Blog 9: Guitar Interpretations

Back to the songs we perform on a regular basis now and still following the set order that we had in February 2019 when we started these blogs. Wow! So much has changed since then (more of that in a blog around New Year time :D), but some things still stay the same. What has stayed the same is the presence of these next two songs, Ashes to Ashes and Changes, in our sets this year, since adding them late last year.

Both these songs are piano/keyboard based and so they presented challenges for us, which is why they were left out of the original 20 songs we learned to start with. It was the end of 2018 when we started really working on these piano-based songs and started working them into the set, both of them, for example, appearing for the Paris Bowie France convention at the start of the year. From that convention, here is a video of us performing ashes to ashes:

Released as the lead single from the 1980 album Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps), Ashes to Ashes became Bowie’s second UK number one single and its innovative video became, at that time, the most expensive music video ever made.

The song which, in many ways, heralds the incoming musical direction taken through the 1980’s sees the re-appearance of Major Tom is a classic example of the combination of art rock and new wave; making use of synthesizers, funk bass, complex layered vocals and chanted background voices. Likened by Bowie himself to a nursery rhyme, the closing lines certainly have that sort of feel about them. The video for the song (which included an appearance from Steve Strange) also introduced Bowie’s Pierrot costume that became his main image throughout this phase of his career. 

In terms of the absence of a keyboard player, Mel was able to replicate the keyboard parts that run through the song and Andrew can also bring in some keyboard sounds through his effects so all in all, we feel we present an accurate representation of the song. Mention must be made at this stage of the fabulous funk bass lines delivered by Phil, which really helps capture the essence of the song.

In order to provide a suitable ending to the song, we re-configured the closing lines as a way of emphasising the chanted vocals referred to above. The album version of the song fades with these vocals being repeated but, of course, this is not possible to do live so we decided that we would repeat the vocal line four times with the fifth round sung unaccompanied. This seems to go down really well with the crowds!

Changes from 1971’s Hunky Dory album was released in January 1972 as a single and has become one of Bowie’s best known songs. The song’s lyrics are some of the most iconic, regularly being reused and cited as inspiration. They reflect a number of transitionary factors including Bowie’s own chameleonic nature, changes being seen in the world at that time, and the frequent changes he envisaged making to his own musical styles as the decade proceeded. It is one of the songs that make Bowie really stand out as a visionary in the lyrical sense, its message still resonating with young people today and telling a story of our need to trust in and listen to the youth, as well as to embrace change both personal and social. If you had to give someone new to Earth just one song to impress on them who David Bowie was, this would not be a bad pick.

The recorded version of the song included both piano and sax and when we first tackled this song, we did our usual reconfiguring for guitar. Mel and Andrew start the song off in unison with a short guitar chord progression with Allan and Phil punctuating the first verse with cymbals and bass as it builds towards the first chorus. The song repeats this cycle with a quieter second verse followed by the second chorus and then it moves into the inspirational “Strange fascination” bridge section before returning to a repeat of the chorus and a guitar-lead outro played in a similar vein to the intro. It’s one of Jane’s favourites and she delivers the vocals from the heart.

With Alex now with us, the song has been elevated by the inclusion of the original sax parts, played by Bowie himself on the recorded version, so it is fitting that it made up one of the whopping 17 songs that Alex performed with us on her first gig with Miss Bowie on the 16th of November 2019, just a few weeks since joining.

As a couple of other trivia points of interest: despite its now legendary status, Changes failed to reach the Top 40 in the Billboard 100 Index on its release and it was also the last song Bowie played before he retired from live performance in 2006. A video of this performance can be found here:

For a song that is approaching its half century, Changes is one of those songs that just never seems to date. We love it, audiences love it and we hope to play it for many more years to come.

In the next blog we will look at Lady Grinning Soul, Queen Bitch and John, I’m Only Dancing.