Blog 1: Start of a Band and Start of a Set

This is the first in a series of regular blog posts on the songs that we perform as a band. We will explore various aspects of the songs, why we chose them, particular notes on how we have chosen to arrange them, Bowie moments that have inspired our particular interpretations, and what they mean to us. The blog has been written with contributions by all members.

When working out how to order the run through of the songs, we decided that a natural progression through the set as we usually play them would work best. Our sets have changed through time and will continue to change as we add more songs. Songs will inevitably need to be rested, as there is so much choice and we simply cannot play them all in one gig. As we continue to develop, we aim to rotate songs to suit our audience, which means the order may also change. However, particular songs have become ‘musts’ because they are iconic, we do them particularly well, or the audience particularly like our version. These fit into certain positions in the flow of the set for a reason, so we have taken the setlist for the gigs we performed in February 2019, and used this as a basis. This means, in this first post, we will look at the opening songs Life on Mars and 5 Years.

Before looking at these, it is worth reminding ourselves that Allan conceived Miss Bowie and the New Killer Stars as a band to celebrate the music of David Bowie rather than trying to replicate visually any particular era or persona. Through our brief history we have had one lineup change. Original guitarist, Ben, moved on making way for the incredibly talented Melissa to take on his guitar duties whilst helping Jane with backing vocals and we even encouraged Phil to take lead vocals on Jean Genie in addition to providing bass and backing vocals. The songs we have chosen come from all eras of Bowie’s works and, since the start,  we have each selected songs to try out in rehearsal but we always wanted to kick off with a big statement and we all agreed Life on Mars was the one.

As an opener, this iconic song, largely recognised as one of the best all time songs by Bowie, sets the stall out for two of the more unique things about our band. Firstly, we do not have a keyboard player; and so we have to tackle Bowie’s piano-based or keyboard-based songs differently to many other tribute bands out there. We concentrate on adding guitar textures to replicate keyboard parts and our version of Life on Mars starts with a straightforward Andrew guitar/Jane vocal opening, with Allan and Phil helping to build the tempo as we approach the choruses. Mel takes the lead guitar parts on this one with Andrew providing the guitar parts in the verses.

Secondly, having a female lead vocal throws up certain challenges for us but also provides us sometimes with some advantages. Life on Mars is one of those Bowie songs that is originally in a key that is very challenging for the vocal range of a male singer. In researching it, we have found that there is a bit of a discrepancy in what the “original key” is with many of the sheet music versions stating G minor but many other sources saying it is F. What can add to the confusion, is that the original version that is on the hunky dory album is in a different key to the original version on the official video. Whatever is considered the original key, it is clear that the album version is the highest key it was ever done in (by Bowie and by any of the other tribute bands I have heard to the best of my knowledge, I can’t imagine anyone wanting to make it higher!) and that Bowie himself dropped it down in live performances, particularly later on in his career. It’s also clear that it is much easier for a woman to sing in the album version key and it adds a particular oomph to the song delivered in this key, which is another reason we chose to do it this way. There is no hiding, it’s definitely a powerful first statement and this is all the more true for Mel, who needs to come in on the chorus in the high harmony! AND she nails it every time!

Of course, this song is great when done in any key by the man himself, and one of our absolute favourite versions of this song is from 1999, with Mike Garson on the piano. A Lower key absolutely mastered by Bowie at a point when his voice was possibly the best it had ever been.

Before we had developed Life on Mars, our original starting song was 5 Years. This served us well in this position, being the opening song to the Ziggy Stardust album, and playing a special role in the starting of the band, as it was a version of this song, played on acoustic guitar, that Jane sent to Allan as a demo, when applying for the band. When we first did this song, Jane also played it in her own style on the acoustic guitar. She is very relieved to have been able to give this up and let much more talented musicians play it, so she can also concentrate on delivering on the vocals.

Now that Life on Mars has taken over as the set opener, we lead into this song without a break, Allan plays the opening drum beat to Five Years as Life on Mars ends and away we go.

This is also Jane’s favourite song and a song we have done nearly every set we have played. This might mean it will be rested and rotated at some point in the future (do please let us know your thoughts on that!).

Hope you enjoyed the read, next up will be New Killer Star and Loving the Alien.