Got your mother in a whirl…
7.10 this morning. I drag myself out of bed. I check my iPhone for messages. A Guardian news alert. “David Bowie has died, aged 69”. I’m kind of stunned. This can’t be. He’s just released a new album – I haven’t even bought it yet. “Blackstar”. It all makes sense now…
The author David Mitchell once wrote, “If the right words existed, we wouldn’t need music”. But we do need music, because the right words are never there.
Only the music can really tell you the story of David Bowie. And maybe the images*……
What an amazing run! What an incredible journey, from 1971 to 1983.
But I’ll try a few words too. In fact, I wrote a lot of them in my music story, “I Was There”. Bowie was integral to three of the early chapters: the first on my journey through pop into rock, the one on Punk, and then the New Romantics. Bowie wasn’t part of the punk or New Romantic movements, but they couldn’t have existed without him. Glam would have been nothing without Ziggy Stardust, though he existed on a different plane to all the others. And his influence on pop and rock, especially the innovators, remains as profound today as it ever was.
As I wrote a piece about Radiohead – the best band in the world today, in my estimation – I listened to the great albums again and again. And I heard Bowie everywhere – just listen to “Karma Police”, and you’ll know what I mean. Give me band that has broken boundaries, challenged the norms, innovated, and you’ll find the spirit of Bowie lurking.
Five memories from so many…
1 – It’s 1973. I’m 14 and I have a token to spend in Woolworths. A Christmas present I think. Time to buy my first proper LP – I only had compilations before that. The choice: “Slayed” by Slade or “Aladdin Sane” by Bowie. “Mama Weer All Crazee Now” vs “Jean Genie”. I wavered, I wobbled… and chose Slade. Wrong choice! But I loved Slade as much as Bowie then, and of course I bought “Aladdin Sane” later on. Today I don’t listen to Slade often, though they will always have a place in my heart. But “Aladdin Sane” is still a staple. From the hard rocking of “Jean Genie” and “Cracked Actor” through to the eerie jazziness of “Lady Grinning Soul” and the title track, it is a total joy. Close to being my favourite.
2 – My first Bowie album was the next, “Diamond Dogs”. 1974. It reminds me of hitching lifts home from Oakham School to home, an RAF base 5 miles away, on Saturday afternoons, when there were hardly any buses. No idea why – I think I just had “Rebel Rebel” and “Big Brother” in my head as I walked along the road. The cover was controversial: Bowie was half man-half dog and early versions had his genitals on display. It was Bowie’s dystopian album – aside from the rock’n’roll of “Rebel Rebel” and “Diamond Dogs” it had an overwhelming sense of sleaze and despair. It fascinated me – I hadn’t nothing else like it in my collection. It opened my mind to the future. And looking back, there were intriguing hints in “1984” of his next excursion, into funk and Philly Soul, on “Young Americans”.
3 – 1976. The Thin White Duke was perhaps the Bowie persona that fascinated me most. Not the dubious salute-at-Victoria-Station Bowie, but the other-worldly being that featured in “The Man Who Fell to Earth” and the astonishing album “Station to Station”, which sounded like nothing anyone else had got near before. The title track was the key to wonders inside. Rootless, a bit European (before we did European in Britain!), starting with the sounds of the train, a jumpy guitar/keyboard motif, a screeching guitar, and then those lines:
The return of the Thin White Duke, Throwing darts in lovers’ eyes…
Afterwards a shift to a guitar and piano boogie, the refrain, it’s too late, a searing guitar solo from Carlos Alomar. The end. The bridge between what had gone before and the amazing adventures still to come. The Trans-Europe Express had arrived.
4 – I opened my NME one day in 1977 – yes, only ’77! – turned to the album reviews as I always did, and came upon one of the most ecstatic reviews I’d ever read in the paper which was my music bible. It was Nick Kent waxing lyrical about “Low”, the album when Bowie went electronic. He’d escaped to Berlin, to try to get out of his drug habits, though he took Iggy Pop along with him, which may not have been the best way to achieve that. Anyway, his sojourn in that city produced the most path-breaking album of his career. Brian Eno, ex-Roxy music, was involved. “Low” was one side of fractured, bleak but beautiful songs, led by the brilliant single “Sound and Vision”. Side two was a symphony, a wash of electronic sound. I’d rejected prog as a teenager, but Bowie led me in to electronic ways through a different route. His route. It was revolution and unquestionably helped to pave the way for punk and so much more.
5 – Forward to 2012 and the Olympic Games in London. Feature tune, to celebrate the winners, “Heroes”. It was magnificent and an obvious selection when you thought about it:
We can be heroes, Just for one day…
It was the title track to the follow up to “Low”. More of the same, just that bit more radical. But with that central track, which represented so much about the struggle of ordinary people against the world, and above all, the struggle of people in Berlin against tyranny and that symbol of everything, the Berlin Wall. When the Wall came down in 1989, “Heroes” was there, conveying those feelings that words couldn’t express.
Bowie in the 1970s just seemed always to be ahead of the game. Not just one step. Miles. Looking back you can see that he was an astute observer, a listener. He took his influences from people before others really got them. And created new music, new personas from them. There was no-one remotely like him, although so many were influenced by him.
In the eighties the rest of the world caught up with him. In my book, I liken his fate – and that of fellow pioneers Roxy Music – to that of the breakaway cyclists in the Tour de France. They race ahead, but eventually, near the end they are caught, absorbed by the peleton. They become part of the peleton. 1983’s “Let’s Dance” was probably Bowie’s last great album in his great run. It captured the mood of the times perfectly. But it wasn’t ahead of the times. He was in the peleton. A leader, but not the conductor.
Thereafter he never stopped making interesting albums – though I draw the line at Tin Machine! I liked “Black Tie, White Noise” a lot and respected his foray into drum’n’bass with “Earthling”. But it was only very recently that you sensed Bowie was really back, making music that made a difference. It started with “The Next Day” in 2013, which had an wistful, nostalgic quality, looking back to the Berlin era, but which also seemed to speak for the times.
And then, not so long ago, there was “Blackstar”. First the track, now the album. I haven’t heard the album yet, but I thought the track was easily the best thing he had done since “Heroes”. It felt like Bowie pushing the boundaries again, mixing the modern sounds of electronica with jazz. It sounded spooky too. I felt there was something going on here, though I hadn’t figured out what it was. Now, of course, we know. This was David’s last statement, a final gift to us. The completion of his legacy.
Now, of course, I shall listen to the new album in a different light. As a message to us all from a man who knew he soon was departing this life. Was it meant for that? I’m sure it was. We can forget the suggested allusions to IS in “Blackstar” and just concentrate on the feelings of the great man himself.
David Bowie, for me, is up there with Bruce Springsteen, Radiohead, The Beatles, Bob Marley, Bob Dylan, as the artists I admire and love, above all others. In terms of innovation and influence, probably only The Beatles match him, and I guess, win in the end. But in terms of influencing all the other bands from the eighties onwards that I love, Bowie must be the main man.
Needless to say, all I’ve listened to today is David Bowie. I’ve been through my top twenty Bowie playlist, played “Diamond Dogs”, “Aladdin Sane”, “Hunky Dory”, “Station to Station” all the way through. Listened a bit to BBC 6 Music devoting the day to the man. What else could they do?
RIP David Bowie. We will never forget you.
(*With apologies to fans of “The Lodger” – this was taken tonight with the lights on. And I couldn’t find my copy of “The Man Who Sold The World”! And for completists, I never owned “David Live” on vinyl. But I think the twelve on show are pretty decent!)