track reminiscing on an arts festival Bowie organised in 1969, “Memory of a Free Festival” comes from an album remembered for its opening track “Space Oddity”. However, it is significant for one important reason.
A 1970 rock-orientated rework was the first Bowie studio recording to feature guitarist Mick Ronson and drummer Mick Woodmansey, which would later morph into the Spiders from Mars and is the more memorable version for it. The track is also known for its ending refrain, which is comparable to The Beatles’ “Hey Jude”.
While it may not rank too highly in terms of the greatest Bowie tracks, “Memory of a Free Festival”, particularly its reworked version, was a key moment in shaping the singer-songwriter’s artistic trajectory at the time.
“The Width of a Circle”, The Man Who Sold the World (1970)
The opening track to Bowie’s third album, “The Width of a Circle” is a fascinating eight-minute prog rocker from a period where Bowie was still developing his sound; it’s comparable to the music released by Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath at the time.
Mick Ronson’s lauded guitar work dominates the track from the start and is an excellent example of how his lead lines were key to tying most of the tracks on The Man Who Sold the World together, as well as the entire Ziggy Stardust era.
“The Width of a Circle” also featured lyrics by Bowie describing a sexual encounter with God in the devil’s lair during the track’s R&B-inflected second half, which was an early example of the transgressive lyricism, which would be peppered throughout his catalogue. Undoubtedly, this is one of the lost jewels from his early career.
“Queen Bitch”, Hunky Dory (1971)
The penultimate track to Bowie’s 1971 album, “Queen Bitch” is one of several songs from Hunky Dory to pay homage to some of Bowie’s early influences – in this case, Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground.
“Queen Bitch” is also the first track to fully embody the sound that would come to dominate Ziggy Stardust and (to a much lesser extent) Aladdin Sane.
With energy comparable to “Moonage Daydream” and “Ziggy Stardust” from his 1972 follow-up and an undercurrent of seediness reminiscent of The Velvet Underground and Nico, this was the Spiders on Mars firing on all cylinders before they were formally christened as such.
Like many of Bowie’s classic albums however, it is overshadowed by several of his most well-known and acclaimed songs (“Changes”, “Oh! You Pretty Things” and “Life on Mars?”), but it doesn’t mean it’s worth any less time or attention.
“Lady Grinning Soul”, Aladdin Sane (1973)
Bondian in its grandiosity, sultry in its delivery, while oozing with sexual ambiance, the closing number to 1973’s Aladdin Sane is not only the best song on the album, but is arguably the greatest Bowie song only die-hard fans know of.
Backed by remarkable performances by jazz pianist Mike Garson and guitarist Mick Ronson, “Lady Grinning Soul” is a four-minute-long art rock masterpiece, which sounds like nothing else in Bowie’s catalogue. Bowie’s vocal performance is not to be overlooked either, with the final refrain of “she will be your living end” ranking as one of his greatest moments put to wax.
What is even more remarkable is that “Lady Grinning Soul” was a last-minute addition to the album, replacing a rework of his glam rock standalone single “John, I’m Only Dancing”. As deep cuts go, it is one of the most essential in Bowie’s catalogue.
“Fascination”, Young Americans (1975)
For all of Bowie’s talk of Young Americans being a “plastic soul” album, “Fascination” has soul in abundance.
Co-written with a then-unknown Luther Vandross (whose career would be launched off of Young Americans’ trans-Atlantic success), “Fascination” is a sexy, sensual deep cut from this 1975 album, which was the epitome of the rising disco movement on the U.S. East Coast in the mid-to-late 1970’s.
‘Fascination’ is also a rare 70s Bowie song, which is neither unique nor groundbreaking. However, its groove alone is too irresistible to deny it.
Its appearance on a Bowie album, which still receives mixed reviews, alongside its two singles (the title track, and “Fame”) being massive critical and commercial hits, means that ‘Fascination’ was overlooked at the time, making it a potential hidden gem of the “plastic soul”/Thin White Duke period.
“Word on a Wing”, Station to Station (1976)
Despite being written while under the cocaine-addled guise of the Thin White Duke, “Word on a Wing” was arguably one of the first times David Bowie wrote from his own perspective.
A gospel-inspired blue-eyed soul number, “Word on a Wing” focuses solely on Bowie and the inner dichotomy between himself and the Duke. When put into context of Station to Station as an album, it becomes a serious cry for help. Delving into his near-broken psyche of the time, “Word on a Wing” puts in plain view a man who no longer knows where Bowie ends and the Duke begins.
Roy Bittan’s piano work is also noteworthy for its delicate balance between dramatic and restrained, which helps to amplify the emotional intensity at the perfect moment, with a false key change at the 4:40 mark being the track’s highlight. “Word on a Wing” is less of an underrated Bowie track, and more of an essential deep cut.
Bowie would not replicate a studio performance with such emotional potency until the release of his final album, Blackstar, in 2016.
“Stay”, Station to Station (1976)
Developed from a funk-inspired rework of “John, I’m Only Dancing” (which was meant to be on the Young Americans album), “Stay” is Station to Station’s answer to a blues rock nightclub banger, which unfortunately never reached dancefloors.
Featuring one of the finest performances from his late 70s backing band of Carlos Alomar (rhythm guitar), George Murray (bass), and Dennis Davis (drums), “Stay” also features three blistering guitar solos from lead guitarist Earl Slick, all of which gel together to perfectly encapsulate the uncertainties which come from seeking casual romance.
Bowie’s semi-detached vocal performance does an effective job of selling the proposed romance as a casual affair, and is key track in showcasing the now famous description of the Thin White Duke being “ice masquerading as fire”.
The unique hybrid of blues rock, funk, and soul found on “Stay” is an early blueprint of what Bowie would attempt with his 1983 album, Let’s Dance. However, despite its three singles (“Let’s Dance”, “Modern Love”, and “China Girl”) fully capitalising on the commercial and artistic potential found on “Stay”, it would not sound as thrillingly frenetic as it does on the Station to Station cut.
“The Secret Life of Arabia”, “Heroes” (1977)
Foreshadowing elements of world music which Bowie would explore on 1979’s Lodger, “The Secret Life of Arabia” can feel a little out of place as the closing track to “Heroes”. However, it is a necessary bridge linking the two latter installments of Bowie’s Berlin Trilogy together.
Its inclusion on Lodger would have been too much of a sudden shift in sound. However, it would not be as drastic a shift compared to Bowie’s return to experimentation in the 1990’s on albums such as Outside and Earthling.
With its sense of adventure, mystery, and an impassioned vocal performance moving wildly between bass to falsetto, it is an infectious three-and-a-half minute earworm.
While it might not be the most groundbreaking song in Bowie’s oeuvre, its inclusion on an album where the title track is widely considered among the greatest songs of all time, means it is easily overlooked by casual fans.
“DJ”, Lodger (1979)
Released as Lodger’s second single in June 1979, it stalled at number 29 in the UK, primarily due to its uncommerical nature, and was seen as an extremely bold voice of a single, even by Bowie’s standards.
A cynical comment on the cult of radio DJ’s, “DJ” is Bowie’s David Byrne moment, with his vocal delivery imitating the Talking Heads’ frontman, who was collaborating with Brian Eno on several projects at the time, which included Heads’ albums Fear of Music and Remain in Light.
What makes “DJ” such a standout on Lodger is its highly danceable rhythm section, infectiously simple hook, and Adrian Belew’s brilliantly mangled guitar work, while also borrowing production values from the New York no wave scene of the late 70s.
The sonic blueprint of “DJ” would be replicated on “Fashion”, released as the second single from 1980’s Scary Monsters, which cracked the UK top five.
Despite the emerging new wave, post-punk, and new romantic scenes (which Bowie’s Berlin period was regularly cited as a significant influence), “DJ” remains a highly overlooked song on one of Bowie’s most underrated albums.
“Crystal Japan”, Japanese-exclusive single (1980)
This Japanese-exclusive single is an ominous ambient track similar to instrumentals “Warszawa” (from Low), and “Sense of Doubt” (from “Heroes”).
Unsettling, yet simultaneously tranquil, “Crystal Japan” feels like a soundtrack to a Kyoto temple and does what a great instrumental should: it takes you out of the world for a moment, while making time seem much longer than it is, all without sounding drawn out.
Originally written to close 1980’s Scary Monsters, it was dropped in favour of including a reprise of the opener, “It’s No Game”. Its exclusion from Scary Monsters is the one gripe from an album often ranked among Bowie’s best.
“Teenage Wildlife”, Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) (1980)
Written partially as a reaction to the acts Bowie inspired during the late 1970s, particularly Gary Numan, “Teenage Wildlife” is the Scary Monsters’ moment of emotive grandiosity.
Set to a musical backdrop similar to “‘Heroes’”, “Teenage Wildlife” featured Robert Fripp of King Crimson on lead guitar (who also played on “Heroes”). Like many of Bowie’s guitarist collaborators, Fripp’s work is a major standout, with his guitar solo being one of the most satisfying found on any Bowie track.
“Teenage Wildlife” is also among Bowie’s most memorable from a lyrical standpoint. The delivery of the line “As ugly as a teenage millionaire/Pretending it’s a whizz kid world” rivals that of “I never thought I’d need so many people” from the song “Five Years”, which opens The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.
Despite hosting two of Bowie’s biggest selling singles and career highlights in “Ashes to Ashes” and “Fashion”, “Teenage Wildlife” not only stands as one of Scary Monsters’ best moments, but is one of Bowie’s greatest deep cuts, which can stand toe-to-toe with almost anything else he ever recorded.
“No Control”, 1. Outside (1995)
A deep cut from arguably, the most underrated album of the Bowie canon, “No Control”, and the Outside album in general, is reflective of Bowie’s renewed interest in the trends of the time, which he would continue to explore on 1997’s Earthling.
Heavily influenced by the industrial rock scene popularised by Nine Inch Nails (who Bowie would tour with in support of Outside), “No Control” is arguably Outside’s most conventional moment, on an album where Bowie did away with conventionalism once more – a callback to his Berlin Trilogy.
Lyrically, “No Control” sees Bowie meditate on the notion of spirituality and new Paganism, via the lens of the album’s protagonist, Detective Nathan Adler, inspired by the works of Freud, Einstein, and Nietzsche, with the latter being an influence on Bowie’s lyrics stretching as far back as The Man Who Sold the World.
The sheer density of Outside, even the singles “Hallo Spaceboy” and “The Heart’s Filthy Lesson”, make “No Control” a more accessible track to introduce yourself to Bowie’s experimental dark horse.
Fun fact: A version of “No Control”, with new lyrics written by Bowie before his death, was featured in SpongeBob SquarePants: The Broadway Musical.
“The Voyeur of Utter Destruction (as Beauty)”, 1. Outside (1995)
While Bowie might not have been at a creative apex in the 90’s, his willingness to explore the sonic landscapes which inhabited the periphery of the mainstream during the mid-1990’s is highly commendable. “The Voyeur of Utter Destruction” is one of the best tracks to come from this experimental phase of Bowie’s career.
Rhythmically hypnotic, this Outside deep cut is a masterclass in building tension through song. The colour of Mike Garson’s piano and Reeves Gabrels’s lead lines do enough to keep what would be an incredibly repetitive rhythm section from feeling stale.
It does take nearly three minutes for the seemingly never-ending pull of such tension to be released, but the pay-off is immensely satisfying for those with the patience to hear it out.
“The Voyeur of Utter Destruction” also has an unfortunate placing on Outside, being the only track sequenced between two segues, which makes it a prime target to be overlooked, especially as Outside was Bowie’s longest studio album at just under 75 minutes. Its impact is much more pronounced as a standalone track.
“Sunday”, Heathen (2002)
The opening track to David Bowie’s 2002 album is understated in its performance and delivery, and evocative in its tone, sounding like a modern take on a church hymn.
Written and recorded before, during, and after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, “Sunday” feels like the overture to a stage show where the anxieties of modern America are in full focus, where Bowie had been based since the early 1980’s. In some ways, ‘Sunday’ is a rare track from the third act of Bowie’s career; it does feel ahead of its time, with such anxieties in America only becoming more pronounced in the near two decades since.
This late-period Bowie number also displays the richness within his baritone vocals at this time. While there may be more memorable single moments vocally from Bowie’s 70’s work, a case can be made that his voice generally was at its best during this period.
“Loving the Alien”, A Reality Tour (2010); originally on Tonight (1984)
While originally released as the lead single from 1984’s Tonight, reaching the number 19 in the UK, “Loving the Alien” was reworked in the early 2000’s in collaboration with Gerry Leonard (Bowie’s touring and recording guitarist at the time) into a stripped-back, semi-acoustic ballad.
While the original version is a fine mid-80s pop ballad, the rework brings out the potential hidden beneath its polished production, something Bowie himself expressed disappointment with in his later years.
Before performing the song at a 2003 Dublin concert, taken from the A Reality Tour, Bowie said that the reworked version felt like the definitive version of the song.
As live performances of Bowie’s songs goes, it is one of his finest recorded moments and perhaps one of his most overlooked.
A career defined by breaking boundaries…
David Bowie’s career was defined by a constant restlessness to push boundaries, whether they be artistic, musical, or most importantly, social. Ziggy Stardust helped to dispel the stigma surrounding sexuality and gender fluidity decades before it became commonplace, while his 1987 performance of his seminal track “‘Heroes'” in West Berlin was considered a catalyst culminating in the fall of the Berlin Wall two years later.
While his career was defined by pushing the limitations of rock music, his ability to consistently challenge societal norms remains undoubtedly David Bowie’s greatest achievement.