Friday, 24 July 2015

Bowie


"As long as we're together
The rest can go to hell"
Bowie, like The Beatles, made an extraordinary impact on much more than the thing he is noted for. Both acts made music, some of the best in my opinion, but both left an imprint larger than that which they first sought to make.
Bowie has been, a little like the man whose work he so valued, William Burroughs, a figure that represents other elements associated with him. With Burroughs it is not merely literature where his influence has been felt but also art and music and film. His cut-up style has gone on to be used across a multitude of disciplines. For Bowie, with his chameleon like ability to embrace not only new sounds but looks too, his keen sense of dress has had him at the forefront of best dressed men for years. This has had a huge impact on subsequent generations keen to be smart but not necessarily followers of fashion but those able to use their flair for dress to establish unique identities.  And of course Bowie's ever seeking new things has meant his audience has not only kept those like me who have always admired him but is forever pulling in young, fresh interest.



Painting sent me via E-mail by David Vigor

“Let it Be” was not the last Beatle album even though it was released in 1970 and, therefore, is listed as the final recording on the Fab Four’s discography. The Beatles had fallen apart during the making of the ‘White Album’ and the recording and filming of what was tentatively titled “Get Back.’ Determined to go out on a high note having first pulled their socks up John, Paul, George and Ringo released “Abbey Road.”

With the demise of what were my favourite childhood band came a sullen gap. Yes, I had Led Zepplin, a fine and noble beast. Yes, I had Crimso but neither of those quite filled the gap left by the Beatles. Neither did Neil Young nor the Moody Blues.It was 1969.

Three years before when watching ‘Juke Box Jury’ I heard a panelist compare nineteen year old David Bowie’s single release, “Rubber Band” to the then popular Cat Stevens. I have to say here that I am unsure of my facts. It might have been a year later as that was when “Love You Till Tuesday” was first released and it may have been that song. I think what appealed to me then, having fallen in love with the Liverpudlian’s exotic accents was hearing someone who sounded like me.  I didn’t buy Bowie then though. It was 1966.

It was 1969.

“Space Oddity” made the charts. It was played all the time on the nascent Radio One station still only two years old. I bought the album and fell in love with in this order “The Cygnet Committee,” “Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud” and the Bo Diddleyesque "Unwashed and Somewhat Slightly Dazed." Somehow that album slotted in nicely with my other juvenile tastes. It seemed, what with its folk and mildly progressive rock sounds to snuggle up nicely next to King Crimson, The Moody Blues and Van der graaf Generator.

"And I open my eyes to look around
And I see a child laid slain on the ground
As a love machine lumbers through desolation rows
Ploughing down man, woman, listening to its command
But not hearing anymore, not hearing anymore
Just the shrieks from the old rich

And I want to believe in the madness that calls now
And I want to believe there's a light shining through somehow
And I want to believe, and you want to believe
And we want to believe, and we want to live

We want to live, we want to live
I want to live, oh, I want to live
I want to live, I want to live
Live, live"

Apart from Pete Hammill no one I had heard before In the so called 'rock' medium had injected such powerful emotions. Bowie made you feel as you were his single listener then poured all his heart and soul into each line, each word. Of course you can recall Billy Holiday's "Strange Fruit," her version of "Summertime" or perhaps Edith Piaf (I am convinced there are many more) but few of that generation committed themselves so fully to a song that you, the listener found yourself drawn to so convincingly, so compellingly.

I, as always is the case with me, liked some of what we refer to as Prog Rock but by no means liked it all especially the longer it lasted. Far too clever for its own good. Too many musicians caught up in wishing to be heard as virtuoso when in point of fact they were playing to an audience of one, they were noodling, they were anything but progressive.

It was 1972.

I was only seventeen and still young enough yet conversely mature enough to desire music that was not clever but intelligent. I also admired those guys of the fifties and sixties who had been able to have fun whilst producing challenging music. The Mothers and The Velvet Underground along with The Beach Boys, The Who and yes, The Beatles spring to mind.

When you are seventeen and living very much on the ‘outside’ of life having no best friend to speak of nor, at that stage a girlfriend, you tend to identify with certain individuals you perceive as being a little like yourself. Bowie’s creation Ziggy admirably filled that demand. Funny things is I didn’t much like that album at first, “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars,” as I felt Bowie had rather sold out. I still prefer “Hunky Dory.”

You are seventeen and the world seems a strange and alien place. The Beatles have gone and out of the void left steps, although you knew him previously in another life and as an entirely different character, a bi-sexual alien revolutionary from Mars. You are seventeen and the world is populated by stiff shirts and stuffed egos. This place is not for you. You perceive life as though viewed through a twisted window frame. There are people out there who offer love and peace and happiness - Hippies - But the love they offer is false and manufactured and besides that they have had their day. Their moment of glory. Love and peace has been cloaked in a shroud of serious pretension. Now is the time for fun. Now is the time for Rock 'n Roll. Now is the time for David Bowie.

"Time takes a cigarette, puts it in your mouth
you pull on your finger 
then another finger 
then your cigarette"

“Rock 'n Roll Suicide” takes as its subject matter all the angst and loneliness that every teenager at sometimes suffers with. It identifies that feeling of being the only one in a crowded room beautifully well, it understands that awfully desperate emotion and then offers its puny pale hand then leads you to a cleaner, clearer place.

"Oh no love you're not alone"
It offers a better solution.
"Just turn on with me and you're not alone"
It offers salvation.
"Gimme your hands cause you're wonderful"

If only.

But I am getting ahead of myself. At this stage, following a second eponymous titled album and a highly successful single David had need to adhere to the rules of what was then seen as the method all decent songwriters of that age steadfastly followed. Which in short meant following on in a progressive fashion and not repeating past successes.  Of course the early seventies, that stuck in the slipstream of sixties counter revolution decade,  had yet to find its own shoes and not wear those handed down by the previous incumbents. It was Bowie who almost single-handedly supplied that impetus. 

You see there are those who suggest albums are the be all of music. That the album rose to prominence out of the rise of what was then called 'the underground.' This is crap. Miles Davis, Ornette Coleman, Frank Sinatra all were album artists and they arrived many years before what became Prog. For me Bowie balanced his craft with well written beautifully arranged songs some of which became singles, others which best suited albums. Bowie managed to produce both great singles and albums without compromising his art. I have absolutely nothing against album artists, quite the reverse, but I do like it when a band or solo act do both and do both well.

It was 1980.

For me, “Scary Monsters and Super Creeps,” came as the final act in a series of multi-faceted, tricks-of-the-tail, experiments. It was effectively the culmination of David Bowie’s seventies output that started with “Hunky Dory” and included both the “Ziggy” trilogy, the Berlin Trilogy and the odd album in between.

It was for many the last album for many years where David Bowie continued  expanding the boundaries of modern pop music before moving into into the role of light entertainment. 





The sound of the album owes a lot to the edgy guitar of Robert Fripp. His searing, dislocated, fractured, sound so often esoterically beautiful but at other times conversely so buzz-sawingly  dissonant fills the tracks, as it did on the famed “Heroes” from the album of the same name, with an other-worldly, disenfranchised noise. 

The first track has the psychotic call and response as the Japanese singer spits out her words followed by Bowie who screams them as though under threat of torture and the guitar that splits notes, rivets the rhythm with a splintered sundering of melody. Each track, each song is really ‘up for it.’ There is no respite. It is in not only a conclusion but a reaffirmation of what we Bowie fans had always felt; a sense of isolation; of being outsiders in a world then filled with clones.


When "Ashes to Ashes" was released the song came with a video that illustrated once again Bowie was on the change. Major Tom reappears this time as drug addled astronaut. The video was ground breaking in both its visual content but also the choreography. It was yet another exciting progression.  The song was a commercial and artistic success. If the Berlin trilogy had gifted us music as challenging as it gets it had also seen the decline in Bowie's sales figures. 


"Fashion" was another single. It featured a harsher, harder edge avoiding the pitfall of being purely commercial yet still managing to appeal to a large audience. It was this leaner, desperate sound that, along with Fripp's guitar gave the album its thrust. "Scream Like a Baby" is Bowie having a go at someone though I am uncertain who. The lyric does give certain clues. 


"A broken-nosed mogul are you 
One of the New Wave boys 
Same old thing in brand new drag 
Comes sweeping into view 
As ugly as a teenage millionaire 
Pretending its a whiz-kid world"

Without a shred of doubt my highlight of the album was "Scream Like a Baby." Just as on "Hunky Dory" Bowie again uses vary speed vocals which add a psychotic, unhinged, edge of madness feel to a claustrophobic song set in some nostalgic future world.


"No athletic program

No discipline, no book

He just sat in the backseat

Swearing he'd seek revenge

But he jumped into the furnace

Singing old songs we loved"

I think this is my favourite of all David's albums as it somehow remains progressive, seeking fresh new ways to arrange and present songs yet still has mass appeal. I see no shame in mass appeal even if the masses are all too often unappealing.

It was 1972. It was 1973. It was 1974. But it wasn't Rock and Roll, it was genocide.

DavisBowieAladdinSane.jpgDiamond dogs.jpg


It was Ziggy. It was fraudulent yet it was oh so real. A bi-sexual alien was born. Men dyed their hair orange, wore make up, dressed in satin, adorned their eyebrows with glitter and did outrageous things. It was the birth of Glam Rock. It was art-rock given a dazzling hero. It drove mum's nuts, had high priests throw their hands up in disgust. Mick Jagger was found in bed with Bowie. Of course he was. Who cares? Bowie declared he liked boys AND girls. Shock horror. A world gone mad. The circus was in town.

Roxy arrived with their explosive mix of a retro look, their throwback to the forties - New York meets Berlin, their bierkeller blasts, their raw projectile pulse, their sophisticated experimentation. 


Sparks gave us a a popinjay with arched eyebrows, a singer who performed vocal gymnastics and songs that struck irregular chords in regular hearts.

And of course, there was one of the most underrated bands of all time, Slade. Good old boys far in advance of punk.


It was Glam Rock. It was Bowie's invention. Wasn't it?


From the tight R 'n B of Ziggy to the mish-mash of exploratory styles found on Aladdin with its far more satisfying (for me anyhow) arrangements. We got avant-garde jazz, Mike Garson's 'why play one note when a hundred will do' piano to the beautiful ballad "Lady Grinning Soul."  


Then we had "Diamond Dogs." A friend of mine rightly said it was not part of the Ziggy thang, that Bowie had killed off our favourite alien back on 3rd July 1973 when he announced he was retiring Ziggy. He did this much to the surprise of his band, The Spiders, who had no idea the songwriter was so depressed with his character creation. "My whole personality was affected. It became very dangerous. I really did have doubts about my sanity." Yet still he used the same image on "Rebel, Rebel" as he did on the original and also final album cover.


Whatever. 


For me "Diamond Dogs" was Ziggy as Bowie as a dying Ziggy releasing his true, experimental self with a planned Orwellian musical that fused perfectly with the first song of " Ziggy Stardust." "Five Years" finally arrived bringing with it a dystopian society riddled with "rats the size of cats" and "red mutant eyes" to give us the conclusion to that opening song.


"And in the death,

As the last few corpses lay rotting on the slimy
Thoroughfare,
The shutters lifted in inches in Temperance Building,
High on Poacher's Hill.
And red, mutant, eyes gaze down on Hunger City.
No more big wheels.

Fleas the size of rats sucked on rats the size of cats,
And ten thousand peoploids split into small tribes,
Coveting the highest of the sterile skyscrapers,
Like packs of dogs assaulting the glass fronts of Love-Me Avenue.
Ripping and rewrapping mink and shiny silver fox, now leg-warmers.
Family badge of sapphire and cracked emerald.
Any day now,
The year of the Diamond Dogs."


It was the masterpiece of what I term the "Ziggy Trilogy." It brought the house down, closed the show and effectively took David onto his next project, his next change "Young Americans" an album I don't think I have played since I first bought it back in 1975. I liked "Fame" and think "Golden Years" one of his best songs but the album held no attraction to me whatsoever even if its funk and grind paved the way for the glorious "Station to Station."


It was 1995.

"Outside" had strong connections with "Diamond Dogs" yet also struck me as being the next link following "Scary Monsters." Yes, there was the time gap of some fifteen years but also the albums released in between "Scary Monsters" and "Outside" but somehow none of that mattered. There was again a dystopian feel running through the album. That same sense of disenfranchisement so often featured on Bowie's work.



I was overjoyed to hear Bowie and Eno working together again. It was, I was led to believe, the first of many such albums due to be released over the next few years. It never happened.
 Damn shame.  Sequels of this calibre would have been very welcome.

I liked the segue(way)s found between the tracks although many critics didn't. They reminded me of Zappa. I thought they added an intimacy between us and
the album pulling us in to listen, a sort of exchange like a conversation held in a public house or a whispered word in a bordello.

There is some standout songs too. I especially like "Oxford Town" but also the outstanding "Hearts Filthy Lesson"

Also "We Will Prick You" with is screech backing vocals repeated brash as brass "we prick you, we prick you, we prick you."

It was 1970

"The Man Who Sold the World" was no masterpiece nor was it filled with little nuggets or gems to tease and tantalise but...boy it did have some truly remarkable songs. 
I thought it was all a little bit heavy metal, a little bit Black Sabbath. I loved the first song, "Width of a Circle" and thought "All the Madmen" was okay. I didn't like the Bolan tribute "Black Country Rock" but found the final track on side one to be one of those songs that stick with you forever. The mood is somber, the melody arcane and sinister, the arrangement a dark waltz, the lyrics nearing the borders of dementia.

"Some people are marching together

And some on their own quite alone
Others are running, the smaller ones crawl
But some sit in silence, they're just older children That's all, after all"

This is the best song on the album. The second best, discounting virtually all of side two apart from this one song, is "The Man Who Sold the World" which remains one of his better works.

The whole album was infused with Bowie's mania, his fear of going the way of his half/step brother Terry who suffered from mental health issues, that and a nod toward Aleister Crowley and flavour of the day, Nietzsche.  

I bought the above album in this very sleeve. It was, as I recall, published on the Mercury label. Within months of its release Ziggymania (if that's what it was) took over and this cover was replaced by one which had Bowie, orange hair and all, looking very much like a young punk before such a thing had happened on the front. The one above was worth five hundred pound. Sadly mine was marked where I had attached a Dymo (or is it Dynamo) label on the front identifying it as mine. When my fortunes floundered I was forced to sell this and virtually all my vinyl collection. I got fifty pound for it.

It was 1988.

Tin Machine. Not Bowie as such and yet...

It was 1989

After the sublime "Scary Monsters" the thing I feared the most happened; Bowie lost his way. He took a series of well-intentioned paths each one lacking sufficient tallow to light the way. Having set the seventies alight eclipsing virtually all other acts with his creative force David seemed bereft of ideas. His output was greatly reduced. When you compare what he recorded from '70 until '79 with the same a decade later you are left with three albums, three compared to eleven. Conveniently forgetting "Scary Monsters" but looking only at those that followed it, with the occasional good song on both, the eighties were pretty dire. Then came Tin Machine.

For some, this was a step out of sync. Was it Bowie? Who are these other blokes? I welcomed Tin Machine for the very reason they were a back to a future return. Bowie's lyrics were punchy. They lacked no magic. The Sale brothers hung the spectre of the Dame upon their unrelenting rhythm where he could spin his words knowing the muscle behind him was sufficient to knock down walls.

"Baby doll, baby doll
Clarity and prayer
There's more than money moving here
There's mindless maggot glare

Working horrors, humping Tories
Spittle on their chins
Carving up my children's future
Read 'em pal and grin
Raging, raging, raging
Burning in my room
C'mon and get a good idea
C'mon and get it soon
I'm waiting on the fire escape
I'm not exactly well
I'm neither red or black or white
I'm grey and blown to hell"

Reeves Gabrels, always an impressive guitarist, bled his sound over the brothers Sales rampant support slipping in and out between Bowie's vocals. Tin Machine were the forerunners to Grunge. They came before Nirvana and Pearl Jam. I like both but I prefer Tin Machine. 
They were a different entity entirely to Bowie's solo career but proved vital to its revival. With Tin Machine, he had the ground base to build from. Without Tin Machine, both albums I still play, I would not have had "The Buddha of Suburbia" or "Next Day."
"Heaven lies between your marbled thighs
The rustle of your falling gown
We stumble and fall
Like tragedy falls
We stumble and twirl
There's heaven in here
We stumble and fall uncertain we fall
Flesh on flesh but there's heaven in...
Heaven's in here"
"I had to kick-start my engine again in music. There’d been a wobbly moment where I could quite easily have gone reclusive and just worked on visual stuff, paint and sculpt and all that. I had made a lot of money: I thought, well, I could just bugger off and do my Gauguin in Tahiti bit now. But then what do you do — re-emerge at 60 somewhere? So I look back on the Tin Machine years with great fondness. They charged me up. I can’t tell you how much."
It was 1977
It was 1977
It was 1979
I recall buying the 1977 Christmas edition of the NME. On the cover was drawn collage featuring the likes of Elvis Costello, Ian Dury and the Blockheads, Blondie, The Ramones, The Jam, The Stranglers and the Sex Pistols. Leering like some Shakespearean Richard III was Jonny Rotten barging his was to the forefront, whilst standing large and imperious, towering above every one of the New Wave and Punk fraternity stood Bowie.
It was a statement that said all that needed to be said about that era.
"Baby I've been, breaking glass in your room again." What sheer, brutal magnificence, a Pop song wrapped in a serpentine guitar beneath which merciless drums beat a savage tattoo as a synth sporadically fizzes. This is after the brilliance of a song, an instrumental so good you are momentarily deceived into thinking it has lyrics. Then the single "Sound and Vision," without doubt my song of the seventies, was a soul laid bare, a soul in isolation yet still able to fuse words within such a beautiful framework. "Be My Wife" was loneliness and despondency given voice, a call to a love to fill an empty need.  Side one contained effervescent, experimental pop. It was liquorice and aniseed. Side two struck you with its majestic ambience. There had never been such a record before.
If " Low" was a glittering jewel, a sparkling note played on a vibraphone then "Heroes" was a thing of jet. I found it darker, more typical Bowie but all the same still brilliant. Fripp arrived and that single, that heart breaking song of two lovers standing beside the Berlin Wall grew on the airwaves. Suddenly the excitement I had felt as a juvenile when witnessing The Beatles forge the future of modern pop and rock was re-kindled. Bowie was doing what they had done a decade before. It was so incredible an experience that words fail and a ridiculous splash of emotion over comes me.

The first two songs were rugged. "Beauty and the Beast" left Punk gaping in limp silence as it trounced the competition. "Joe the Lion" if anything increased the momentum rather than maintained it. "Heroes" was breathtakingly poignant. Fripp's guitar metallic woven as it laced sound into a glacial sound sculpture. All that hope, all that love, all that defiance strung out in a  such a force of emotion.
"Heroes" was a darker version of "Low." It followed the template as set by its predecessor but not slavishly so. It pushed the formative concepts forward ready for the final, giant leap of "Lodger." An album that yet again buckled then bent the rules of how contemporary songs could be written and arranged.

Unlike the previous two this album, the third in the trilogy featured no instrumentals. It was once again a collection of songs. Oh but such songs. From the rumble of drums on the African ("African Night Flight") continent to the choir like melodies and hard paced, driven structures of "Move On." "Yassassin" remains a favourite. Some suggested this was a sketch book written whilst touring. Perhaps it was. The results were flammable.


This trilogy if such it really was is remarkable even if it weren't. Although as a three album concept conceived after the event and named by others as the 'Berlin' trilogy the fact is the whole series of extraordinary albums began with "Station to Station" and concluded with "Scary Monsters." Not three brilliant albums but five and all on the run, on the same creative arc.

Superlatives fail in light of such brilliance. For me, this formed part of a special few years which saw the arrival of punk, the far better New Wave and the likes of The Fall. Just like the NME Christmas edition, this saw Bowie standing topmost.

It was 1993.

Having flared his nostrils, filled his boots, fired up his creative mojo with his Tin Machine alliance, David returned first with "Black Tie, White Noise" then, the same year with the first of his three great nineties albums: "The Buddha of Suburbia.

Quite why it has been so long over looked is beyond me. In reality it is the forerunner to "Outside" and co-exists well within that concept even if both albums stand alone. It could even be argued that this album  continued on from where "Lodger" ended or, to defeat my own argument, where "Scary Monsters" finished. You could, with a bit of imagination, see it in the arc I spoke of. More experimental than "Black Tie," more in line with his 'Berlin Trilogy' but also given to electronica, great use of piano and some truly remarkable songs and arrangements. However, for the sake of sanity "Buddha of Suburbia" began yet another great run of terrific albums ending with "Earthling."

After the neo-classicist Bowie title track which captures the songwriter at his perfect best, there follow three tracks that could have come off of either "Low" or "Heroes." More contemporary perhaps but of the same mould. The tracks in question are - "Sex and the Church,"South Horizon" and "The Mysteries." They compare very well to those electronic masterpieces on those previous albums.

As for "Strangers When We Meet" well, that is simply amongst his best ever work.

If "Buddha of Suburbia" is one of those Bowie albums that, for one reason or another, you haven't purchased then go out today and buy it. It is up there with the best of his back catalogue.


Another of David Vigor's paintings

I have written this in a sort of cut-up style reminiscent of Bowie and of his hero, William Burroughs. Not just as some homage to those two giants of the arts but because it felt right.


I haven't written about every album which is no indicator of like or dislike of them. "Hunky Dory" is one of my all time favourites.

Bowie, more than anyone I can think of, has filled my life with joy. From seventeen to sixty he has gifted me such wondrous times. Buying his albums has always been thrilling, never knowing quite what I am about to hear and then, upon playing it either loving it or puzzling over something unexpected. There have been times, three in total, when I have not liked what he has produced but even that seems appropriate. One thing is for certain, just when you think he has run out of ideas, lost his way he will return with something extra ordinary. The fact you may be blown away by his audacity is neither here nor there. He is after all far too fast to take that test.

 .
.
.
Russell Cuts the Corn From The Brewers Whiskers.

No comments: