Fragments from over forty years
Look up here, man, I’m in danger…..
New opening hours at the gym mean that just before 7 am on Monday, 11th January I was able to pull into the car park, switch off the car radio and think I was missing nothing more than the last few lines of the weather report.
Changed and warming up I glanced across at one of the TV screens on the far wall of the gym. Music plays through the gym sound system so, as ever on the TV screen, there was no sound, only images. It was Sky News broadcasting a split screen. One half showed the Mick Rock video from 1973 of David Bowie performing Life On Mars, blue eye shadow, blue suit, orange hair – unmistakable. The other half of the screen showed a current photograph of Bowie. The black and yellow footer repeating across the screen was too distant to read.
I went closer. I stood staring at the screen. The words were there but they would not go in,
Breaking News: David Bowie has died in New York aged 69 after an 18 month battle with cancer
David Bowie was on screen, singing Life On Mars, just as he had always done, just as he always would, surely? Nothing has changed; everything has changed…..
Bowie’s latest album Blackstar had been released on the previous Friday, his 69th birthday. I had been playing it over the weekend, courtesy of Amazon Auto-Rip, and was awaiting the hard copy, expected that day. It was dark, it was innovative, it was very good but something about it did not quite fall into place. This did not trouble me greatly. Over a forty year period I have rarely liked Bowie’s albums on first hearing. The first rush of expecting the Earth has to wear off before I can settle and listen properly. Hearing Blackstar again was going to be something else.
Its branches throwing shadows on the gallows for me….
One of the few exceptions to this general rule had been The Next Day, released in March 2013, amidst a frenzy of Bowie-mania with the fabulous David Bowie Is… exhibition also showing at the V&A in London.
Before The Next Day we had suffered 10 years of silence, at least in terms of new material. Re-masters, re-mixes, anniversary editions had come and gone to keep us ticking over. Bowie ‘product’ has never been in short supply but there is nothing quite the same as the thrill of hearing new material for the first time.
The Next Day had particular resonance for me as it came at a time in my life when the next day could well have been a long way off.
In October 2012 I fell, fractured my skull and catapulted my brain so hard within my head that it was bruised too. A sick note with ‘brain injury’ as the reason for being indisposed is not easy to come by.
When fit enough to return to work full time, in January 2013, within days a David Bowie single, Where Are We Now? was sneaked out, on Bowie’s 66th birthday. I could not have put the question better myself. My first thought? I might never have heard this! By the time the album was out in March, the V&A show was in full swing and to cap it all some additional tracks in the Autumn formed The Next Day Extra (2013), of which James Murphy’s 10 minute remix of Love Is Lost is a thing of absolute beauty. It had been a long wait but 2013 had made it worth it.
Time will crawl till the 21st century lose…
The media seem to have lost a large chunk of Bowie’s career in their retrospectives over the past weeks. His return to form did not begin in 2013 but in 1993 with a run of seven excellent albums which seem to have slipped beneath the media radar.
The 1980’s do get quite a bit of airplay but most Bowie fans would be hard pressed to put together a compilation making one decent album from his output over most of that decade, Scary Monsters and Super Creeps (1981), being the notable exception along with the outstanding title track from Let’s Dance (1983).
Otherwise, much is forgettable. Being the decade of the Thatcher governments and the Miner’s Strike there was, in any case, much to distract us and if Bowie was going to choose any decade to hit a creative nadir this was probably the best one to go for.
It was not until the advent of the much maligned Tin Machine in the late ‘80’s that I found my interest re-kindling. Musically the two albums by that band are not amongst Bowie’s best but the whole concept of getting back to small venues and connecting with an audience seemed to be invigorating. Seeing the band at Newcastle’s tightly packed Mayfair in November 1991 I was struck by the energy which went into the show, if a little disappointed that Tin Machine really did mean just that, with not a Bowie track in sight.
Still the creative juices were flowing giving us all renewed hope. We were not to be disappointed.
Getting my facts from a Benetton ad, I’m looking through African eyes….
Black Tie White Noise, released in 1993, is a much overlooked gem in Bowie’s oeuvre and heralded a real return to form. Like Bowie’s biggest selling album Let’s Dance, released 10 years earlier, it was produced with Nile Rodgers, but Black Tie White Noise is the good album made with Rodgers, not the biggest selling one. The album has a nice blend of jazz and rock influences, an eclectic mix of cover versions (Cream, Scott Walker and Morrissey), and even a guest return for Mick Ronson, who tragically died later that year. The limited edition bonus CD and DVD released in 2003 is also a must have for any Bowie fan.
Later the same year the equally underrated The Buddha of Suburbia (1993) soundtrack album continued the artistic renaissance.
Better was still to come. Teaming up with Brian Eno for the first time since the so-called Berlin Trilogy of the late Seventies (Low, “Heroes”, Lodger) 1995 saw the release of 1.Outside, one of Bowie’s best albums and a touchstone of this late career purple patch. It did not sell well. It was dark, it was challenging. It came with a dystopian vision of societal and personal relationship breakdown within a narrative about investigating art crime. No laughs but great music and a thundering industrial feel in places. It even managed to generate a top 20 single in Hallo Spaceboy, remixed with the Pet Shop Boys. I don’t think they could believe their luck!
According to Brian Eno there is hours of material he and Bowie recorded in the making of 1.Outside. Could it be that there is the possibility of releasing more material from those sessions? A tantalising prospect.
If parts of 1.Outside are characterised by industrial density then Earthling (1997), which followed, was of an even greater ear melting intensity. Plugging in to the a la mode drums n bass of the period Bowie still manages to fashion a unique take on the genre and, in Little Wonder and I’m Afraid of Americans, lays down a couple of tracks that easily stand up to his diverse output.
I got seven days to live my life or seven ways to die….
Hours (1999), Heathen (2002) and Reality (2003) are the final three albums before the 10 year hiatus of new material. If Earthling was Bowie’s take on the drums n bass genre the albums that followed were very much back to the craft of songwriting and presenting the lyrics in the most appropriate context. Hours is an often criticised album, described by a friend of mine as Bowie on ‘cruise control’. Nevertheless it contains some fabulous moments, not least Survive, Thursday’s Child and Seven.
Heathen is the later Bowie album which receives the most plaudits and of these three it probably does contain the most standout tracks. It took me a while to realise this. I was so disappointed with Heathen upon its release that, upon finding a minor fault in the CD returned it and got a copy of Beverley Knight’s Who I Am instead. Quite what made me take against this album with such vehemence I am not sure. Once again I was expecting the Earth and saw Hours as a staging point to something which was going to be a mind blowing new direction.
On reflection I realise that I had entirely missed the point and now acknowledge that Heathen deserves its acclaim. Quite apart from the excellent originals the cover of the Pixies’ Cactus is worth the price of entry alone.
Bowie had recorded an album for 2001 release titled Toy, which contained both new material and re-recordings of some of his 1960’s songs. Some of the new material intended for Toy found its way onto Heathen while Toy itself was never officially released. Some judicious time spent on the internet may result in you finding a copy if you are lucky, it is worth the search.
Reality was the album that formed the basis of Bowie’s final live tour in 2003/04, captured on the A Reality Tour DVD (2004) and CD (2010). The album itself finds Bowie confident and on top of his game, prepared to take chances with the jazz influenced Bring Me the Disco King and the slow croon of The Loneliest Guy. It is by no means his best set of songs and Bowie only selected New Killer Star for inclusion on the Nothing Has Changed (2014) fifty year career retrospective.
Then again he did not include the title track from The Next Day on that compilation, one of his best songs, and an act that can only be seen as typically perverse.
Inevitably, much of the media focus has been on the early years, when the foundations of the Bowie myth were laid and from where the most iconic images of Bowie emerge. Like many others of my generation, these were the years when my own conversation with David Bowie began….
When the kids had killed the man I had to break up the band….
The 3rd July 1973 is a date known to all fans of David Bowie, the date on which the Spiders from Mars played their final gig at Hammersmith Odeon and Ziggy Stardust was no more.
As a 13 year old growing up in North Shields I was oblivious to the significance of the evening in those terms. Quite other matters were occupying me as this was the evening my father died, tragically young, only 43 years old. About half way through Bowie’s set by my calculations.
This somewhat strange synchronicity played no conscious part in my subsequent lifelong conversation with David Bowie, a conversation of which he was not aware and in which he never directly responded. It may have had some subliminal impact upon my teenage imagination, obsessed as it was with escape. Forty three years later, it is hard to know.
My father’s death taught me at an early age not to expect anything to last forever.
David Bowie was on my radar before July 1973 but, as we did not own a record player until the Christmas of that year, it was purely through the radio and, when our rented TV set was not on its way back to the Rediffusion shop, occasional Top of the Pops appearances.
Quite what triggered the lifelong conversation, I am not sure. That year was one in which Bowie seemed to be everywhere. The Jean Genie and Life On Mars were on the radio, Sorrow, Drive-In Saturday, there seemed to be an endless supply of reasons to look and listen again. The 3rd July gig was quite big news too!
Every teenager feels a little alien, a little strange, unable to quite fit in. Perhaps this was Bowie’s attraction for so many of us. He was clearly a bit odd, consciously outrageous and quite unpredictable. For over forty years I genuinely have not known quite what to expect next!
By the time it was possible to play records in the house the albums flowed in. Pin Ups (1973), not only great hair but Twiggy on the cover as a bonus. Aladdin Sane (1973), the crazy iconic lightning flash and songs that mentioned drugs, sex and wanking. Better than all of that, Mike Garson’s fabulous piano work on the title track. Even at the age of 13 I could see that this was going way beyond your average chart pop music.
Bowie’s previous albums were all still selling enough to occupy places in the charts. The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1972), to be played at maximum volume, the cover instructed – who could refuse? I first heard Moonage Daydream on the dodgems at the Spanish City funfair in Whitley Bay, where the cover instruction was taken to its limit!
Hunky Dory (1971), a timeless collection of songs, which still remains a favourite to this day. For my daughter’s 18th birthday a few years ago, we put together a box of essential items required to get you through adult life. Film was represented by the Marx Brothers classic Duck Soup, literature by One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, life is not just laughs after all! There was a bottle of champagne in there and, of course, some cash. Music was represented by Bowie’s Hunky Dory.
You always need music to get through life but the more I think about that choice, you probably very specifically need a copy of Hunky Dory.
The Man Who Sold the World (1971), swooping and swirling, with its black cover and equally brooding and menacing soundscape. It was some years later that I discovered that the original cover for this album featured Bowie in a dress draped on a chaise lounge dropping a pack of cards. It gave the album a whole different perspective. Space Oddity (1969), which contained Bowie’s first big hit alongside a strange collection of hippy meanderings and paeans to love and peace.
By this time I also had the obligatory Ziggy spiky haircut and, hair products not being what they are today, spent hours in front of the mirror training my hair to grow upright. The effort throughout the mid ‘70’s to keep up with Bowie’s hairstyle changes was a source of much grief, as nothing I did would get quite the Pin Ups cover look. The great look on the cover of Young Americans(1975) was also a source of utter despair to my teenage hairstyling skills. So, it was with great joy that I greeted the straightforward greased back look of the Thin White Duke from Station to Station (1976)!
If this sudden influx of sound was driving the rest of my family nuts, being wrapped in teenage self-obsession, I did not notice. Why should I even care. The only thing that mattered in 1974 was my chance to buy, for the first time, a David Bowie album when first released. A chance to experience that rush of new sounds, new songs at the earliest opportunity.
I was not disappointed.
We’ll buy some drugs and watch a band, then jump in the river holding hands….
Diamond Dogs (1974) was, in retrospect, Bowie’s goodbye to ‘70’s glam rock and roll but nobody could see that at the time. It was not only another collection of great songs but had the drama of being a concept album, based loosely around Orwell’s 1984, charting a declining corrupt society with a pair of lovers at its core, struggling to find their way through. Rebel Rebel had featured as a single before the album’s release but the real coup de theatre is the Sweet Thing/Candidate suite which took the bringing together of music and drama on the album to its zenith.
I remember playing Rock and Roll With Me to a friend of mine on the basis that I genuinely thought he would not hear anything better, quite possibly ever. I was aghast when he pronounced it rubbish and suggested that we should get outside and play footie!
You drive like a demon from station to station….
Young Americans (1975) wrongfooted us all. A soul album? What was that all about? But how good does it still sound now? The follow up, Station to Station (1976), coincided with a chance to see Bowie live in London at the Empire Pool, Wembley. This was quite an adventure for me and my mate Graeme. A couple of 16 year old lads from North Shields, a seven hour bus trip (each way!), a B&B in King’s Cross and hoping we found our way across London to the gig itself. Remarkably all of this fell into place without us being abducted by aliens, slave traders or simply being consumed somewhere in the big smoke, as our respective parents feared.
True to style Bowie did not have a support band but played the surrealist film Un Chien Andalou by Luis Bunuel. The visionary work of Nina Hibbin and Sheila Whitaker would, by 1977, be bringing such material as this and much more besides to the Tyneside Cinema in Newcastle but in May 1976 Bunuel was not your standard fare. The collective gasps of 8,000 people, as a razor blade is taken to slit an eyeball during the film, is hard to forget.
I had never been in such a massive venue and, once finally onstage, Bowie was a carrot topped spec of black and white. The sound though, the voice, the rumble of Station to Station itself, the rush of Suffragette City, the urgency of Stay, through to a final footstomping The Jean Genie what more could you want?
In June 1978 I saw Bowie live again at the City Hall, Newcastle by then a regular haunt and a much more manageable size of venue. It was a great show, heavy with tracks from the recently released Low (1977) and ”Heroes” (1977), but nothing was ever going to have quite the intensity of the London trip.
Blue, blue electric blue that’s the colour of my room…
As the punk sensation was gripping the nation, in 1976 and 1977, Bowie continued on his own sweet way. In Low and “Heroes” he produced two albums which had large chunks of instrumental on them and made no concession to the prevailing trend. Did any self respecting punk fan have these albums then? You bet they did. Bowie had produced Lou Reed’s classic Transformer (1972) and Iggy pop’s seminal Raw Power (1973) so was fully au fait with punk’s antecedents.
The time spent in Berlin producing Low and “Heroes” also saw the revival of Iggy’s career with two Bowie produced and co-written albums The Idiot (1977) and Lust for Life (1977). With Bowie playing keyboards in Iggy’s band in the 1977 tour to promote The Idiot no harm was done to the credibility of either with their respective audiences. Seeing both onstage at the City Hall in March 1977 was some event!
Lodger (1979), the third of the so called Berlin trilogy is an altogether different affair, all songs, no instrumentals and a theme of travel, movement, displacement throughout. Repetition a song condemning domestic violence was soon to be adopted by the Au Pairs, a band I found myself following around the country for a couple of years, while other tracks, such as Yassassin, echo some of the work Brian Eno was to undertake with David Byrne on My Life in the Bush of Ghosts (1981).
By this time I had also acquired a pair of blue suede wrestling boots and, through making the acquaintance of a number of hairdressers, ensured that my hair was an orange henna hue! A bit late for Ziggy and all that but during the heady days of punk, anything could go!
Lodger is a bit of an overlooked classic in the Bowie canon, being overshadowed on the one side by the first two Berlin albums and on the other by Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) (1981). Lodger was the first ‘other’ Bowie album I played after repeated listens to Blackstar following the news of Bowie’s death. Maybe its overall sense of transience, transformation and movement were the subliminal appeal.
One flash of light but no smoking pistol….
Scary Monsters… catapulted Bowie back into the pop mainstream and with the video for the No.1 single Ashes to Ashes set the benchmark for the nascent MTV generation, in terms of how to creatively use visuals to support a song. It has yet to be equalled. The album perfectly balances the creative credibility of the Berlin albums with the pop sensibility of his earlier 70’s work and is in many ways a classic synthesis. It would be many years before Bowie was to come close to this level again, as the success of the album sucked him into the pop mainstream on a scale that even dwarfed the frenzy of the Ziggy years, but took much creative energy with it.
It is unfair though to judge Scary Monsters… by what followed. It stands alone as a force to be reckoned with and quite rightly remains one of Bowie’s most influential works.
Seeing more and feeling less, saying no but meaning yes…
On 11th January the refrain from Girl Loves Me, the repeated question Where the fuck did Monday Go?, could not have been more apt. After a blurred day at work I returned home in the early evening to find the familiar brown cardboard of an Amazon package on the passage window sill. When I eventually opened it the hard copy of Blackstar was in my hands. I looked at it, opened it, unfolded it, turned it over.
Black on black.
I slipped the booklet out with the album details and lyrics. Black text on black background.
In the few photographs, Bowie is barely present, emerging from or descending into an enveloping darkness.
Listening to the songs again, they suddenly fell into place. They had sounded strong over the weekend, picking up the baton where The Next Day left off, pushing into newer and more exploratory territory, even at this late stage.
Hearing them again, they took on a new dimension. Only a man coming face to face with his own mortality could produce this set of songs then package and present them in this way.
Only David Bowie could stage manage his own departure so beautifully.
24th January 2016