I’ll admit, it took me years to actually grok what David Bowie’s music was all about. I was of course familiar with all the tunes you hear on classic rock radio: Rebel Rebel, Fame, Ziggy Stardust, Space Oddity, and so on… I was also familiar with his early 80s output, thanks to MTV: Let’s Dance, Modern Love, Ashes to Ashes, Fashion… all those poppy songs and weird videos. But I didn’t even own a Bowie album until high school when I found The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust in a Salvation Army bin for fifty cents.
I was a huge fan of his Tin Machine project, especially since I’d felt 1987’s Never Let Me Down was, to put it bluntly, quite dull and lifeless. Tin Machine revealed a much-needed energy that was lacking in most of his 80s output.
And it really wasn’t until 1997’s Earthling that I finally decided to actively start checking out his back catalogue, and figured out why he had such a huge following.
I started picking up the Rykodisc reissues and got myself caught up. I finally figured out why the Berlin Trilogy is so revered. I was intrigued by the numerous evolutions of his style and look in the 70s. And interestingly, I found myself really liking a lot of the less famous tunes of his! Over the years I’ve finally acquired most if not all of his discography, and I’ve really come to appreciate just how creative he was.
Thinking about some of the great musicians we lost this year, I realized that Bowie, Prince, and George Michael all had career-changing releases in 1987. It was probably the last year I paid any significant attention to commercial rock and the countdown charts before I sold my soul to college radio, but I still kept my ears (and eyes) open for the big names at the time.
David Bowie’s Never Let Me Down (released 27 April 1987) was a big seller but had a mixed reaction from its critics. Having spent most of the 80s recording catchy but less-than-adventurous chart rock, after this album he’d work with Reeves Gabrels and Hunt and Tony Sales to form Tin Machine — an often maligned side project, but in my opinion a much needed boost to his creativity. He’d follow up in the 90s with much stronger albums and critical success. It took me a while to warm up to this album, as I too felt Bowie had fallen into a bit of a rut and was going through the motions, but in retrospect it’s still a solid album.
Prince’s Sign o’ the Times (released 30 March 1987) is one of my top favorite albums of his, and its creation story is even more fascinating. Known for creating multiple side projects that may or may not come to fruition, Prince took the best parts of his Camille project (recording under a different name, an altered voice, and an even more androgynous image), the last dregs of two aborted projects with the Revolution before he ended that group (Dream Factory and Crystal Ball), and filled it out with his own solo tracks to create a fantastic double album full of funk, pop, psychedelia, rock, and even a few of his patented weird psych-outs. I always felt this album was the point where he’d left his over-the-top 80s pop persona behind and became more serious about his music. He’d hit a few more roadblocks and make a few more wrong turns, but by the early 90s he’d hit his stride and become an even bigger star. I still listen to this album, it’s that damn good.
I remember hearing American Top 40 premiering George Michael’s “I Want Your Sex” single in the summer of 1987 and being blown away by it — the lite-pop production of Wham! was long gone (it had started slipping away with his “A Different Corner” single from spring 1986) and replaced by HUGE sounds and a hell of a lot of funk, and I loved the sound of it. Radio and fans wondered what he was going to do next, having completely shed the goofy fun of his previous band. His solo debut Faith (released 30 October 1987) was the result: mature, intensely creative and absolutely amazing. I chose “Father Figure” here (even though the single dropped in January of 1988) because it’s my favorite song from the album…it’s a gorgeous and stunning ballad and I love the sparse-yet-cavernous sound of the production.