INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
Q MARCH 2016 - by Pat Gilbert
DAVID BOWIE: 1984-99
The long plateau...
On September 21, 1984, the full-length promo film for David Bowie's new single, Blue Jean, premiered on UK TV amid a crackle of expectancy. Shot by Sex Pistols film-maker Julien Temple, and twenty-one minutes long, Jazzin' For Blue Jean saw the singer in the dual roles of window cleaner Vic and an exotic pop star called Screaming Lord Byron. At the denouement, Byron steals Vic's date, to which Vic froths, "You conniving, randy, bogus-Oriental old queen! Your record sleeves are better than your songs!"
The real-life Bowie was having fun at his legend's expense, of course, but when it came to his new album, Tonight, Vic may have had a point. And, as the singer's career began to plateau over the next decade or so, style would appear increasingly to take second place to content.Yet Bowie would never lose his ability to surprise and innovate - or produce the occasional musical gem. Perhaps it was inevitable that after twenty years and fifteen studio LPs, Bowie's creative elan would begin to fade. Let's Dance had made him a superstar of the MTV generation and 1983's Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence a successful mainstream film actor, yet by the time he came to record Tonight in 1984 the desire to create another landmark record had evaporated. When recording began at Le Studio, near Montreal, Bowie appeared "bored". If he did have a vision in mind, then it was a blend of white reggae and soft soul - his co-producers having recently worked with The Police (Hugh Padgham) and Jaki Graham (Derek Bramble).
But it was the arrival at the studio of Iggy Pop that would settle the album's curious direction: perhaps with China Girl in mind, Bowie elected to make it a kind of tribute to (and money-spinner for) his old friend, co-writing a new song with him and resuscitating three solo Iggy tracks from the late '70s, including Tonight from Lust For Life, this time given a cod-reggae treatment. Two more covers - of The Beach Boys' God Only Knows and Chuck Jackson's I Keep Forgettin' - further suggested an artist desperately short on fresh ideas; though the two new originals Bowie did muster, Loving The Alien and Blue Jean, would sit seamlessly within his illustrious canon.
Tonight went to Number 1 in the UK, and 11 in the US, but it came to mark the start of a protracted fall from grace. Bowie himself seemed unconcerned, regarding it as a Pin Ups-style stop-gap, and immersed himself in film, first with a role in Julien Temple's Absolute Beginners (the title track another Bowie pearl) in 1986 and then in the children's fantasy, Labyrinth, in the same year.
His appearance at Live Aid in 1985 had confirmed that, however poor his last album was, he was still the godlike David Bowie, but the musical decline accelerated with 1987's unremarkable Never Let Me Down, promoted by the overblown and savagely reviewed Glass Spider tour. Turning forty, Bowie was now experiencing something once unthinkable - mass-market appeal but critical immolation - so it was perhaps understandable when his next move was to forsake pop music and become the singer in a hard-rock outfit.
Tin Machine - formed with Iggy's old rhythm section, brothers Tony and Hunt Sales, plus newbie guitarist Reeves Gabrels - was a project seemingly contrived to cocoon Bowie within the protective bubble of a "proper" band and also, perhaps, revive his cult status. Instead, the group's metallic muso assaults, on 1989's self-titled debut and 1991's II, seemed only to further alienate and confuse fans. Bowie would later claim that Tin Machine "charged me up - I can't tell you how much", at a time when he'd been artistically adrift. Yet his next solo effort, 1993's Black Tie White Noise, cut with Nile Rodgers not long after the singer finally settled down, marrying model Iman, had little to distinguish it from his bland late-'80s pop and rock. His low-key soundtrack that same year to BBC TV's adaptation of The Buddha Of Suburbia was much better.
The job of rescuing Bowie from his midlife doldrums tellingly fell to his old Berlin Trilogy partner, Brian Eno, whose visit with the singer to the Haus Der Künstler, an artists' community within a psychiatric hospital near Vienna, would provide the magic avant-garde spark for 1995's Outside album, a strange, experimental and alluring record whose narrative was shaped around a short story Bowie had written for Q magazine, and which spawned the reassuringly quirky Top 20 hit, Hallo Spaceboy.
Re-energised and enamoured, belatedly, with '90s British dance culture, in 1997 the singer cut a spirited "drum'n'bass" LP, Earthling, but it was the flotation on the stock exchange that year of his back catalogue, via "Bowie Bonds", that would be his coup de grâce, earning him around £40,000,000 and taking his outsider thinking into the world of business. He followed it in 1998 with his own internet provider, BowieNet.
As the '90s closed with another electronic LP, 'Hours...', developed from the soundtrack to a video game, Bowie stood on the cusp of a new century with his reputation as an innovator restored, and as a musician with everything to play for...