Thursday, 14 January 2016

WATCH THAT MAN Remembering David Bowie


The number of performers whose work has extended the boundaries of post-modern Western pop culture can be counted on the fingers of one hand.  David Bowie was one such performer and his death on 11 January 2016, following a long and unpublicized battle with cancer, marks the passing of a never-to-be-repeated era in the history of popular music.  Bowie's achievements as a songwriter, performer and genre-defying iconoclast were so vast that they succeeded in making him an irreplaceable artist whose far-reaching influence will continue to be felt and absorbed by future generations for years if not for decades to come.

David Bowie was born 'David Robert Haywood Jones' in the London suburb of Brixton on 8 January 1947 (a birthday he shares with Elvis Presley, one of his earliest childhood influences along with black performer Little Richard but someone he preferred not to meet when offered the chance to do so in the early 1970s).  After performing as a saxophonist/vocalist in various school and local bands throughout his teen years, he began his professional career in 1963 with the formation of a rhythm and blues outfit called Davie Jones & The King Bees which would go on to release an unsuccessful debut single, Liza Jane, in June 1964.  This was the first of three groups – The Manish Boys and Davy Jones and The Lower Third being the others he would form and lead during the next two years, none of which caught on with the public or brought him to the attention of those with the power to make him a star.

Debut single, June 1964 

In 1966, eager to find an audience for his growing catalogue of original material, he went solo and adopted the stage name 'David Bowie' to differentiate himself from the 'other' Davy Jones, then at the height of his fame as a member of the popular American television band The Monkees.  Bowie's self-titled debut album –– a hybrid of Mod-pop and the kind of family friendly variety-style music performed by Anthony Newley –– appeared on the British Deram label in 1967.  (The fact that it was released on the same day as The Beatles' Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band was an unfortunate coincidence which did not see it widely reviewed or help to boost its sales.)  It was not until 1969, however, with the release of a single titled Space Oddity –– launched just weeks before the Apollo II moon landings –– that Bowie began to be appreciated as a singer/songwriter with a sound that, while clearly indebted to its influences, nevertheless managed to be uniquely and unmistakably his own.

from the 1967 Deram LP, David Bowie

Although he made several landmark albums over the next six years it was not until 1972 –– and the release of his audacious fifth solo album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars that Bowie found the recognition and mainstream commercial success which had previously eluded him.  The phenomenon this LP became quickly established him as one of the most original and, by the time the decade ended, most influential recording artists of the 1970s.  His decision to 'play' the Ziggy Stardust character, on-stage as well as off, also made him the leading figure of Britain's emerging glam rock movement –– a label that, while never harmful to his career, tended to overshadow his achievements as a composer and as a witty, often highly insightful lyricist.  He also found time to produce and add his distinctive backing vocals to Lou Reed's 1972 breakthrough LP Transformer, garnering the former Velvet Underground frontman his biggest-ever hit in Walk On The Wild Side in the processHe would later go on to produce three albums for Iggy Pop, another American friend whose early work with The Stooges he greatly admired and who asked him, in 1973, to produce what proved to be that band's disastrous third LP Raw Power.  Four years later he would also produce, arrange, perform and sing on what are now generally regarded as being Iggy Pop's two solo masterpieces, The Idiot and Lust for Life (both 1977).

from the 1973 RCA LP, Aladdin Sane

Abandoning the Ziggy persona in 1973, Bowie went on to record the equally adventurous albums Aladdin Sane (1973), Pin Ups (also 1973, consisting entirely of cover versions of songs originally performed by Them, The Who, The Kinks, The Yardbirds and other UK bands he'd seen at The Marquee and other London clubs as a teenager) and Diamond Dogs (1974, loosely based on George Orwell's dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four) before confounding the critics and his fans, yet again, by abandoning rock music altogether for the smooth 'plastic soul' of Young Americans (1975). 

The album's second single Fame (co-written and performed with ex-Beatle John Lennon) handed Bowie his first US #1 while the album itself went on to become one of his biggest sellers, with a punchy, radio-friendly title track that confronts the listener with an extraordinary outsider's vision of what was then post-Watergate America, packed with up-to-the-minute references that are as trenchant as they are cannily observed.  In a little over five minutes, Bowie gives you the story of a young American couple –– their wedding and honeymoon, their disappointment and eventual alienation from each other and the safe suburban middle class life they've been raised to expect to lead together.  The fact that it's all backed up by an infectious beat which looks ahead to disco while completely avoiding that genre's sometimes ludicrous banality only emphasizes what a thought provoking, brilliantly conceived dissection of the American dream gone wrong Young Americans is and remains forty-one years after it was written.

Unwilling as ever to repeat himself, Bowie shifted direction again with Station to Station (1976), combining some elements of his 'plastic soul' sound with a new, distinctively European elegance which nevertheless saw him invited to perform its first single Golden Years on the black-oriented TV program Soul Train.  (The LP concludes with a stunningly restrained version of Wild Is The Wind, the theme song for a 1957 film starring Anthony Quinn and Anna Magnani which had previously been recorded by Johnny Mathis and Nina Simone among others.)  He could easily have jumped aboard the disco bandwagon after this, churning out hits in the then-popular style of The Bee-Gees or KC and the Sunshine Band, but he characteristically preferred to re-confound everyone's expectations by starring in Nicolas Roeg's 1976 film adaptation of Walter Tevis's existential sci-fi masterpiece The Man Who Fell To Earth, giving a memorably unsettling performance as Thomas Jerome Newton, an alien from the planet Anthea who finds himself unwillingly stranded on Earth.  It was neither Bowie's first nor last appearance in front of the cameras, although his work in Just a Gigolo (1978) –– an atrocious flop set in 1920s Germany, a period he found fascinating and inspirational on many levels – left a lot to be desired in terms of showcasing his acting ability.  Thankfully, his performances in the play The Elephant Man (1981) and in later films like The Hunger (1982), Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence (1983) and as Andy Warhol in the biopic Basquiat (1996) proved he was not mistaken in referring to himself, as he did on the back cover of his classic 1971 LP Hunky Dory, as 'The Actor.' 

from the 1977 RCA LP, Low

In late 1976 Bowie decided to leave Los Angeles –– the city in which he'd been living since 1974 and in which he'd also developed a major addiction to cocaine –– and relocate to what was still the very much divided city of Berlin.  He described Low, the first LP he made here with his longtime producer Tony Visconti and his new collaborator Brian Eno, as 'a reaction to having gone through that dull greeny-grey limelight of American rock and roll and its repercussions: pulling myself out of it and getting to Europe and saying for God's sake re-evaluate why you wanted to get into this in the first place?  Do you really do it just to clown around in LA?  Retire.  What you need is to look at yourself a bit more accurately.  Find some people you don't understand and some place you don't want to be and just put yourself into it.  Force yourself to buy your own groceriesAnd that's exactly what I do I have an apartment on top of an auto shop.'

Low and its successor "Heroes" were arguably his two most influential albums.  Not only did they serve as the perfect soundtrack for a disenfranchised generation confronted by what had become a bleak post-industrial 1970s society, they almost singlehandedly introduced it to electronic music and laid the foundation for pioneering post-punk bands like Joy Division (who originally called themselves Warszawa after a track on Low) and others, like Ultravox, who would go on to define the 'New Romantic' movement of the early 1980s.  Both albums contain lengthy instrumental pieces, several of which feature wordless singing, while the songs themselves saw Bowie adopt a new minimalist approach to his writing which, again, would prove to be highly influential and inspire at least one direct imitator in the form of Gary Numan (about whom he was heard to make several disparaging remarks at the time).  The title track of "Heroes" quickly became a kind of underground modernist anthem – a hypnotic, unabashedly romantic tale of young lovers who meet each day by the Berlin Wall in defiance of the city's restrictive political and social partitioning –– and was released in both German and French versions to capitalize on Bowie's increasing popularity in Europe"Heroes" definitely touched a chord in people (even though it failed to chart in the US and did not become well known there until he performed it as part of his Live Aid set in 1985) and remains one of his most iconic, ironic and frequently covered songs.

from the 1979 RCA LP, Lodger

1979 saw Bowie living in New York and collaborating for the third time with Brian Eno on a new LP called Lodger.  Its first single, the catchy ersatz rocker Boys Keep Swinging, featured him in drag and became notorious in its own right as it introduced audiences to what would become, by the mid-1980s, the new era of music television – another artform at which he excelled and in which he wasted no time establishing himself as an important innovator.  Nowhere was this more evident than in the clip he offered for his 1980 single Ashes To AshesThis song, a sequel of sorts to his 1969 hit Space Oddity, saw Bowie adopt the personas of a Pierrot wandering through a surreal pink-tinged landscape and a paralyzed marionette, while its lyrics contained, as one observer noted, 'more messages per second than any other single this year.'  It was a smash and, as another critic noted, marked the point at which he stopped being just another rockstar and became a genre unto himself.  The album Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) proved to be his last for RCA, the label he'd been signed to since 1971, and served as a fitting finale to phase one of what, by anybody's standards, had been a fascinating and remarkably consistent career.

from the 1980 RCA LP, Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps)

DAVID BOWIE and his 2nd wife IMAN, c 1992
Bowie did not release a new LP until 1983, when Let's Dance saw him once again top the charts, largely thanks to a video clip (shot in outback Australia) which received high rotation airplay on MTV courtesy of his new label EMI and soon saw him become a major stadium attraction throughout the US and the rest of the Western world.  Mainstream success, while financially advantageous, seemed (as it so often does with certain types of artists) to cause him to lose his way, with his next album Tonight (1984) receiving disappointing reviews despite the presence of another hit single in Blue Jean which, once again, became a high rotation favourite on MTV.  Like so much of the music Bowie wrote and released over the next nine years, Let's Dance and Blue Jean alienated many of his older fans, leading some critics to prematurely dismiss him as a has-been –– a judgement apparently confirmed by 1987's over-elaborate Glass Spider Tour and so-called 'vanity' projects like his guitar-noise band Tin Machine.  

It was not until 1995 and the release of Outside, his fourth project with Brian Eno, that he began to regain credibility in the eyes of the music press and the fans who still revered his RCA work but had, by now, almost completely lost faith in his ability to create relevant, exciting, cutting edge music.  This album was followed by the techno/jungle-based Earthling (1997), the more 'organic' Hours (1999), and two well-received 'reunion' LPs produced by Tony Visconti, Heathen (2002) and Reality (2003). 

co-written with BRIAN ENO
from the 1997 Virgin/Warner LP, Earthling

It was while touring to promote Reality that the singer suffered a heart attack and was rushed to a Hamburg hospital to undergo an emergency angioplasty –– an event which instigated a ten year withdrawal from the music industry which ended in January 2013 with the unexpected (and virtually unpromoted) release of a new single, Where Are We Now?, again produced by Tony Visconti.  It was Visconti, an American draft dodger who had played with him in London in a band called The Hype back in 1970, who would go on to produce what were to be his final two LPs The Next Day (2013) and Blackstar (2016) –– albums which saw the artist reflect on his old work even as he appeared to be deconstructing it and making some effort to contextualize it for the Twitter and Snapchat generation.

Bowie was, at all times, a great survivor –– a performer who managed to negotiate his way from 60s R 'n B through Mod, the dying world of British variety, hippiedom, glam/punk, post-punk, electronica, stadium rock and into the digital era without permanently damaging his reputation as a game-changing legend.  He would still be as revered (and as widely mourned) as he is today had he never released another album after Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) –– an artist who was, in many ways, a pop music prophet who had the courage to pursue his own vision in an industry where the idea of 'sticking with what sells' has long been an inviolable rule.  Few artists ever manage to release one perfect album in their careers.  Between 1969 and 1980 David Bowie somehow managed to release thirteen of them, one right after the other, changing tastes, creating movements and redefining what 'rock music' is, should and could be along the way.  He is to post-Beatles pop what Louis Armstrong is to jazz and Ludwig van Beethoven is to the classical tradition –– an artist who seemed to appear out nowhere and made the world pay attention by offering it sounds it had never heard before and only discovered it needed after it had.

from the 2016 ISO LP, Blackstar

DAVID BOWIE released his twenty-fifth album, Blackstar, on 8 January 2016.  It followed the release of the critically acclaimed The Next Day in March 2013 –– an album which marked the end of his decade long absence from the music industry.  Click HERE to listen to tracks from these albums and more great music by DAVID BOWIE on YouTube. 

You can also click HERE to read a list of DAVID BOWIE's 100 favourite books and HERE to read all his lyrics arranged by album.

I also recommend this BOWIE-related post from the excellent music blog Anorak Thing which can be read by clicking HERE.  The same blog also features some rarely heard tracks from MR JONES'S pre-BOWIE and early BOWIE years which can be explored by clicking HERE.  (Click on the link displayed below each section to view the featured song on YouTube.)

Another BOWIE site of enormous interest is Pushing Ahead of the Dame run by writer and editor CHRIS O'LEARY which dissects, in intelligent and never less than fascinating detail, every song he ever wrote, recorded or was otherwise associated with to even a minor degree.  CHRIS O'LEARY is also the author of the BOWIE-related books Rebel Rebel (2015) and its soon-to-be published sequel Ashes to Ashes. 

Special thanks to everyone who takes the time to upload music to YouTube.  Your efforts are appreciated by music lovers everywhere.

You might also enjoy:
UNE VIE INTENSE Remembering Jacques Brel

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