Monday, 11 January 2016

David Bowie : A Tribute

I think I once said to my wife, some time ago, that when David Bowie died I would probably be so upset, that I would almost certainly have to take the day off work to take it onboard.

I woke up this morning feeling rough for the sixth day in a row. Man flu, I guess. As I watched the headlines scroll across the TV screen whilst Sky News did their newspaper review, I figured that a day of recuperation might do me good, having staggered into work throughout last week and never having managed to do a full day‘s graft. Perhaps a day of headache tablets and sore throat lozenges and a full day at home might finally cure my ills, rather than commuting and sitting in an office with no functioning air conditioning.

On Friday, I walked in an influenza induced daze from my work place to the HMV in Birmingham because David Bowie’s new album was out. Bowie is one of those few artists whose albums I need to have on the day of it’s release. I bought the vinyl edition, and got home and did that digital download thing where you get a code to get free MP3’s to stick on your iPod. For some reason, I didn’t listen to the album. Little did I know that “Blackstar” would be the first LP I would buy by somebody who was alive when I bought it, but who would no longer be here when I first came to sit and listen to it throughout.

Midway through that paper review, a breaking news item came up stating that Bowie’s Twitter and Facebook accounts were announcing his death. Sky News claimed it needed verification, it was possible the accounts were hacked, and so put the story into the background and carried on with the newspapers. At least one tweet came out about it stating “this can’t be true”. It left me a bit shell-shocked, because there was the other question - what if it was? We took the dogs out for a walk, and came back to look at the news channels again and put the radio on. 6Music was playing the Bowie-produced “Satellite Of Love“. The news was true. It was plastered all over the screen now on Sky News, half an hour after they had figured it couldn‘t be real. I promptly broke down in tears.

In a way, it is good that as I type this, I am still sneezing and coughing and feeling awful, and therefore have made the right choice to not be in work. Because if I had been feeling fitting fit, I am not sure how I could have coped today anyway. Four hours after I heard the rumours, three hours after it was confirmed, I am still utterly devastated. The news channels are showing a constant stream of Bowie images and videos, and every so often, I look at them - and start crying again. And it seems I am not the only one. Tony Visconti has been quoted as saying “it is appropriate to cry”. Why? Because Bowie’s contribution to the world of music is simply unmatchable.

Essentially, the only reason this site exists is because of Bowie. I have loved him since, well, forever. It is possible to find traces of his work in everything recorded by any indie rocker, or punk rocker, or electro pop duo ever since he first made his mark. Even Madonna will be the first to admit Bowie’s game changing adventures in the 70s inspired her to do the same within her own career.

Bowie, for me, is part of what you could call “The Magnificent 7”. The seven artists who, between them, shaped popular music forever. Seven artists who, simply, will never be equalled for their contribution to popular music. Nobody new will ever be added to this list either - Beatles, Stones, Who, Kinks, Madonna, The Velvets - and Bowie.

The run of albums that Bowie made from 1971 to 1980 remain, still, staggeringly superb. Nobody had ever made a series of albums of such brilliance, let alone doing so whilst genre hopping from Glam to Krautrock to New Romanticism. The run of albums that the Stones and The Who made during the late 60s through to the early 70s were good, but Bowie’s own run of albums from “Hunky Dory” to “Scary Monsters” simply wiped the floor with them. And that’s even before we talk about the often astounding run of albums that he put out in the 90s and beyond, the likes of “Outside” matching, if not bettering, the likes of “Lodger”.

Do not ask me when I first fell in love with Bowie. My older brother and both my older sisters were Bowie fans, and so I probably became aware of him as soon as I realised I could hear. I do remember buying those 1983 “Lifetimes” singles that RCA had released to cash in on the post-”Let’s Dance” hysteria more or less as they were new in the shops. I would have been 10, maybe 11. So from a very, very, early age, I was hooked. It didn’t take me too long to realise that this man was something special. Part of the fascination, I guess, might have been that these records I was hearing of his from the previous decade seemed light years ahead of the often naff efforts that were polluting the UK charts at the time. Pop music was, for some reason, about to veer headfirst into a world of bland, overproduced, MOR in the 80s, meaning that these Bowie records sounded simply like they had come from another planet.

The 60s Bowie stuff was something I discovered later on. Everybody, including Bowie himself, seemed to have distanced themselves from this material until recently. But once I started to listen to it, I became quite fascinated by parts of it. Admit it, “The Laughing Gnome” is, in it’s own music-hall tradition way, gloriously brilliant. “Can’t Help Thinking About Me” was a garage rock stormer that, when resurrected for the “Hours” tour in 1999, sounded like an incendiary long lost classic.

But it was with the second album, 1969’s (second) self titled effort, that Bowie started to come of age. Try, if you can, to listen to the opening “Space Oddity” with fresh ears and you will realise just how ODD this record really is - the slow fade in, that “countdown” bit where the ensemble of musicians emulate the rocketship blast off, the swirling psychedelic finale that fades in and out. This was top 5 chart pop music - but not quite as we know it.

Within that album, you can find traces of the sheer scope of musical boundaries that Bowie would cover in the 45 years that would follow. The rambling, ramshackle joy of “Unwashed And Somewhat Slightly Dazed”, the space rock free-form epic that was “Cygnet Committee”, the anthemic roar that concludes the otherwise almost hippy-ish “Memory Of A Free Festival”. History has mostly hidden this album from the retrospective tributes, but there is an argument that the run of great albums started not in 71, but two years earlier. This claim can be backed up by the following “The Man Who Sold The World”, which often veers off into moments of exhilarating hard rock (“She Shook Me Cold”), total psychotic madness (“The Supermen”) or proggy, shape shifting genius (“The Width Of A Circle”).

One of my earlier blogs mentions the sheer mindblowing genius of the 71-80 period. But I shall remind you again. I shall just list the titles, because they say it all. “Hunky Dory”. “Ziggy”. “Aladdin Sane”. “Pin Ups”. “Diamond Dogs”. “Young Americans”. “Station To Station”. “Low”. “Heroes”. “Lodger”. “Scary Monsters”. Staggering. Just staggering. Especially “Station To Station”, where Bowie saw no reason why he couldn’t open the album with a ten minute long title track, and let the record company work out where the “hit singles” were or weren’t on the LP. And I can’t think of another, highly successful, musician who courted potential career suicide by deciding to devote half of his new album to showcasing his love of ambient instrumentals as he did on “Low”. Lou may have done “Metal Machine Music”, but he was still a cult hero at the time. Bowie, on the other hand, a year before, had been doing “Young Americans” on Cher’s primetime TV show in the USA. To have released “Low” at any time would have been daring - but to do it then, was simply incredible.

OK, let’s just focus in on that period again. Because not only was the music astounding, but Bowie was able to add a “pop art” element to it all, by altering his image every time. Just look at that stunningly beautiful cover to “Hunky Dory”. The ‘coolest album cover ever’ on “Ziggy”, so cool I am now pestering my wife to ask if we can hang a pair of our (numerous) vinyl editions of the LP on our wall - front cover of the original in one frame, back cover of the RCA International repress in another. The magnificent lightning flash image of the “Aladdin Sane” period, which has become eye wateringly iconic. The striking imagery of the “Diamond Dogs” cover, especially if you have a gatefold copy. Bowie, on pretty much an annual basis, was changing his look, and changing his music, doing it so quickly that it was impossible for the imitators to catch up. The likes of Roxy and T Rex, who for a while, were Bowie contemporaries in the glam rock days, as good as they were, were simply left behind, knowing full well they couldn’t compete with what he was doing.

The 80s were hard. He turned into a megastar, but did so whilst veering dangerously close to the middle of the road. Nobody in the Shergold household(s) could even bring themselves to buy “Never Let Me Down”, leaving it to me to go, many years after the event, for the 1995 expanded edition in order to plug the remaining gap in the back catalogue. But then we had the magnificent Tin Machine project, derided by just about everybody, but a vital, impossibly important turning point in the man’s career. An opportunity to put the “AOR” solo career on hold, and pay homage to his love of Pixies, Sonic Youth and The Stooges. They produced two albums of noisy, raucous, messy punk rock, and in doing so, managed to alienate those who had discovered him after “Blue Jean”. It sort of killed off ’Bowie The Pop Star’, not for the first time in his career, and allowed the albums that followed to return him to the esoteric brilliance of the 70s.

Indeed, whilst there are still those who think that Bowie post-1980 ’isn’t that good’, I would implore you to check out 1993’s “Black Tie White Noise”, a magnificent car crash of 90s house music, Konrads-era throwback jazz, and warped pop. Or the same year’s “Buddha Of Suburbia”, which harked back to the experimental vibe of “Low” and “Heroes”. And I can’t say enough good things about the industrial throb of 1995’s magnificent “Outside”, home to the jerky rumble of “I Have Not Been To Oxford Town”, the clattering roar of “The Voyeur Of Utter Destruction”, the techno crunch of “I Am With Name” - easily the match of, say, “Pin Ups” or “Young Americans“.

Same goes for 1997’s drum and bass extravaganza, “Earthling”, a record so inventive, it feels so sad that so many people still just don’t know about this record. The shuffling joy of “Battle For Britain”, the hyper energetic pounding of “The Last Thing You Should Do”, this was Bowie at the peak of his powers. He toured the club venues with his dual sets, headlined festivals, and played that now famous UK “small venues” tour in the summer of 1997, where he changed the set every night, opened with "Quicksand" ('Oh My God', was my reaction when I saw him do this at the Birmingham Que Club), tossed out the likes of “Jean Genie” three songs in, and generally showed everybody why he was, ultimately, better than everybody else.

Bowie kept this momentum up for the next few years. 1999’s “Hours”, was a deliberately low key affair musically, a sort of rewinding of the clock back to the acoustic strum of “Hunky Dory”, that wrong footed even members of his own band, who were expecting a continuation of the dance rhythms and metallic guitar rock of the previous two long players. Then there was the Glastonbury show in 2000, where Dame David sailed through two hours of hits, which more or less said to any new kids on the block, “listen to this...and then give up now”.

And so the genius continued. The experimental double whammy of “Heathen” and “Reality”, to me, the Noughties cousins of “Low” and “Heroes”, but not too experimental to upset the faithful. And the amazing “no hype” return of “The Next Day”, which, aside from the great music inside, simply arrived in a way that albums were rarely delivered these days. No press, no interviews, an old album cover re-used with a big white box glued over the top, and a number 1 record to boot. Genius genius genius. In these days of social media, Twitter overload and Facebook frenzies, Bowie had simply made a good, and successful, record, and managed it by not having in any way to kowtow to the generic music industry approaches in order to do so. No “here’s my new single” exploits on “The X Factor”.

Much is now being made of the “mortality” references on “Blackstar”. Visconti has stated that Bowie’s health had been dipping for the last year, which suggests that Bowie was almost certainly resigning himself to the fact that he didn’t have long left for this world. The opening line of “Lazarus” - “Look up here, I’m in heaven” - feels almost as if it was included on the assumption that the album was most likely to have come out after his passing. The closing “I Can’t Give Everything Away”, almost feels like it is a farewell statement, a reference to the often mute and secretive approach Bowie had taken with the media since the abrupt end to the “Reality” tour. And maybe we should, or should not, read into the fact that this is (sort of) the first Bowie studio album upon which his image is absent from the cover, perhaps there is some religious or spiritual explanation also for the fact that the album, officially, is not called “Blackstar”, but is supposed to be referred to by the symbol on the front, a black coloured star. But what a way to go out - with an album that has had critics falling over themselves to praise it’s cutting edge genius. Even in his final months, Bowie was still summoning enough energy to create work that was bold, daring, innovative and wildly eclectic. Had Bowie issued the title track back in 1997, you’d have been impressed. But to be doing something like this just shy of his 69th birthday? Astounding. Contender for album of the year already.

It is now lunchtime as I type this next paragraph, and I am still welling up with tears. The news channels are showing an “Aladdin Sane” mural in his hometown of Brixton, which is starting to be decorated with floral tributes. On CNN, there are mourners by his Hollywood Walk Of Fame. There are occasional visits to Heddon Street, the location of the Ziggy cover. This really does feel huge, monumental - an end of an era, the biggest thing to happen in music since the end of The Beatles or the death of John Lennon. Despite the fact that the end, apparently, was coming, it still doesn’t feel “real”. Even Visconti seems a bit numb about it all, and he has worked with him consistently for the last few years now, so was obviously aware of what was going on after the cancer diagnosis 18 months ago. It feels both perfectly “Bowie” - release an album on your birthday, then ‘disappear’ forever before people have time to congratulate you about it - yet at the same time, it feels totally unreal. Keith is still going, Iggy is still alive, so how on earth has Bowie gone first?

I love Bowie more than any other musician in this world. So much so that I am even doing my own version of his “cut up lyrics” technique, by randomly taping some of these news reports onto a DVD, to see if I can get together - in a scattergun approach - a chaotic 2 hour tribute from this never ending, ramshackle, onslaught of media coverage. So huge does this all seem, that I now feel guilty that I once threw away some of my old music magazines which had Bowie on the cover, due to “space constraints”. Perhaps we should have just rented a lock up garage and kept them. We still have a few, thank god. At least one of them has that “Aladdin Sane Flash” cover. I feel as though taping this stuff needs to be done, however hard it is to watch, because I just know that in years to come, this day will become enshrined in the pantheon of Bowie history.

My memories of Bowie? Getting a bit crushed at the Shepherds Bush Empire in 1997 when he concluded with a singalong “All The Young Dudes”. My wife and I attempting to slam dance to “Suffragette City” at a disco held above a pub in Moseley about ten years ago. First seeing the “Boys Keep Swinging” video on breakfast TV (I think), which did the whole “gender bender” things years before everyone else did it. Seeing him nearly come over to sign autographs at the stage door of the Hanover Grand, before doing a runner inside instead to ensure he would make the sound check. Perhaps it’s fate that I never got him to scribble on my piece of paper, maybe that would have destroyed the image of him being this sort of almost untouchable, alien creature, beamed down from outer space.

I figured that I had to mark Bowie’s passing on this website in some form. Hence this little article. Because Bowie’s influence on popular culture is enormous. Despite the fact that he never fully embraced the stadium rock route, and released several albums and singles that either flopped or sold in meagre numbers, the sheer number of tributes and variety of artists who have name checked him today is staggering - with everybody from Kiss to Goldfrapp to Peter Gabriel acknowledging his loss. Bowie was sort of an anti-”The Voice” style superstar, one who rarely compromised for his art, and yet seems to have left an astonishing legacy that has touched an astounding number, and wide variety, of fans. Maybe some of these do love “Let’s Dance” more than “The Bewlay Brothers”, but still, there is a real outpouring of grief - far more so than people have experienced for some time. Numerous people have said how they have never cried when other popstars died, but that they can’t help it today. I too am one of those. It really does feel as though this is a big event, less shocking than the Lennon murder, but equally heartbreaking to those of us who looked up to Bowie as a musical innovator, or as the “King Of The Outsiders” - or both. On 6Music, Lauren Laverne has defended the fans who are crying over somebody we never met because, to paraphrase, “he was somebody who was part of your life, and now he has gone, it has a profound effect”.

Part of Bowie’s genius was to “borrow” ideas from acts who weren’t quite part of the mainstream, and pass them off as his own. It meant that he was always one step ahead of the crowd - indeed, when Britpop was happening in 1995, Bowie’s love of Nine Inch Nails did seem to predict the change in attitudes that some of those Britpoppers were going to have. By 1997, Blur had released an “anti-pop” guitar racket called, simply, “Blur” and Primal Scream stopped copying The Stones to go back to their dancier past on “Vanishing Point”. Bowie had done all this stuff on “Outside” two years before. And because he was so brilliant at doing this, the people who he loved then name checked him in honour as a response, just check out “Trans Europe Express” by Kraftwerk.

It is almost impossible to list a “top 5” of Bowie records. A top 50 is equally as hard. Just look at some of these things - “Life On Mars”, “Rock N Roll Suicide”, “Wild Is The Wind”, “Loving the Alien”, “John I’m Only Dancing”, “Absolute Beginners”, “Don’t Let Me Down And Down”, “Look Back In Anger”, “Teenage Wildlife”, “Running Gun Blues”, “Dead Man Walking”, “V2 Schneider”, "Be My Wife", "Always Crashing In The Same Car" oh man, the list of moments of genius just goes on and on and on. His death is a terrible event, as it marks the end of a big, big chapter in musical history. Even during those ‘lean’ years from 2004 to 2013, there was always the chance that Bowie might come back. And he did. And he was still brilliant. But now, it’s all over. Unlike “Prairie Wind”, Neil Young’s ‘farewell’ album which, of course, wasn’t, “Blackstar” was seemingly designed as a final gift to the fans - and has turned out to be just that. It is heartbreaking.

I am fortunate enough to have seen Bowie play a few times. Not old enough to have seen the now famous “Ziggy In Bridlington” or Romford Odeon-era gigs that shook up popular culture like never before, but yes, I was there for the 1995 tour where, despite vowing to play no old hits, he knocked out “Look Back In Anger” and “Scary Monsters” within the opening 15 minutes. Whilst there have been other great singer songwriters, none of them ever quite reached the levels of ingenuity that Bowie did - sorry Bruce, but as good as “The River” is, “Ziggy” is just that bit better. I think that’s all I can say on the matter. Bowie’s death has left me tearful, there are more and more people turning up at that Brixton mural as I type this dosed up on Lemsip, and it’s just so sad to watch. I just wanted to say that, for all the bizarre and strange acts who get featured on this website, I love them all. But one man, simply, either outstripped them in terms of sheer musical ability, or in fact, actually invented them in the first place.

And that man was Bowie. These lyrics from “Dead Man Walking” perhaps say it best - “And I’m gone, like I’m dancing on angels, and I’m gone, through a crack in the past”.

The phrase ’legend’ is too often overused. Today, it gets used for the right reason.

RIP David Bowie. Bye bye. We Love You.

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