David Bowie emerged from hiding this month to share an original song he'd written for the upcoming six-part European series The Last Panthers. The song is unlikely to become a massive hit on the scale of "Let's Dance" and "Young Americans," but those songs are really the exception in his vast catalog. Most of his work doesn't gets played on radio and is never heard in karaoke bars, but is no less vital than the handful of songs that happened to become enormous smashes. We asked our readers to select their favorite David Bowie deep cuts. Here are the results.
"This has been one of the greatest tours of our lives," Bowie said before the last song of his final Ziggy Stardust concert. "Of all of the shows on this tour, this particular show will remain with us the longest because not only is it — not only is it the last show of the tour, but it's the last show that we'll ever do." The audience shrieked in horror, thinking it meant that Bowie was retiring as opposed to merely doing away with the Ziggy Stardust character. There was only one song that could follow such an announcement: "Rock and Roll Suicide." It's the last song on The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, focusing on the character's tragic end. Bowie hasn't played the song in 25 years.
The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars is a very rough concept album about an alien rock star that tries to rally the world during its final five years before humanity is obliterated. It kicks off with the haunting "Five Years" where the planet learns its horrible fate. "News had just come over," Bowie songs. "We had five years left to cry in/News guy wept and told us/Earth was really dying/Cried so much his face was wet/Then I knew he was not lying." Bowie retired the song in 1978, but he brought it back in 2003 where it began the encore section of most of his shows.
Virtually no entry in the David Bowie songbook has confused the hardcores quite like "The Bewlay Brothers." It was the final track recorded for Hunky Dory and Bowie said at the time the lyrics were nonsense, but in later years he hinted it was inspired by his schizophrenic half-brother Terry. "I was never quire sure what real position Terry had in my life," he said in 2000, "whether Terry was a real person or whether I was actually referencing another part of me, and I think 'Bewlay Brothers' was really about that." Others have seen clear homosexual overtones in the surreal lyrics, but Bowie's never commented on that. He's also only played it five times, and those were all between 2002 and 2004.
David Bowie grew close to Iggy Pop during the 1972 Ziggy Stardust tour, and one day the Stooges frontman kept him entertained with tales of Detroit characters he knew in his younger years. Bowie spun the narrative into "Panic in Detroit," which is about a guy that "looked a lot like Che Guevara" and "kept his gun in quiet seclusion." It then descends into a wild tale of urban violence and depression, punctuated with a nice Bo Diddley beat. It was played on the final leg of the Ziggy Stardust tour and became one of the highlights of Aladdin Sane.
There's a lot to unpack in "Quicksand," the soaring 1971 Bowie ballad that references Aleister Crowley, Heinrich Himmler, World War II double agent Joan Pujol Garcia and Winston Churchill. Bowie says it was inspired by his first trip to America earlier in the year, calling it a mixture of "narrative and surrealism." Trying to find any sort of coherent message is pretty much impossible, but it's a great way to wrap up the first side of Hunky Dory. It was only played a handful of songs in the 1970s, but in 1997 it became a regular part of his live show.
Bowie's 1970 LP The Man Who Sold the World is best known for its title track, but Bowie nuts know the real gem on the album is eight-minute song that kicks it off. Bowie knew he had something special on his hands and he slowly cobbled the epic song together over months, and embryonic versions of the tune can be heard on Bowie at the Beeb collection. The finished version finally showed the world what Bowie was capable of achieving, especially with new guitarist Mick Ronson at his side. The song wouldn't get much attention when it first hit, but on the Ziggy Stardust tour two years later, Bowie turned "The Width of a Circle" into a 15-minute showstopper.
"Stay" isn't a traditional rock song, but it's also not exactly funk or soul. This was a magical period where Bowie was combining all those genres, throwing in enough cocaine to make him think his TV was talking to him, and coming up with a radically unique sound. The whole album was cut during vampire hours in the fall of 1975 and it baffled some critics and fans when it hit shelves the following year, though today it's hailed as an absolute masterpiece. It was a key part of his live show for decades, and he actually played it in concert a few times more than even "Life on Mars."
"It's not the side effects of the cocaine," David Bowie sings in the title track to Station to Station. "I'm thinking that it must be love." Nope, he was right the first time. It was the cocaine. He snorted so much of the white powder during the making of Station to Station that he claims to have virtually no memory of the sessions. This is a drug that has ruined many a rock album (see much of Elton John's 1980s work), but somehow it opened up new areas of Bowie's brain and allowed him to cobble together this surreal 10-minute song that no man not deep into a state of cocaine psychosis could have ever made. Again, this is the exception that proves the rule about coke-fueled albums. They usually turn out like Oasis' Be Here Now.
"Moonage Daydream" is one of the pivotal tunes from The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars, but the song actually pre-dates the album by quite some time. Bowie wrote the tune in 1971 and released it as a single with his short-lived side project Arnold Corns, but the next year he revisited it for Ziggy Stardust and shot the tune full of adrenaline and a wicked guitar solo by Mick Ronson. Ziggy would often leave the stage while Ronson did his thing, but many in the crowd barely realized since they were so captivated by the solo.
As the 1970s faded into the 1980s, David Bowie felt a little frustrated. His newest album Lodger was a critical and commercial disappointment, and suddenly he felt a little passé as a new generation of artists that he inspired started taking over the charts. Bowie has never pointed to any single individual as the inspiration for "Teenage Wildlife," but Gary Numan thinks it was him and he could very well be right. "A broken nosed mogul are you one of the new wave boys?" Bowie sings. "Same old thing in brand new drag comes sweeping into view/As ugly as a teenage millionaire pretending it's a whizz kid world."
The song was one of the many great tracks on his 1980 LP Scary Monsters, and proof that the "new wave boys" were in no danger of stealing his crown. Bowie didn't tour in support of Scary Monsters, and he never played "Teenage Wildlife" until his 1995 Outside tour.