Sound And Vision: The 40 Definitive David Bowie Songs From The 1970s
By Sarah Norman | September 26, 2023
The music of David Bowie is some of the most ecstatic and nuanced pop music of the 20th and 21st century, but in the 1970s he was on an artistic roll that cemented him as more than a rock star - he became a god. Bowie's entire career is filled with amazing songs, but we're just focusing on his work from the '70s here with a dip into the '60s and a couple of stops into 1980. This definitive rundown of Bowie in the 1970s is full of hits, pop provocations, and star men.
With Space Oddity, Bowie introduced himself to the world as an artistic force to be reckoned with. It would take a few albums for Bowie to fulfill the promise of his mind blowing first single, but this glorious track tells you everything you need to know about this brilliant musician.
Listen: Space Oddity
Wham bam thank you ma'am indeed. When Bowie was at the top of his rock n roll game he couldn't be beat. This track is full of romping stomping glam power, raucous horns and melodic changes that prove that Bowie was far from just a spectacle. Coming in near the end of "Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars," this track shows just how confident the singer was in his songwriting.
Listen: Suffragette City
This bombastic single about the power of love to triumph over anything has long been rumored to be about a couple trying to make things work from opposite sides of the Berlin Wall that Bowie witness while recording in Germany, but the song continues to feel powerful and heartbreaking even removed from its context.
In 2003, Bowie explained the true meaning of "Heroes" to Performing Songwriter:
I’m allowed to talk about it now. I wasn’t at the time. I always said it was a couple of lovers by the Berlin Wall that prompted the idea. Actually, it was Tony Visconti and his girlfriend. Tony was married at the time. And I could never say who it was. But I can now say that the lovers were Tony and a German girl that he’d met whilst we were in Berlin. I did ask his permission if I could say that. I think possibly the marriage was in the last few months, and it was very touching because I could see that Tony was very much in love with this girl, and it was that relationship which sort of motivated the song.
Sound and Vision
"Sound and Vision" proves that even on one of his weirder (and best) albums that Bowie was able to write a groovy bop that incorporates multiple styles while sounding exactly like the songwriter. This mix of Bee Gees groove and Kraftwerk style electronics shows Bowie moving away from being a "rock" musician and becoming something completely different.
Listen: Sound and Vision
Station to Station
"Station to Station" is an insane album for an artist to release regardless of whether it's their first or their tenth, but in the midst of a cocaine haze Bowie managed to craft a record that sounds like it's coming from an alternate dimension. The album opens with the titular track, a song that envelopes your speakers like the sound of a jet engine cracking through the sky. Funky and futuristic, this song introduces audiences to the Thin White Duke while simultaneously blowing their minds.
Listen: Station to Station
"Rebel Rebel" blasts into our speakers with one of the most iconic intros of the 20th century. The song is at both a rallying cry of the English glam scene and a cheeky dismissal of the fashion forward members of the audience who just want to be seen without actually living a freak forward life.
Listen: Rebel Rebel
Ditching the glammed up style of his Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane phases, Bowie traveled to Philadelphia to make a straight up R&B album that ranks among of his best. The album's titular opening track, "Young Americans," pays tribute to the R&B artists of the 1960s while also paying homage to one of Bowie's earliest inspirations, the Beatles.
Producer Tony Visconti later said:
Most British singers — and most English bands — grew up listening to early American R&B and blues. David was of that same ilk. He adored Little Richard and other R&B artists from the ’50s. He was also addicted to Soul Train. He watched it all the time and actually became the first non-black artist to appear on the show. So, it seemed obvious to make an R&B record – and what better place to do that than Sigma Sound in Philadelphia? So, yes, that album had its own world and universe. Before then, I don’t think we had worked with any black musicians. That album, to this day, sounds terrifically fresh. It’s one of my favorite Bowie albums.
Listen: Young Americans
Life on Mars?
Like most great works of art "Life on Mars?" was written out of spite. The song got its start in 1968 when Bowie was hired to write English lyrics for a French song to be performed by crooner Paul Anka. Bowie says that he wrote an "embarrassingly bad" song called "Even A Fool Learns to Love" that Anka rejected. The crooner must have seen something in the song because much of the track was repurposed for Frank Sinatra's torch song "My Way."
Rather than kicking rocks and complaining, Bowie wrote "My Way on Mars" and completely blew the Sinatra song out of the water. In 2008, he told Mail on Sunday:
This song was so easy. Being young was easy. A really beautiful day in the park, sitting on the steps of the bandstand. ‘Sailors bap-bap-bap-bap-baaa-bap.’ An anomic (not a ‘gnomic’) heroine. Middle-class ecstasy. I took a walk to Beckenham High Street to catch a bus to Lewisham to buy shoes and shirts but couldn’t get the riff out of my head. I Jumped off two stops into the ride and more or less loped back to the house up on Southend Road. Workspace was a big empty room with a chaise lounge; a bargain-price art nouveau screen (‘William Morris,’ so I told anyone who asked); a huge overflowing freestanding ashtray and a grand piano. Little else. I started working it out on the piano and had the whole lyric and melody finished by late afternoon. Nice.
Listen: Life on Mars?
The Man Who Sold The World
With "The Man Who Sold The World," Bowie announced himself as more than a one-hit wonder with a Stanley Kubrick fetish. He showed that he could write beautiful, elaborate rock songs that transported viewers into another realm.
Listen: The Man Who Sold The World
Ashes to Ashes
If the first act of David Bowie's career began with "Space Oddity," it was brought to a close with "Ashes to Ashes" in 1980. The gloomy pop masterpiece tells a tale of boredom with ones own success by reframing the main character from Bowie's most well known song as an aging, morose drug addict who simply wishes to return home. The song is a brutal examination of stardom that puts a full stop to Bowie's time as a man singing in character.
Listen: Ashes to Ashes
One of Bowie's biggest hits of the '70s also happens to be a funky rumination on the pointlessness of fame written with a guy who knows all about it - John Lennon. Bowie later said of the concept behind the song:
Fame itself, of course, doesn’t really afford you anything more than a good seat in a restaurant. That must be pretty well known by now. I’m just amazed how fame is being posited as the be-all and end-all. It’s a sad state of affairs.
Part glam, part ur punk, "Diamond Dogs" is an effortless rock n roll track that's so easy going that it feels like a blow off. This song is anything but. It moves through Little Richard style '50s tropes while pre-empting the sounds of bands like The Cramps, and at the same time it's completely singular to Bowie's discography.
Listen: Diamond Dogs
With two distorted chords blasting out of the speakers to announce its place among one of the greatest assortments of songs ever confined to wax, "Moonage Daydream" takes the heavy sounds that permeated the early '70s and infuses them with the kind of cold sensuality that only Bowie can provide. Also, the line "keep your electric eye on me babe" is an all-timer.
Listen: Moonage Daydream
In 1980, Bowie and his band started working on this song under the title "Jamaica" simply because they wrote in the Caribbean, but after the singer spent a little time in the disco scene of New York City he had a stroke of genius. He explained:
When I first started going to discos in New York in the early Seventies there was sort of a very high powered enthusiasm and it had a natural course about it, which seems now to have been replaced by an insidious grim determination to be fashionable, as though it’s actually a vocation. There’s some kind of strange aura about it, and I just wanted to sort of capture that feeling in the song ‘Fashion’. It’s about that grim determination more than anything else.
A vision of dystopia on wax, "Five Years" opens Ziggy Stardust with a doom and gloom look at the end of days - the 1980s. Bowie's moody album opener remains a distinctly brooding look at the present day that feels more and more prescient with each passing day.
Listen: Five Years
Inspired by German electronic pioneers Kraftwerk as well as the German rocket that could be heard blasting across Europe during World War 2, this groovy experimental track shows Bowie in his most comfortable state - making highly listenable songs that are nothing like anything else on the radio.
Listen: V-2 Schneider
The Jean Genie
An ode to Iggy Pop, "Jean Genie" is a romper stomper of a glam rock anthem that shows Bowie in the pop-forward phase that he would return to every few years for maximum fun. Bowie later said of the song:
The Jean Genie’ was an ode to Iggy, I guess, or the ‘Iggy-type’ person – white trash, trailer-park kid thing – the closet intellectual who wouldn’t want the world to know that he reads. I think it’s a really good song and I actually enjoy playing it and singing it. It’s one of the few that I can keep going back to. I guess it’s because it is essentially rooted in straight old-fashioned blues. I mean, it’s basically Muddy Waters’ ‘I’m A Man’, isn’t it?
Listen: The Jean Genie
The opener to Hunky Dory feels timeless thanks to the lush arrangement that has nothing to do with glam rock and everything to do with searching for something new, both in himself and in his own work. In 2000, Bowie said of the song:
I guess it was me being sort of arrogant. It’s sort of baiting an audience, isn’t it? It’s saying, ‘Look, I’m going to be so fast you’re not going to be able to keep up with me.’ It’s that kind of perky arrogance of youth. You think you can get away with anything when you’re young.
"Golden Years" continues the R&B exploration of "Young Americans" while pushing Bowie's sound into a new era. This dancey, grooved out track is the perfect Bowie song for the time because it captures the zeitgeist while taking it somewhere completely new.
What Bowie remembers of the song is that Elvis heard it and might have liked it:
Apparently Elvis heard the demos, because we were both on RCA, and Colonel Tom [Parker, Presley’s manager] thought I should write Elvis some songs. There was talk between our offices that I should be introduced to Elvis and maybe start working with him in a production-writer capacity. But it never came to pass. I would have loved to have worked with him. God, I would have adored it. He did send me a note once. [Perfectly imitates Presley’s drawl] All the best, and have a great tour. I still have that note.
Listen: Golden Years
The Secret Life of Arabia
This song just straight up slaps. Written after Bowie pushed through his fear of flying to travel the world, it was written on the spot with no thought of melody or lyrics. Just more proof of that old Bowie magic.
Producer Tony Vinscoti explains the strange way the song came together:
It’s hard to believe that ‘Beauty And The Beast’ to ‘The Secret Life Of Arabia’ were just backing tracks arranged on the spot with no knowledge of titles, vocal melodies or lyrics. Once a riff was established, as in ‘Beauty And The Beast’, a lick, an interjection, a countermelody, a quirky drum fill all fell into place naturally. Somehow it was mutually sensed where singing would and wouldn’t be. Emotional music textures, not songs, were being recorded.
Listen: The Secret Life of Arabia
Bowie's inspired take on the Velvet Unground still slays as hard today as it did when it was released in 1971. The fact that Bowie would soon count Lou Reed among one of his close friends proves that there was definitely some strange alchemy at play in this track.
Listen: Queen B**tch
Bowie's first true hit single following the success of "Space Oddity," this track is one of those oft heard of Bowie songs that was written in an afternoon at the behest of a record executive requesting a hit.
Spiders from Mars drummer Mick Woodmansey told Music Republic Magazine in 2018:
David went back home that weekend and knocked out ‘Starman’. He played it to us and we all said – well, that’s a single! He could do that when he felt like it… he always had the ability to write a hit song. But he didn’t always want to do that. His message for a particular album, or a particular style he was in, was more important to him than whether he made a hit record with it.
Rock 'n' Roll Suicide
The final track on "The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars" is a true climax in every sense of the word. This song tells the story of Ziggy's final moments where he's murdered by his fans at the peak of his fame so he never has to experience the inevitable downturn that faces someone at the top of their game. Bowie explained:
Ziggy starts to believe […] himself a prophet of the future starman. He takes himself up to incredible spiritual heights and is kept alive by his disciples. When the infinites arrive, they take bits of Ziggy to make themselves real because in their original state they are anti-matter and cannot exist in our world. And they tear him to pieces on stage during the song ‘Rock ‘N’ Roll Suicide’. As soon as Ziggy dies on stage the infinites take his elements and make themselves visible. It is a science fiction fantasy of today…
Listen: Rock 'n' Roll Suicide
This ode to the Orwellian dystopia that Bowie saw the word careening into isn't just a twin vision with 1984, it's the singer writing about his own drug addiction, something that wasn't apparent until he made it clear in the 2010s. Bowie explained:
My drug addiction really started, I suppose you could pin it down to the very last months of the Ziggy Stardust period. Not in a particularly heavy way, but enough to have probably worried some of the people around me. And after that, when we got into Diamond Dogs, that’s when it was out of control. From that period onwards I was a real casualty. I’ve not met many people that… I was in a very serious state. You just have to look at some of the photographs of me, I cannot believe I actually survived it.
Listen: Big Brother
One of the fantastic instrumentals that populates the second side of "Low," the first album in Bowie's Berlin Trilogy, "Subterraneans" is a grand ambient track that begs to be put on repeat. Written under the belief that it would appear on the score to The Man Who Fell To Earth, when Bowie discovered that he would have to submit his work for consideration he decided to put out his own album instead. We're glad he did because "Low" is a wall to wall banger. In 1980, Bowie said:
I was under the impression that I was going to be writing the music for the film but, when I’d finished five or six pieces. I was then told that if I would care to submit my music along with other people’s… and I just said ‘S**t, you’re not getting any of it.’ I was so furious, I’d put so much work into it.
Boys Keep Swinging
With "Boys Keep Swinging" Bowie was playing with the androgynous world he created in his glam phase and swinging the pendulum the other way with a tongue in cheek celebration of masculinity.
Listen: Boys Keep Swinging
The pop flourish of "TVC 15" is stark change of pace from the rest of the gloom that permeates "Station to Station," and it was allegedly written about one of Iggy Pop's drug induced nightmares where he believed that his TV was eating his girlfriend. With its honky tonk piano and four and the floor disco beat the track shows Bowie's innate ability to craft a pop tune even in the middle of a psychotic episode.
Listen: TVC 15
Rock 'n' Roll With Me
This epic torch song about the fear of turning into a rock 'n' roll fascist really feels like the end of an era for this period of Bowie. He wouldn't be totally finished with the characters and costumes for another five or six years, but you can feel how over it he is in this track. Metatextual nonsense aside, Bowie's voice has never sounded finer that it does here.
Listen: Rock 'n' Roll With Me
Oh! You Pretty Things
Bowie's work is all filled with rich subtext and metaphor; in the 1970s much of his work focused on a catastrophic end of days scenario filled with Niestzschean supermen and deep psychoanalysis. Aside from being a really killer song, "Oh! You Pretty Things" is a fascinating cipher that can be used to look at the rest of Bowie's '70s output.
In 1976, Bowie told the BBC:
A lot of the songs do in fact deal with some kind of schizophrenia or alternating id problems and ‘Pretty Things’ was one of them. The sky, the crack in the sky is always… According to Jung, to see cracks in the sky is not, is not really quite on. And I did, you know, the sky for me representing something solid that could be cracked and I still had a dome over the world which again I found out was just my own repressions. I haven’t been to an analyst, my parents went and my brothers and sisters and my aunts and uncles and cousins and … they ended up in a much worse state so I stayed away. I thought I’d write my problems out really.
Listen: Oh! You Pretty Things
Look Back in Anger
Coming in at the end of Bowie's "Berlin Trilogy," Lodger is an album full of experimental swings at pop tunes. Recorded in a fairly contentious manner in '78 and '79, "Look Back in Anger" proves that even when Bowie was moving out of a particular phase he couldn't stop producing the goods.
Listen: Look Back in Anger
Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps)
The title track from Bowie's 14th studio album shows the artist firmly removing himself from the rock world with one of his strangest albums of the era. However not all is as it seems because this song was written long before made its way to 1980.
According to longtime friend and cohort Iggy Pop, the song was sitting on the shelf since the '70s until Bowie transformed it into this truly cool bit of electronic pop. He told Rolling Stone:
David was not a person to waste a piece of music: Never waste an idea. I first heard his 1980 song ‘Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps)’ when we were in a house on Sunset Boulevard in 1974. It was called ‘Running Scared’ at the time. He was playing it on the guitar and wanted to know if I could do something with it. I couldn’t. He kept it and worked it up.
That was another big thing I learned: Don’t throw stuff away.
Beauty and the Beast
"Beauty and the Beast" is such a wild song to open "Heroes," but that's what makes it so wonderful. The song strikes out at the audience with the strange guitar playing of Robert Fripp to create a hallucinatory feeling among listeners that Bowie was so good at capturing.
Listen: Beauty and the Beast
Be My Wife
"Low" is a truly fascinating record in Bowie's discography, with Side A full of Kraftwerk inspired pop tunes and Side B leaning into atmospherics it's like listening to two sides of the singer's personality. "Be My Wife" is one of the few songs in Bowie's discography.
In 1989, Bowie looked back on the entirety of "Low" as a literal low point in his life:
You’re up and down all the time, vacillating constantly. It’s a very tough period to get through. So my concern with Low was not about the music. The music was literally expressing my physical and emotional state… and that was my worry. So the music was almost therapeutic. It was like, Oh yeah, we’ve made an album and it sounds like this. But it was a by-product of my life. It just sort of came out. I never spoke to the record company about it. I never talked to anybody about it. I just made this album… in a rehab state. A dreadful state really.
Listen: Be My Wife
It Ain't Easy
Recorded for "Hunky Dory" but not released until 1972's "The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars," this foot stomping track is just classic glam rock n roll that can't be denied.
Listen: It Ain't Easy
Across The Universe
Yep, we're including Bowie's killer Beatles cover on this list and there's nothing you can do about it. Where Lennon is plaintive Bowie is bombastic. Rather than record a straightforward cover Bowie instead went all out and turned this song into a Philly soul classic.
In 1975, Bowie said of his rendition:
‘Across The Universe’… was a flower power sort of thing John Lennon wrote. I always thought it was fabulous, but very watery in the original, and I hammered the hell out of it. Not many people like it. I like it a lot and I think I sing very well at end of it.
People say I used John Lennon on the track… but let me tell you… no one uses John Lennon. John just came and played on it. He was lovely.
Listen: Across The Universe
A song ruminating on the loss of original ideas, "Quicksand" combines Bowie's fascination with the occult, Nietzsche, and Buddhism into a stunning track that feels completely original in any era.
Don't Bring Me Down
This Fairies cover may come from a contractually obligated album but it shows that Bowie always had the capability to turn on the rock when he needed to. His version of "Don't Bring Me Down" is an absolutely banger.
Listen: Don't Bring Me Down
Part one of a three song suite on "Diamond Dogs," this song features some truly bombastic singing by Bowie as well as one of his rare guitar solos. According to the singer he practiced for weeks before recording the fantastic guitar track:
I knew that the guitar playing had to be more than okay. That couple of months I spent putting that album together before I went into the studio was probably the only time in my life where I really buckled down to learn the stuff I needed to have on the album. I’d actually practice two hours a day. I knew the sound in my head, and at that time I didn’t know musicians who could carry it off.
Listen: Sweet Thing
Joe the Lion
First and foremost David Bowie was an artist, and Joe the Lion captures his desire to create powerful pieces of sound through more than simply sitting down and writing down a verse/chorus/verse/bridge/chorus structure. "Joe the Lion," a raucous tune, was recorded line by line, making the song a mystery until it was finished. Bowie explained:
I had no melody, so I only sang the lines I’d written for four or five bars at a time. Having sung one line, I’d take a breath and do the same thing again, and so on to the end. I never knew the complete melody until I’d finished the song and played the whole thing back.
Listen: Joe the Lion
Up the Hill Backwards
"I'm okay. You're so-so." What amazing couple of lines that are probably meaningless. That's not a dig, the song is inspired by the book Dada: Art and Anti-Art by Hans Richter. This challenging piece of modern art rock takes the listener from a frenzied guitar intro into a sneaky title pop tune before jamming its way back into the intro. Not only does this song appear on the last album of Bowie's "serious artist" cycle, but it's the last album that sounds like his work from the '70s. From "Let's Dance" forward Bowie would never return to the sounds of that decade until the final years of his life.
Listen: Up the Hill Backwards