INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
"Craft is what enables you to be successful
when you're not inspired." - Brian Eno
Record Collector FEBRUARY 2016 - by Daryl Easlea
Singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist (born David Robert Jones, in London, January 1947), died of liver cancer in New York on January 10, age sixty-nine.
It's impossible to overstate the importance of David Bowie, not just on popular music, but on British culture. His shock passing truly marks the end of an era. That he lived so long (after his well-documented excesses of the '70s) and was able to add the credible two-album coda to his career in the 2010s, was all the more remarkable. People talk about growing up in public, but David Bowie truly did. What makes his music catalogue so individual is that the missteps and blemishes form as much part of the whole as do the perfect pictures that he painted.
Bowie's six-decade-spanning career stretched from his first work in his native south London as Davy/Davie Jones with The Kon-Rads, in 1962, through The Manish Boys, The King Bees (with whom he released his debut single, Liza Jane, in June 1964), The Lower Third, and later, The Buzz and The Riot Squad. He made his first significant TV appearance on the BBC's Tonight programme, when he was interviewed by Cliff Michelmore, as the founder of the frivolous Society For The Prevention Of Cruelty To Long-Haired Men, in 1964. He changed from Jones to Bowie in 1966, in order to avoid any confusion with The Monkees' Davy Jones, and Bowie signed to Deram to create his wonderful debut album. Released on the same June day in 1967 as The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, Bowie's self-titled set saw him channel Anthony Newley. It amplified the whimsical aspects of the last days of swinging London, to the point that it was already out-of-date by the time that it was released. Even The Laughing Gnome, the non-album single that shortly preceded it, couldn't spark commercial interest.
After a period of withdrawal, Bowie signed to Phillips, and his stylish Stylophone-heavy single, Space Oddity, chimed with the concurrent space race, giving him his first significant hit by reaching the UK Top 5 in the summer of 1969. Absorbing work by mime artist and choreographer Lindsay Kemp, Bowie became part of the Beckenham Arts Lab in south London. Nothing from this time was wasted and would be put to good use later. With a new wife, Angie Bartlett, he forged relationships with producer Tony Visconti and guitarist Mick Ronson, and acquired a new manager, Tony DeFries, a driven entrepreneur with stars in his eyes. However, by the end of 1971, while creating the masterful yet commercially unsuccessful The Man Who Sold The World and Hunky Dory, Bowie was seen as bordering on a washed-up novelty act in chart terms.
Bowie brought all this experience to bear as he became an overnight sensation in 1972 with The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars. A decade of craft, slog and absorption brought Ziggy to the stage. His androgyny and sexual politics ("I'm gay and always have been") inspired millions; a singe arm around guitarist Mick Ronson on BBC TV's Top Of The Pops showed that masculinity could be a fluid concept. Henceforth, Bowie became a fixture in the UK Top 10.
Bowie's continued shapeshifting was breathtaking, and now he'd made it, he wasn't going to let a second go to waste, releasing albums at high speed, killing off Ziggy at the height of his popularity, relocating to the US to become the soul boy of Young Americans, then the New European of the highly influential "Berlin Trilogy" (working in perfect synergy with Visconti and musical foil Brian Eno), before becoming the weary futurist of 1980's Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps). And though now almost written out of his history, the simple elation that a generation felt when Let's Dance was released in 1983 ushered in a short, sharp sojourn of superstardom. Working with Chic co-leader Nile Rodgers, Bowie created the most perfect pop record of its time.
The law of diminishing returns saw Bowie, by the end of the decade, alternating between being "one of the boys in the band" with Tin Machine and "retiring" his greatest hits on the stadium-sized Sound + Vision Tour.
After this, Bowie went back to being an underground art-rocker with subsequent releases. Writers were frequently looking for his "best album since Scary Monsters", but instead they found some deeply moving and interesting works, which, if they'd been issued by another artist, would've been wholeheartedly lauded. Earthling, from 1997, stands head and shoulders above the rest from this period; get over the amusing drum'n'bass-ness of it all, and listen to some incredibly well-written songs. But it wasn't, as always, just about the music. In 1997, he launched his Bowie Bonds, making over fifty-million dollars by offering his royalties to buyers for a ten-year period. An early adopter of the internet with his Bowienet, he moved into computer gaming with Omikron and, unbelievably, online finance with BowieBanc.
Reunited with Tony Visconti for the first time in over two decades, Bowie's musical quality control continued with Heathen and Reality. The 2003/04 tour that supported the latter was his last. Working with an incredible band, including long-term keyboardist Mike Garson, the set was a perfect career-spanning balance of old and new. The tour was curtailed after Bowie experienced a blocked coronary artery while performing in Germany and had to undergo emergency surgery.
Bowie's "retirement" from 2006, to enjoy his the childhood of his daughter Lexi (with his second wife, Iman) inspired all the attendant rumours of ill-health commensurate with a public disappearance. His surprise return in 2013 with The Next Day - again produced by Visconti - confounded critics. The album heralded a wave of refined Bowiemania that accompanied the record-breaking David Bowie Is... exhibition that opened at London's V&A Museum.
Aside from his music, art and business interests, Bowie appeared in thirty-five-plus films. Though no one will make a great case for his performances in Just A Gigolo or Into The Night, his portrayal of Thomas Jerome Newton in Nicolas Roeg's The Man Who Fell To Earth remains one of the iconic screen performances of the '70s. For younger audiences, his part as Jareth, the Goblin King, in Labyrinth, is often seen as a benchmark. The footage of his 1980 New York stage title role of The Elephant Man, seen as part of the V&A exhibition, revealed a talented performer bringing the wealth of his training to the part.
Bowie's (unexpected to the rest of us) passing, with Blackstar, a Number-1-to-be album released on his sixty-ninth birthday just two days before, was the sort of coup only he could pull off: "He always did what he wanted to do," Tony Visconti noted. "And he wanted to do it his way and he wanted to do it the best way. His death was no different from his life - a work of art. He made Blackstar for us, his parting gift." The fact that the album contains the lines "where the fuck did Monday go", and his passing was announced on a Monday, had the requisite Bowie showmanship.
I began writing this tribute on a train, a couple of hours after Bowie had died. Four workmen in their late fifties were sat in front of me. "Terrible news about Dave," they said, and proceeded to talk with great eloquence about him for the next ten minutes. Somebody compared his passing to the grief for Princess Diana. A good friend wrote, "I don't think I've been so saddened by a death of someone I have never met." And it's true; there was something so indefinable about Bowie that he got under the skin of so many of us; he was an enabler. Liking David Bowie when you reached a certain age was to be grown-up.
Whereas everyone from David Cameron to Kanye West paid public tributes (and Bowie refused honours including a knighthood) the scale of how Bowie touched so many lives was apparent by the outpouring of grief on social media. Someone we all knew had left us. In fact, it could be argued that Bowie's was the first truly Social Media passing, newsfeeds jamming from 7am on January 11. This mass expression continued wi'm the informal gathering of thousands in Brixton and the remarkable full-house of UK press front-pages the next day.