Robert Forster's guide to David Bowie in the '70s
"In 1972 I was 15 years old, I was in school in Brisbane and I was at home one day sick," Forster says, starting the show at the beginning of the decade.
"I was sitting in a chair, listening to a radio station in Brisbane called 4IP, which was an AM commercial station. Suddenly, this 12-string acoustic guitar came on and this voice came through the radio – a voice like I’d never heard before – singing this incredible song.
"It was almost like the beginning of music for me."
"I was transfixed; an amazing chorus, this voice entranced me. At the end of the song the DJ said ‘That was David Bowie performing a song called ‘Starman’ off an album called The Rise & Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars,’ and that was the most incredible sentence I’d ever heard in my life."
Covering this monumental musical force is no small feat: Bowie released 11 records in the ‘70s and covered more stylistic ground than most artists approach in an entire career, so Forster has called on some friends – and fellow Bowie devotees – to help him out.
Powderfinger frontman Bernard Fanning is, like Forster, a Brisbane songwriter who made it big with his band before embarking on a successful solo career. He’s also a major Bowie fan.
Tim Morrissey is one of the vocalists and guitarists in Brisbane indie-pop group The John Steel Singers, who had Forster produce their 2010 debut album Tangalooma.
1970: The Man Who Sold The World
"For Bowie insiders, The Man Who Sold The World is a favourite album. It’s a bit of a dark horse in his catalogue," Forster says. "It’s sort of hippie heavy metal/rock, with some great songs."
Bowie’s third album – and the first of this fruitful decade – took the harder elements of his 1969 self-titled album and made them wilder, noisier and more glorious. The record was his first with backing band The Spiders From Mars and a key early piece in the history of glam rock.
"It could be Led Zeppelin," Forster says as the blazing guitars of 'She Shook Me Cold' ring out. Guitarist Mick Ronson was heavily influenced by the sounds of Zeppelin, plus fellow British hard rockers Black Sabbath and Jeff Beck.
1971: Hunky Dory
Hunky Dory is Forster’s favourite David Bowie album. Bowie hadn’t quite hit stardom, but he’d developed significantly as a songwriter, laying down songs that would become iconic hits, like ‘Changes’ and ‘Life On Mars?’. But the ballad ‘Kooks’ is Forster’s highlight.
"It’s a folk song written about his son – him and his wife Angie had had a boy called Zowie and he wrote this beautiful song for his son. There are heavier songs, there’s more well-known songs, but for me this has always been a key track off Hunky Dory."
The influence of Hunky Dory also shines through in the work of Forster’s friends, both Fanning and Morrissey choosing tracks from the 1971 record as their favourite Bowie songs.
Bernard Fanning says the song he’d most like to cover is ‘Oh! You Pretty Things’.
"It has all of the melodic and poetic sense of Bowie doing his more folky kind of stuff, then it releases to a big rock chorus," Fanning says.
"There’s a lot of speculation about Bowie having all of this Nietzschean influence and all this talk of homo sapiens and homo superiors in this song, but it doesn’t really matter to me what it’s about. It’s got an incredible groove, it’s got beautifully played piano and it’s super catchy – it’s a completely whistleable chorus."
Tim Morrissey counts ‘Queen Bitch’ as his favourite Bowie song from the 1970s.
"It’s just that Eddie Cochrane riff that comes in at the start, Bowie on the acoustic and then Mick Ronson comes in on the distorted electric guitar,” he says. “It’s just one of these songs that makes you wanna get up and dance as soon as you hear it."
1972: The Rise & Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars
The Rise & Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars is one of the great concept records of all time, and an album that saw Bowie continue to grow; both creatively and as a popular figure. While Forster counts ‘Lady Stardust’ as his favourite song from the album, the more popular cuts from it are the rollicking ‘Suffragette City’, the dramatic ‘Rock’n’Roll Suicide’ and, of course, ‘Starman’.
"In a way it’s the song that made Bowie a star," Forster says of ‘Starman’. "I ask you to listen to the 12-string acoustic at the start, the ‘la-la’ vocals. It’s a bit of a false start for the first 15 seconds, then a drum roll comes in and, really, it’s the beginning of Bowie as a star in the ‘70s."
Bowie’s fascination with classical Japanese drama heavily informed the way the image of his Ziggy Stardust character.
"Ziggy was a hybrid out of a lot of Kabuki characters," Bowie told Australian media in 1978.
"The red hair was from the lion figure, the stacked heel boots was from basic Japanese culture and a lot of the clothes were styled on Kabuki."
1973: Aladdin Sane
"There’s really only one track you can play off Aladdin Sane,” Forster says. The record’s lead single ‘The Jean Genie’ was the record’s lead single and a huge hit for Bowie.
Bowie incorporated elements of jazz and Flamenco into Aladdin Sane, while re-embracing a harder rock sound and channelling the British R&B of his predecessors The Rolling Stones with a rendition of ‘Let’s Spend The Night Together’.
1973: Pin Ups
Bowie had intended to make two covers records in the mid-1970s, but only got around to making one. 1973’s Pin Ups served as a tribute to the music Bowie loved in London in the mid-‘60s, It is packed with tracks originally by The Kinks, The Yardbirds, The Who and Van Morrison’s Them. But among those groups was Australian exports The Easybeats and their 1966 hit, ‘Friday On My Mind’.
"This is probably their greatest track, written and recorded in London; they’d gone there in 1966 and needed a hit badly," Forster says. "When they needed a hit, with their backs against the wall, George Young and Harry Vanda wrote ‘Friday On My Mind'; to my mind, still their greatest pop song ever written. It was covered by Bowie, that’s how good it is."
1974: Diamond Dogs
"That was the big album for me when I was 17," Robert Forster says. "It was the first Bowie album I bought on the first day and, from then on, throughout the decade I bought Bowie albums on the first day.
The Spiders From Mars guitarist Mick Ronson isn’t on this album, Forster notes. “You haven’t got Ronson’s beautiful, loud Les Paul coming through the speakers. Different sounds now start. Bowie starts to expand and go away from the ‘70s rock guitar.”
Diamond Dogs featured the most prominent literary influences on Bowie’s work thus far. Upon his first visit to Australia in 1978, Bowie said the work of authors like William S. Burroughs, Aldous Huxley and George Orwell were significant in informing his work for different reasons.
1975: Station To Station
Robert Forster says ‘Golden Years’ is one of his all-time favourite singles: "This is Bowie as a master."
Bernard Fanning’s favourite David Bowie song also comes from Station To Station: the epic, ten minute title track.
"Obviously the title immediately evokes a whole lot of train imagery, when you listen to the song, the way that it’s put together, it’s a masterpiece of composition for a rock band really," Fanning says.
"There’s a train sample right at the top, which I suppose gets the Eno treatment and the band gets introduced by the train whistle, it’s feedback on an electric guitar, and then every instrument gets introduced – piano, bass, drums, little bits of percussion – and you can hear the actual cogs of the train beginning to move. A train heaving itself into motion.
"It’s so patiently put together that it actually takes a couple of minutes for the band to be full into the song. Then they sit on this riff that sounds like a train heaving itself up a hill or whatever, and finally it kind of releases to a vocal which kind of breaks the tension a little bit. It’s one of the best lyrics he’s ever written – [though] I have no idea what he’s saying – ‘the return of the Thin White Duke, throwing darts in lovers’ eyes’."
While critics adored the record, Bowie claims not to remember anything about recording it due to excessive cocaine use.
Bowie ditched Los Angeles for Europe in the later part of the 1970s, where he was to make three records – Low, “Heroes” and Lodger – that would become known as "the Berlin trilogy".
"Probably the first album I listened to in full was Low," The John Steel Singers’ Tim Morrissey says. "That at first, particularly Side B with all the Eno sort of ambient stuff was a little bit weird at the time, it took me a little bit to come around to that."
Brian Eno’s influence is most profoundly felt in the track ‘Warszawa’, which he co-wrote with Bowie, which illustrates the desolation of the Polish capital of Warsaw.
The title track was an enormous hit, but "Heroes" as a full record is another ‘70s David Bowie masterpiece. Forster’s highlight from this record is the dark, pulsing final track from the first side, ‘Blackout’.
It was after the release of "Heroes" that Bowie first came to Australia, where he was questioned about how he and Brian Eno get along in the studio.
"Splendidly," Bowie says. "We never meet!
"It’s an odd relationship musically, we’re rarely in the studio at the same time, I think that’s show we work best because we can’t stand each other’s working methods. I work very, very fast and he works very, very slowly; he’s very methodic and very careful, and I tend to be very spontaneous. Not that that’s any better than his working method, his working method obviously is very successful.
"I think that makes the collaboration exciting, because we think so very differently. If you start thinking too similarly there is less friction and less results and third ideas."
Lodger didn’t have as rapturous a reception as much of Bowie’s previous 1970’s material, but the record still stands up today. It was the final record in Bowie and Eno’s Berlin Trilogy
“We always talked in terms of doing three albums,” Bowie said in the early stages of Lodger being made. "We’ll not only be finished but I think we’ll be continuing to work together on other projects; in a slightly different vein though, next time."
‘Fantastic Voyage’ might open the album, but it serves as a pleasant closing to this journey – this fantastic voyage, if you will – through David Bowie’s 1970’s catalogue.
Stream the whole Artist In Residence episode now. Robert Forster hosts Artist In Residence for all of May. Catch it at 3pm on Sunday or streaming online for 7 days after.