Music heroes I: David Bowie (Part One, Introduction and early years)

Disclaimer: The plan is to write a series of blog posts about the music made by artists who have meant the most to me, addressing my personal relationship with their work.  I acknowledge from the outset that others will know a lot more about the minutiae. I’m not pretending to be a leading expert.  I rarely read or watch biographies and would fall woefully short of acceptable if I was ever stupid enough to take them on as specialist topics on Mastermind (perish the thought).

Introduction: My first subject is in many ways a stupid choice, because everyone has heard of him, most people know and admire at least some of his music, and many are obsessed by him.  Generally, my tastes are less in line with popular opinion, and I’m somewhat uncomfortable when they coincide, much preferring the safety of membership of select ‘enlightened’ admiration groups, wallowing in that comfortingly smug (but sadly rare nowadays) feeling that I’m in the know and others aren’t.

With David Bowie this is still just about achievable.  In many ways, I am utterly perplexed that his work is so popular, and resent having to share, though in reality it is only a sub-set that falls into that category, and much of his output is largely ignored.  I was even idiotic enough to ignore some of it myself for long time, but more of that later.

My teenage years were the seventies.  Both at the time and in retrospect, Bowie towered over that decade like a musical colossus, producing an annual tour-de-force that refused to conform to categorisation, or never for very long.  His astonishingly varied output during this period was by any stretch of the imagination prolific on a scale that no other artist can match in terms of quality and consistency, without relying on repetition and self-reference.  My love of Bowie’s work is intimately coupled with a passion for the album as a format.  Nobody mastered the art of the 40-minute vinyl LP as well as Bowie, with its inherent demand for discipline and structure, right down to the recognition of the break associated with flipping the record halfway through.  I still consider it the ultimate artform for a recording artist.  My view of him is therefore very album-centric.

He first came to my attention, as for many of my generation, with his Starman single and Ziggy persona.  I would only have been 11, but my memory is insisting that the infamous Top of the Pops appearance, with the glam gear and the arm around Ronno for the chorus, was the moment.  It’s highly likely, because watching this show was a compulsory act of worship. I had already been introduced to the concept of weirdness in music by Marc Bolan; more of him much later.  Bowie possessed that same strangeness, even though the song was not especially weird, with its sing-a-long chorus and la-la-la ending.  My recollection is that I bought the Starman single after it had dropped out of the charts.  They used to sell off remaining ex-chart stock for something like 10 pence, so there were bargains aplenty.  It had Suffragette City on the B side; wham bam, thank-you ma’m.  I loved both tracks and was motivated to buy John I’m Only Dancing as soon as it was released, with Hang On To Yourself on the flip side as a further bonus.  I have a distinct memory of buying three RCA chart singles on the same day, Wig Wam Bam (The Sweet) and Burning Love (Elvis) being the other two.  Looking back, that seems rather extravagant; however, an album was an even bigger commitment.  I would go to the record shops every Saturday to flick through the discs and decide how the pocket money would be spent.  I must have been on the verge of buying the Ziggy Stardust LP many times, as it persisted in the mid-range of the album chart, enticing me with its alluring cover.  The B side selections meant that three of the album’s tracks would be paid for twice.  That probably contributed to a delay.  Eventually, I decided to overlook the duplications and committed the necessary funds.  After that, I needed to have every Bowie record, including those from his past; absolutely needed, there was no choice in the matter…

For an aspiring, but not quite, teenager, Ziggy Stardust was the perfect introduction to the world of David Bowie.  Nowadays, I wouldn’t have it in contention to be considered his best album, though that doesn’t mean that it lacks brilliance, but it probably was the ideal record to ensnare someone of my age at that time, with just the right mixture of weird and conventional.  I bought Aladdin Sane as soon as it was released, and then set about acquiring the back catalogue.  Nowadays, I look upon the seventies less in terms of years than as a collection of Bowie albums.  And although I continued for some time to buy the singles and obsess about their chart positions, it’s all about the studio albums for me, so let’s consider them individually.

1967 David Bowie: Bowie’s debut album is often forgotten or dismissed, but I’m including it.  In many ways, it’s his weirdest album of all.  When Bowie first hit stardom, his old record companies (Deram and Decca) set about trying to cash in; hence the re-release of the pun-infested novelty single, The Laughing Gnome, which charted, its incongruity in the top ten in 1973 somehow even further confirming Bowie’s general strangeness.  And yes, I did buy it.  I’m rather fond of the B side (Gospel According to Tony Day).  I don’t actively dislike the A side, to be honest, but that is probably evidence of how indulgent I am prepared to be once an artist has me hooked.

Tracks from the 1967 album were included on the compilation “Images”, a double album of the early material.  I only got to grips with the actual structure and full content of the debut album much later.  On Images, not all of the ‘67 album tracks were included, and they were intermixed with other songs.  Bowie’s debut album was an eclectic collection, music as a medium to present a series of vignettes, strange little stories or snippets of lives of characters; some child-like, some recounting sketches of a rather disturbed nature.  Too late for music hall, though much of it retains that kind of feel, too disjointed and at times maladjusted for conventional musical theatre, the pieces have no obvious home.  Yet there is some fine melodic song writing amongst the weirdness.  Come and Buy My Toys is a lovely finger-picking guitar song; When I Live My Dream could easily have ended up in a musical.  I can imagine it being belted out by some wannabe X-Factor (or similar) contestant, but not as charmingly. Maybe it already has; I never watch those shows.

The album starts with the story of Uncle Arthur, who finally resolves to venture out into the world on his own but ends up returning to his mummy, tail between his legs and in need of proper home-cooked nourishment.  I’m guessing that X-Factor wouldn’t have touched that.  It ends with Please Mr. Gravedigger, music abandoned altogether, as Bowie coughs and sneezes through a performance as a chatty jack-the-lad psychopath, grumbling about the weather whilst digging a grave for his forthcoming victim.  I won’t go through them all, but the album is brimming with odd curiosities.  The Little Bombardier may well be one of the most tragic little stories conveyed via the medium of popular music, as the life of a lonely veteran is briefly brightened by friendship with a couple of small children, only for him to be sent packing by adults, suspected of perversion.  Some of the songs are, frankly, ludicrous and half-baked, but this is clearly a young man brimming with ideas and stories to tell, whilst struggling to find the right method for expression.  The musical style and instrument choices are eccentric, the lyrics literal, no dabbling in imagery here, and often delivered with deliberately theatrical affectation.  Cracked actor, yes, but no hint of what’s to come later.  If it wasn’t for the voice, you wouldn’t know that these were David Bowie songs.  Of course, it’s not a great album, but it’s not his worst either; an oddity that I can’t help but like.

1969 Space Oddity: Although the album did not originally have this title, I’ve always known it as Space Oddity. My vinyl copy featured the space-age, soft-focus close-up Bowie on the cover, rather than the original curly-haired hippy shot now more often seen.  The space concept fitted the times.  I was barely beyond my Thunderbirds obsession, and it’s hard to convey to younger people just how significant the moon landings and space travel were for the psyche of everybody back then, especially the impressionable young.  In fact, Bowie managed to ride the zeitgeist for the first time with his hit single recounting the trauma of Major Tom, floating in a tin can.  This smoothed the way for a new album, a much more connected body of work, confident in what it was seeking to achieve.  It’s a gorgeous album.  The title track is a widely known classic, and it sets the scene for a collection musically driven by the sumptuous full sound of the 12-string acoustic guitar, embellished with Bowie’s often multi-track harmonised vocals, delivered with conviction, not hiding behind characterisation.  The support music, especially the bass, and the sometimes epic arrangements (Tony Visconti on board), add to the identity.  The mix is pleasingly fixated on maximising the possibilities offered by stereo sound, wonderfully so on the title track, especially when two different Bowies come at you from opposite earholes.  Unlike its predecessor, the coherence is clear, and it was aimed at a market that actually existed, the rock market, albeit the more psychedelic hippy side.  

The lyrics are still dominated by storytelling, including some very personal material (Letter to Hermione), but the sci-fi driven dystopian sensibilities established by the title track continue in songs such as Wild Eye Boy From Freecloud and Cygnet Committee, the latter much more lyrically ambitious than earlier work, reading like some self-pitying speech from a deposed dictator.  The collection chronicles less observation of the normal (or near normal) and more trips into the imaginary and ambiguous, a trend that Bowie would continue in forthcoming albums.  On many of the tracks, for example Unwashed and Somewhat Slightly Days, the lyrics play with you, more reluctant to reveal their secrets than anything on the debut album.  It’s clear that Bowie was reading widely and using those influences to develop the words.  An Occasional Dream is one of my favourite ever Bowie songs, with its lovely guitar melody and floaty vocals.  If (nay when) I am ever invited on to Desert Island Discs, I may well choose this.  It deserves to be more widely known. Sorry for the spoiler, though there is every chance I might select something else.  In fact, I would probably need to cancel because I couldn’t make my mind up…

The flow of the album marks it out as the first great Bowie LP.  It is hard to imagine anything other than it starting with the faded-in gentle strumming of the title track, gradually guiding our ascension into space, and ending with the hippy choir fading out to the lone voice, as the sun machine descends at the free festival, and it’s party time for the children of the summer’s end.  First time around, it was a commercial flop.  1969 – what were you thinking of!?  Thank goodness for the success of Ziggy Stardust and the re-release, giving it a well-deserved second chance that some other gems never got.

1971 (in the UK): The Man Who Sold the World: Much as Space Oddity commences with the gentle strumming acoustic as a harbinger of what’s to come, The Man Who Sold the World smacks you in the face with the electric guitar, relegating the acoustic firmly to the background, as it opens with The Width of a Circle, a meandering journey brimming with dark impenetrable imagery, fluctuating between pleasing melody and the feeling that you may have gate-crashed a Deep Purple jam session.  It’s the first album to feature Mick Ronson, and you are very quickly left in no doubt about what that means.  I only bought this album after hearing Ziggy Stardust, but I can imagine that if I had been a bit older (and very in the know), buying this after owning and loving the music of the Space Oddity collection, I may well have been struck by the ‘WTF is this?’ feeling that so often accompanied the first play of a new Bowie record.  It’s an extraordinary and brilliant opening.  The acoustic stages a bit of a recovery in tracks like the wonderful All the Madmen, with Bowie addressing mental illness, a personal family issue, and the beautiful and reflective After All, from which the electric is banished altogether.  But even as the acoustic draws you in, Ronson’s signature electric guitar is never far from mounting an ambush.  You can sense it lurking, snarling at you from the shadows.  Black Country Rock, the other track on side 1, is more conventional in its bluesy rock and roll feel, almost a bit of light relief.  

As the first side concludes, with the rather lovely After All drifting pleasingly in your consciousness, and a mellower mood descends in the aftermath of some of Bowie’s best contemplative lyrics, you flip over and side 2 hits you with Running Gun Blues, an apparent narration by a serial killer who very much enjoys his work, kicking off with “I count the corpses on my left, I find I’m not so tidy…”.  The dystopian sci-fi sensibilities emerge once more in Saviour Machine and Supermen, but the band goes full-on heavy metal (and all other sorts of) bonkers in the drama of She Shook Me Cold, a deranged lust song, as well as a vehicle for Ronson’s unique guitar style, coupled with Visconti’s, at times, unhinged bass playing.  Perhaps as recovery therapy, we are presented with the charming title track next, one of the few that most people are likely to recognise.  I am aware that a cover version by a prominent rock icon may have contributed to its popularity nowadays.  That’s right, Lulu had a hit with it in 1974.  When somebody selected 1971 as an option on an episode of the quiz show Pointless, one of the categories was songs from David Bowie albums released in 1971.  I was agonising over which ones I would choose, but almost every track from The Man Who Sold the World was pointless.

The album conveys an overall feeling of unease, a sinister darkness.  Bowie is playful with his vocals, and the music, though heavy at times, keeps springing surprises.  It’s a great album.  It was a total flop.  I have seen some Bowie documentaries, and it’s clear that he had yet to figure out how to play the system, how to control events.  The album was perfectly designed to fail.  It was always likely to alienate any following amongst the beautiful people hippy leftovers attracted by the strumming acoustic mellow vibes of the Space Oddity album.  On the cover of my re-issued version bought in ‘73, we see a short-haired high-kicking Bowie in black and white, looking rather androgynous, but nothing compared to the original sight of a colourful Bowie with flowing locks, striking a recumbent pose on a chaise-longue, and wearing a dress.  To me, the cover captures much of the strangeness and ambiguity of the album very well, but it was never likely to appeal in the macho world of hard rockers.  It’s worth reminding people that back then albums were often bought without having heard all (or sometimes any) of the tracks.  The cover, and the location in the record shop, would have been crucial, as well as radio play.  Of course, for those collecting in retrospect, after falling for Ziggy Stardust, there was no difficulty in loving the album.  With Glam Rock riding high, there would also be no reason to worry about the cover, but that didn’t stop them changing it for the re-issue.

Commercially, if not artistically, it was a bit of a morale-sapping low point for all involved but, as you know, things did pick up…

(Part Two, The Spiders from Mars, will follow anon*…)

*anon here means at some point in the future, depending upon interest and motivation…

Published by Craig Winstanley

I make music. I create videos and photographic collages, some of which are accompanied by music.

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