Disappointing Albums, Music

51 disappointing albums: David Bowie, ‘Pin Ups’

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Each week TONY THOMPSON discusses a ‘disappointing album’: why it’s disappointing, what that means in the context of the band or musician’s career, and what that says about changing critical tastes.

One thing must be made clear,” he says, this is not a series about terrible albums. They might be disappointing, but they are records that you need to hear.

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It’s probably reasonable to suggest that the 1960s finally ended some time in 1973. Decades have a way of hanging around for a few years into the new one. 1973 is a key year in rock and roll. Roxy Music’s For Your Pleasure and Iggy Pop’s Raw Power both point the way forward, while Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon discards peace and love for lofty and cynical. Tubular Bells, Selling England By The Pound and Alice Cooper’s Billion Dollar Babies all sound a very long way from 1969.

Perhaps it was all this ‘making it new’ that prompted not one, but three acts to release oldies, or more charitably, covers albums in October of that year. Moondog Matinee by The Band, Those Foolish Things by Bryan Ferry, and perhaps most surprisingly, Pinups by David Bowie. The Who’s Quadrophenia, a ‘rock opera’ set in the mid sixties also appeared that month.

Pinups is among a small handful of Bowie albums that can be described as slightly disappointing. No Bowie album ever really stunk but certainly there are some clunkers like Tonight, and 22 Hours. But even those 1990s albums have their fans.

Bowie always divided opinion, as any restless and creative artist will. He changed gears and he lost fans while gaining new ones. His body of work is incredible and he was never dull or predictable. I wanted to include a Bowie album in this column but it wasn’t easy finding one.

Bowie always divided opinion, as any restless and creative artist will. He changed gears and he lost fans while gaining new ones.

Pinups certainly disappointed fans at the time. Aladdin Sane seemed to build on the promise of Ziggy that in turn developed the sound of Hunky Dory. The Spiders From Mars were a backing band from heaven. Mick Ronson remains Bowie’s greatest collaborator. Fans might have anticipated a challenging record, something that extended the more abstract ideas of Aladdin Sane and took the whole Ziggy character to another level. What they didn’t expect was a jukebox musical, something like ‘When We Was Mod,’ by David Bowie. But that’s what they got.

It starts off okay with a very faithful cover of The Pretty Things’ Rosalyn. Ronson is more than capable of replicating Dick Taylor’s proto-punk guitar lines and Bowie does his best to capture something of vocalist Phil May’s barking urgency.

One of the joys of this album for many people, including me when I bought it in the 1980s, was tracking down the originals of these songs. The Pretty Things were not well known in America so the inclusion of two of their songs provided a mission for Saturday morning record buyers. Similarly, many Pink Floyd fans in the US had probably never heard See Emily Play.

The Syd Barrett era, strange as it seems now, was quickly forgotten in the wake of Atom Heart Mother, Meddle, and Dark Side. Bowie probably sounds surer on the Floyd song than anything else here. Barrett’s influence on glam is well documented so perhaps Bowie is in more familiar territory. This is less the case on songs like The Mojos’ Everything’s Alright and The Yardbirds’ I Wish You Would.

A cover should always be an interpretation that somehow reveals something new about the song. Dave Edmunds’ cover of I Hear You Knocking from 1972 is a good example. He manages to update the song without losing the thing that made it great when Fats did it in the fifties. Too many of these songs sound like thin rehashes rather than the clever rethinks one might expect from a chap like Bowie. The Mojos’ song is so overpolished that it sounds absurd and The Yardbirds’ song, itself a slightly inferior cover of the Billy Boy Arnold original, doesn’t work at all. When Bowie was still a young mod called David Jones, he was singing Chicago blues standards nightly. There is no excuse!

The Kinks, like Syd Barrett, can take some credit as glam forefathers. Bowie seems to find something in Where Have All The Good Times Gone. The Easybeats on the other hand elude him completely. Friday on My Mind sounds like Wednesday last week.

Why is it disappointing?

It’s affectionate but lacks the edge that Bowie was more than capable of bringing to a cover version. Listen to his take on Neil Young’s I’ve Been Waiting For You on Heathen. Magnificent. The obvious answer would have been more interesting and more appropriate song choices. Instead of The Yardbird’s Shapes of Things To Come, which he spoils with jive operatic flourishes, why not a late Small Faces song? The Who covers don’t work either. I wish he’d covered a Stones song, something like Mother’s Little Helper or She’s A Rainbow.

Why should you hear it?

Mick Ronson is in top form here and saves the album with his inventive guitar work. There are certainly highlights, like See Emily Play and The Mersey’s Sorrow. This was it for The Spiders and in fact, Woody Woodmansley was already gone, replaced here by Ansley Dunbar, who played in The Mojos, as it happens. There’s one for trivia night.

The next stop was Diamond Dogs with the Thin White Duke waiting in the wings. Perhaps the real disappointment was that this was the last chapter of a brilliant story and as they often are, it was a bit of a letdown.

For the rest of this series, click here.

One response to “51 disappointing albums: David Bowie, ‘Pin Ups’

  1. Nothing with Mick Ronson on it is disappointing. I thought and still think that Let’s Dance was a sell out and an over polished turd. That was disappointing!

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