Earlier entries of this series can be found here: archive.
“So I turned myself to face me/ But I've never caught a glimpse/ How the others must see the faker/ I'm much too fast to take that test”
114. David Bowie - Changes
Genre: Art pop.
Country: United Kingdom.
Album: Hunky Dory
Acclaimed Music ranking: #189.
Song ranking on Acclaimed Music in the artist’s discography: 4th.
Ranks higher than Kick Out the Jams by MC5, but lower than Peggy Sue by Buddy Holly.
Place in the Acclaimed Music Song Poll 2015: #164.
Written by David Bowie.
Produced by Ken Scott & David Bowie.
Vocals by David Bowie.
Drums by Mick Woodmansey.
Bass by Trevor Bolder.
Piano by Rick Wakeman.
Saxophone by David Bowie.
Mellotron by Mick Ronson.
String arrangements by Mick Ronson.
There are three David Bowie compilations named after this song, Changesonebowie, Changestwobowie and Changesbowie. A photo book about the man by Chris Welch was also released with this title. Equally important is that when Bowie died most obituaries couldn’t resist mentioning Changes. Not so much that Bowie sung that song, but that the song reflected Bowie. There are many classic songs by this artist, quite a few I imagine have a bigger hold on the public consciousness. Surely, he had lots of bigger hits. Still, if you want to be foolish and capture this man in one song, Changes is perhaps the one to go with.
You will ignore a lot if you do this. Changes is not the one that particularly captures his sound the most, if such a thing would be possible. Maybe a case could be made that this is a glam rock song, but I don’t really think so. It’s not even really rock. I mean, Mick Ronson, around that time Bowie’s guitar player, is present on the song, but not on guitar. Instead he found himself arranging strings and playing the Mellotron. Changes was inspired by nightclub tunes, not the type of music that would come to typify Bowie later, or even at the time. Parent album Hunky Dory is a mishmash of a lot of things, but mostly of rock or folk sounds. Sure, the largely ignored 1967 debut album simply named David Bowie borrowed from showtime music, but that one was practically disowned by Bowie. So no, Changes is not typical Bowie from a purely musical point of view.
It’s obviously all about the lyrics. Heck, the title alone will do. A singer known as an artistic chameleon who actually names one of his works “Changes”? It makes it easier on anyone. The text itself help a lot too. Especially the first verse: “So I turned myself to face me/ But I've never caught a glimpse/ How the others must see the faker”. I don’t think Bowie ever explained these lines. No need, people quickly saw it as a personal manifesto of sorts. Everyone knows the iconic face of Bowie on the Aladdin Sane cover. The look of Ziggy Stardust is equally famous. There are also the Thin White Duke and Mayor Tom. He is a man in a dress, a drug addict, an openly gay icon who turned out to not be gay at all, an art guy working with Brian Eno, a pop star, a goblin king, more than one alien from outer space, a soldier in a Japanese prison during World War 2, a failed (?) electronic musician, Nikola Tesla and someone who turned his death in a jazz masterpiece. Most obituaries have room for all or most of these things, but if you need a shorthand Changes will do.
It is interesting to note that Changes wasn’t immediately iconic. It was the first song Bowie released as a single from Hunky Dory, even though others around him stressed that Oh! You Pretty Things was the one he should have gone with. The single went nowhere, not in his home country, not in the USA and not anywhere else. Like Hunky Dory it was more a critical favourite, but were Hunky Dory had at least acceptable sales, nobody seemed to care about Changes. Nobody, except Bowie. He initially thought of it as a throwaway song, but soon saw it as something close to him and he kept playing it live throughout an ever changing setlist. It never seemed out of place no matter which phase Bowie was on. Perhaps it was the one constant song necessary to keep all these fluxes in styles in perspective.
Then, after a couple of years Bowie noticed something. Audiences were actively yelling the title at him, demanding he played it. Still the song hadn’t charted, but somehow it started to become beloved with his fans. Maybe it was the bigger success that Hunky Dory gained after The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars became a real hit. Maybe it was Bowie’s own persistence to keep Changes as a part of the set-list. Whatever the reason, Changes became his sleeper hit and decades later it is one of his most-loved songs. When Bowie died, Changes finally charted in his home country.
There is more to the lyrics of Changes than just some commentary of Bowie about himself. That’s only the first verse. In the second one he branches out and talks about the changes time brings to everyone. Part of the appeal of this song outside of its status as an abstract Bowie autobiography lies in the generational comments made in the second verse: “And these children that you spit on/ As they try to change their worlds/ Are immune to your consultations/ They're quite aware of what they're goin' through”. It could be a weirder, less immediate My Generation. I mean, even the stutters in the chorus are there.
The chorus broadens the context too, though. At least the third chorus does: “Ooh, look out you rock 'n' rollers”, “Pretty soon now you're gonna get older”. Young generations grow old too. The rock ‘n’ rollers of those days were as a far as I know the first artists who weren’t just supposed to be cool, but also young. So Bowie, 25 at the time, was already aware that rock ‘n’ rollers couldn’t always represent new values. They must become aware to not spit on these children in the future. Funny side-note: the next song on Hunky Dory, Oh! You Pretty Things, is basically a warning of a possible superhuman youth taking over the planet. After that the album goes in different directions, but for a short while it could have become a proto Ziggy Stardust.
What does this all add up to? The lyrics and verses make sense on their own, but are rather odd when taken as a whole. If the first verse is basically explaining Bowie’s compulsive, shapeshifting nature, he later talks about how change is a natural thing for everything. There are a lot of references in the song to time and that is the key here. Time will change everyone. Change is a part of life. Perhaps even: change is important to lead a good life, although the song doesn’t directly state it as that.
I admit that this is a song I like far more because of its lyrical content than for its music. The stop-start flow is part of the nightclub nature, but I prefer the more melodic works by Bowie. The verses seem slow and stilted to me. Still, the chorus is great and the song does stand out in Bowie’s discography, because of its odd musical nature. Above all though, Changes is the song we need to get at least a feel of why Bowie felt the constant need to turn and face the strange. Maybe fittingly, it would be the last song he ever performed live on stage.
There are a lot of covers here, but it took some time finding them between many other songs that have this title. For reasons I don’t quite get this is a title used in a lot of hip-hop songs. And no, none are 2Pac tributes neither. But I digress.
Rappers don’t seem to particularly like the Bowie classic, because although the song has been sampled a few times, it is notable not in hiphop songs. Flight of the Conchords have used it for their parody-song Bowie and Datarock use it subtly in their rather unmemorable Amarillion. Funny is that two songs completely unrelated to the Bowie song allude to it in their titles: Captain Chaos with their Like David Bowie Said, Changes; and Chachi on Acid with Like Changes by David Bowie but Different. That last title is correct.
The list of covers is long, but rather unsatisfying. What it lacks is a big name or an original soul going at it. Now the most famous person who covered Changes is Lindsay Lohan, in a medley with Don’t Move On and Livin’ for the City. She did this for Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen, a movie I have not seen and thanks to this cover never will. There is good news for fans for Changes here though, as no matter how horrible Lindsay Lohan’s “interpretation” of it is, it isn’t half as offensive or downright stupid at was she did to Livin’ for the City.
And that’s only the second worst version. A group named Sweet Wine thought they could take a shot at Changes too, but Bowie is much too fast to be hit by them. Their cover is almost fascinatingly bad. I’m convinced they didn’t even try to learn the lyrics. At times the lead singer is clearly going for sounds or words that vaguely resemble Bowie’s. It isn’t exactly clear why this guy assumed he had a good singing voice, but it makes for… interesting results.
Then we get a lot of the usual suspects. Get your checklists and cross the following: karaoke, instrumental covers (piano, strings, orchestral), baby version, tribute bands. There are a lot of points here for tribute bands as it seems that is basically what half of this playlist is about. It’s also uncanny how many of these singers can sound like the real Bowie. Sadly, I have never seen the point of listening to hyper-faithful cover acts on Spotify. Seeing them live maybe, but listening to them instead of the original, why?
Really, I thought this would be a song that would hold many different meanings for many different people and as such would be a great candidate for inspired covers. The best now is actually a version by a collective that covers famous songs in folk style for kids, as Let All the Children Boogie. But really the best versions all had input by Bowie. For Shrek 2 there was a cover by Butterfly Boucher, with Bowie himself in support. Then there is the dramatic Broadway-styles take by Cristin Milioti for the musical Lazarus, written by, yes, Bowie.
But really, what you need is Bowie himself. The list here contains several live takes from different phases in Bowie’s life. And the song there is as changeable as its title suggests it should be.
Linsday Lohan doing Don't Move On, Livin' for the City and Changes. Forbidden viewing for fans of any of these songs.
David Bowie's last live performance.
Warning: This audience video is the only one available and it's imagery and sound is terrible. I couldn't get through it, but I thought it should be shared here.