David Bowie was never afraid to experiment. From his debut in the late ’60s to his final album in 2016, the incomparable artist followed his muse wherever it sent him. Every album took on a slightly different style and aesthetic.
Videos by American Songwriter
Videos by American Songwriter
Given the expansive nature of his catalog (and the pervasiveness of his biggest hits), a number of stellar Bowie songs have fallen by the wayside. Those are the songs we wish to highlight today. Find five deep cuts from Bowie that you should be listening to, below.
1. “Teenage Wildlife”
“Teenage Wildlife” is long thought to be a commentary about Bowie’s place as a ’70s icon. The lyrics can be read as a slight to anyone young and successful, including the Thin White Duke himself.
“I guess it would be addressed to a mythical teenage brother, if I had one,” Bowie once said. “Or maybe it’s addressed to my latter-day adolescent self, I’m not sure. Trying to correct all those things that one thinks one’s done wrong.”
With Bowie’s singular vocals, sweeping guitar solos and a chorus backing him up, “Teenage Wildlife” should be on your radar if it’s not already.
Taken from the album Station to Station, “Stay” somehow escaped the more casual Bowie fans. The song opens up with a snippet of a guitar solo that is reminiscent of a swanky film noir. Bowie then abruptly cuts the tension with the opening line This week dragged past me so slowly / The days fell on their knees.
Carlos Alomar, who lent his guitar prowess to the song, once said, “‘Stay’ was fabulous! We had a field day with that one. That was recorded very much in our cocaine frenzy. ‘Stay’ was basically done with the rhythm section. It was pretty funky and pretty much straight ahead. I wrote out a chart and said this was pretty much what we wanted to do.”
“That song I think David did on the guitar,” he continued. “He strummed a few chords for me, and then we gave it back to him. The rhythm section really liked that one, and then Earl Slick covered some of the lines I had laid down with a thicker sound.”
3. “The Width of a Circle”
He swallowed his pride and puckered his lips / And showed me the leather belt round his hips / My knees were shaking, my cheeks aflame / He said, you’ll never go down to the Gods again, Bowie sings in “The Width of a Circle.” The sensual song has long been thought to be about Bowie describing a sexual encounter with a male deity.
“I used to have periods, weeks on end, when I just couldn’t cope anymore,” Bowie once said of the song. “I’d slump into myself…I felt so depressed, and I really felt so aimless, and this torrential feeling of ‘what’s it all for anyway?'”
“‘Width of the Circle’ was definitely that I went to the depths of myself in that,” he continued. “I tried to analogize the period of my life from when I left school to that time to the making of that LP. Just for my own benefit, not really for any listener’s benefit. I very much doubt whether anyone could decipher that song correctly on my level. But a lot of people have deciphered it on their own levels. That’s fine that’s what a song does.”
4. “Cygnet Committee”
“Cygnet Committee” is Bowie’s second longest studio-recorded track ever, clocking in at 9 minutes and 36 seconds. In the lyrics, Bowie undergoes a realization that the hippy movement was, at times, self-destructive, bigoted and manipulative. He once dubbed the song “even better” than “Space Oddity.”
“It’s basically three separate points of view about the more militant section of the hippy movement,” Bowie once said. “The movement was a great ideal but something’s gone wrong with it now. I’m not really attacking it but pointing out that the militants have still got to be helped as people – human beings – even if they are going about things all the wrong way.”
5. “Five Years”
A little more well-known than some on this list, “Five Years” is yet another triumph on Bowie’s The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and Spiders from Mars.
Like much of the album, Bowie prophecizes on “Five Years,” detailing the end of the world. The lyrics bare a striking resemblance to the modern world, making it even more relevant today than it was in the ’70s. News guy wept and told us / Earth was really dying / Cried so much his face was wet / Then I knew he was not lying, he sings.
Photo credit should read NILS MEILVANG/AFP via Getty Images)