Happy Birthday to The King and The Dame
Happy Birthday Elvis Aaron Presley, who today would have been 78. It meant an awful lot to one schoolboy who years later was thrilled he shared the same birthday as The King, he felt it gave him some sort of cool cache. But it was Little Richard who was a bigger influence on this young man as he hit his teenage years in south London. He even sent off for some pictures of the performer from the NME, one came back with the corner ripped so he Sellotaped it together.
So while Elvis gyrated and ate his way to oblivion and Little Richard blitzed his ivories with boogie-woogie flamboyance, what became of that south London schoolboy? Well, David Robert Jones became David Bowie, Ziggy Stardust, the Thin White Duke, mainstream superstar, a cog in Tin Machine and renaissance neo-classicist. No, really.
Today the Dame reaches 66. While not a zignificant milestone it is however a time to reflect on a life of incredible influence. Not everybody likes David Bowie, it happens to all rock stars of a certain magnitude, Paul McCartney, Mick Jagger, Bono, but his influence and involvement across a variety of media cannot be denied.
Often at the forefront, through being acutely aware of emerging trends, Bowie was often labelled an innovator. In reality, it is perhaps Bowie taking it in to the masses. Which he certainly did with Let’s Dance and the Serious Moonlight Tour. It was this move that took Bowie from influential cult to mainstream madness, all blonde, tanned and ripe for mass consumption. It was falling from here to the low of 1987’s Never Let Me Down, which includes a rap with Mickey Rourke on Shining Star (Makin’ My Love), that conveniently splits Bowie’s fame in half.
Bowie’s 1960’s was a sporadic search for his niche, which even now is hard to define stylistically. After the single Space Oddity charted at No. 5, just ahead of the Apollo 11 moonshot, outer space was left alone until the extra terrestrial took Bowie by the hand again and he emerged as Ziggy Stardust with a band called the Spiders from Mars. This is where Bowie took off.
No one anywhere had seen a 6ft redheaded, platform booted creature before. Bowie immersed himself in it, yet Mick Ronson, Spiders guitarist and Yorkshireman, needed to be convinced about the new band-look. Bowie pleading for him to just put it on, it’ll work. “Are you sure?” questioned Mick. Ziggy, er, David was right. It did work, and continued to do so through the Aladdin Sane LP and tour through America. The two became provocative live foils as the ultra-theatrical taboo busting stage show peaked at London’s Hammersmith Odeon on 3rd July 1973.
“Not only is this the last show of the tour, but it’s the last show that we’ll ever do,” announced Ziggy before the band launched into the finale of Rock n Roll Suicide. He really should have told the band beforehand though.
Keeping the red hair Bowie left glam rock for a more soulful sound, or was it soulless as the cocaine took over. Years later, Bowie joked David Live, recorded on his 1974 Diamond Dogs tour, ought to have been titled “David Bowie Is Alive and Well and Living Only In Theory.” A year later Bowie was living in America, drowning in cocaine yet producing acclaimed work. Fame was a US No. 1 and co-written with John Lennon, although Bowie said it wasn’t one of his favourite songs from the parent LP. The youth of America were dancing in the street and bought Young Americans in enough units to send it Top 10.
To add some credibility to his white plastic soul, Bowie bought in crack musicians from the funk and soul community, including Sly and The Family Stone’s drummer Andy Newmark and Luther Vandross. To keep the feet moving Bowie wished for the tracks to be recorded in one take, with producer and long time collaborator Tony Visconti claiming they hit 85% live.
With Station To Station the climate got colder, his image starker and his cocaine usage colossal, yet the music is romantic, often religious yet darkened with a dose of the Occult and Nazism. But Bowie never looked as good than he did now though, his ice cool Weimar look, constant Gitanes cigarette and flop of hair. Despite his detachment from the world around him this is a key Bowie record and one of surprising elegance, innovation and emotion.
With the Nazi fascination and the Krautrock influence it’s not a surprise he relocated to Berlin with Iggy Pop at the close of the Isolar Tour. Aiming to kick the drugs what was he doing going to Europe’s heroin capital with Pop? To be fair he took Brian Eno along too, some work had to be done. And how it was. With two Pop albums and three from Bowie it was a productive period, even if the drug use continued. There are calls that Bowie tried his ideas out on Iggy’s The Idiot before fine tuning them for Low, then sneakily releasing his LP before Pop’s. But Bowie’s aim was to write a soundtrack for The Man Who Fell To Earth, Nic Roeg turned it down, so some of that became Station To Station and some became Low.
But why are these albums considered influential? One whole side of Low is just ambient noodling, the suggestion of Krautrock emerging from the Teutonic shadows not quite the truth. Eno is hardly a proficient musician. His part in early Roxy Music was mainly playing with electronic sounds. But he has plenty of ideas, and unique ways of creating new sounds and finding adventure down untrodden sonic paths. Eno created sound for Bowie’s vision. Low and “Heroes”, both from 1977, are very original and famed for the cavernous production. The staggered microphone set up for recording the vocal for the track “Heroes” being a perfect example.
After side stepping the public, becoming a superstar again could be Bowie’s only option, Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) initiated a steep upward trajectory creating equilibrium between critical and commercial acclaim. But the legacy of Let’s Dance and its hybrid of blues-rock in a dance format emptied Bowie creatively and slide back down began, ending rather abruptly with Never Let Me Down and the Glass Spider Tour in 1987.
Tin Machine was not the democracy ‘Dave’ claimed it to be, but take the very best of those two original albums and there’s a heavy blues rock giant. Under The God, Prisoner of Love, Baby Universal and You Belong in Rock n’ Roll all welcome beneath the umbrella of Bowie’s best work.
But Bowie was still thirsty and looking for water. By asking Mick Ronson to play guitar and Nile Rodgers to produce his next work, he was being quenched. He resurrected his balladeering croon, yet Bowie claimed it wasn’t harking back to the past with a desire to make Let’s Dance part 2. But the resultant Black Tie White Noise, a competent 90’s hybrid of blues-rock in a dance format, but a kick-start had taken place.
More electronica appeared over the next brace of records with 1. Outside’s cyberpunk drenched with Eno’s electro industrial sounds. The album was subtitled “The Ritual Art-Murder of Baby Grace Blue: A non-linear Gothic Drama Hyper-Cycle,” which suggests Bowie was back to his pretentious best. With Earthling containing elements of drum and bass, boundaries of what was expected from him were being bent, pushed and, in some cases, pummelled into oblivion. This left Bowie tired, as depicted on the sleeve to the mellower follow up, Hours… It’s a serenely acoustic offering, a more melancholy and reflective Bowie.
Heathen is the zenith of this renaissance, the highest charting album in nearly 20 years and some of the strongest reviews since Scary Monsters. Here, there’s a harder rock edge to the electro, courtesy of Pete Townshend’s pugilistic guitar wallop, which creates a fine beast. It’s still reflective, but louder, punchier than the preceding collection.
In 2003 Reality saw a sparky full-length album. A poppier, happier feel to this collection, followed by a world tour showing a full range of Bowie’s catalogue proving the brightness of his star and the longevity his songs.
So nearly 10 years of silence from a former prolific artist, an acutely blocked artery requiring an angioplasty leading to a slow burn of creativity, has been broken with the announcement of a new album in March 2013 entitled The Next Day. But the catalogue of changing styles there for all to see in any record shop, the electronic chill of Low, early folk rumblings of Space Oddity and Hunky Dory, the pop nuggets of Let’s Dance or the full on glam rock of The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars – an album so complete it is almost perfect in its conception. It is, however, Station To Station I’m playing for his birthday – the three stage dramatic opening title track, the pure funk of Stay and Bowie’s best vocal on Wild Is The Wind.
The Victoria & Albert Museum in London is holding a retrospective of David Bowie’s career with unprecedented access to his archive, including handwritten lyrics, original costumes, fashion, photography, film, music videos, set designs and Bowie’s own instruments. It’ll be a fascinating insight into one of popular cultures more important movers. Sometimes, you may not be able to see or hear his influence so easily. It’s there, perhaps more so than Elvis Presley’s, but without both the view across 40 years of popular culture would be a vastly different landscape.
It’s no game, but did anyone pick up the placement of non-italicised songs and albums titles in the article?