Five Years - David Bowie
Right from the start of their first album, "Please Please Me" it was the Beatles who had the idea that long playing 33 rpm albums should aspire to be something more than just a collection of songs, which was the case in popular music up until then. The opening track "I Saw Her Standing There" is a marker, a statement of arrival, self-penned rock and roll, live and raw, but with sophisticated lyrics. But most importantly, the album had shape, a feel of being a whole, both sides starting and ending with up-tempo numbers ( "gosh that was a great side, let's turn it over quick" and, at the end of side two, after "Twist and Shout", simply "wow".) . This they famously developed further album by album reaching an artistic peak with Sergeant Pepper influencing countless other artists from Dylan to Jefferson Airplane taking in the Stones, the Beach Boys, the Kinks, the Who, Simon and Garfunkel etc etc along the way.
Part of this art, even the beginning of it, was the first track as a statement of intent, a kind of preview of the riches to follow, as above or even more clearly defined, the first chord and shout of "A Hard Day's Night" and "Help" respectively. But no-one has ever made a more definitive statement than Bowie's opening track to "The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars".
In 1972, Bowie was a one hit wonder, "Space Oddity" having charted way back in 1969. He'd brought out three unsuccessful (saleswise) albums, and knew that this was the age of the LP and that albums were the way to lasting success. Ziggy was a concept album par excellence, as well as a stellar melodrama, and so he announces it with the most assured, most apocalyptic first side first track ever.
First we have Mick Woodmansey's solitary fade-in drums, then Ronson's dramatic piano chords
followed by Bowie's almost deadpan opening lines, with their echoing last words at the end of each line:
"Pushing through the market square, so many mothers sighing (sighing) news had just come over, we had five years left to cry in (cry in) the news guy wept and told us, earth was really dying (dying) cried so much his face was wet, then I knew he was not lying (lying)"
giving the soundscape a feeling of urban desolation. Then it's as though he's a reporter himself, jotting down the end of the world details in his notebook:
"I heard telephones, opera house, favourite melodies I saw boys, toys electric irons and T.V.'s my brain hurt like a warehouse, it had no room to spare I had to cram so many things to store everything in there"
but it's ALL the people, everyone, an early example of inclusive equality - we're all the same at the end of the world - painted with the eye for detail of a born writer:
"and all the fat-skinny people, and all the tall-short people and all the nobody people, and all the somebody people I never thought I'd need so many people
A girl my age went off her head, hit some tiny children if the black hadn't a-pulled her off, I think she would have killed them a soldier with a broken arm, fixed his stare to the wheels of a Cadillac a cop knelt and kissed the feet of a priest, and a queer threw up at the sight of that"
You are even there, yes you, it's the end of the world and you\re there, of course you are, you'd didn't ever think you'd be there, at the end, did you? But you are.
"I think I saw you in an ice-cream parlour, drinking milk shakes cold and long smiling and waving and looking so fine, don't think you knew you were in this song"
- he includes us right from the beginning of his adventure, his epic, we're all on board now.
And then he soars, with four lines of sublime musical poetry:
"and it was cold and it rained so I felt like an actor and I thought of Ma and I wanted to get back there
your face, your race, the way that you talk I kiss you, you're beautiful, I want you to walk"
and we're off, to the recurring litany of a nightmare,
"we've got five years, stuck on my eyes five years, what a surprise we've got five years, my brain hurts a lot five years, that's all we've got........................"
the drums fade away once more. The scene is set for one of the greatest albums of all time. We have five years left to the end of the world.
I can remember listening to the album for the first time. We'd already heard the accompanying single "Starman" on the radio, but the pure shock, the pure joy of the first listen to Five Years is still there every time I play it, years later. It was so new, it was so different, it said things, used words that were taboo, it wasn't "now", it was proclaiming itself the future, it was audacity personified, it is Bowie making an announcement, the announcement, he's consciously emulating Orson Welles and "the War of the Worlds", he's saying:
"I'm here, this is it. I've messed around long enough. Now I'm here for real, and I'm staying."
And how right he was.
And we've just heard the all-time best first song on any album ever.