Record Collector FEBRUARY 2016 - by Kris Needs


The music world - it is no exaggeration to say the whole world - felt a collective jaw-drop, a sharp gasp and a head-swimming swell of emotion at the news of David Bowie's death. Kris Needs reflects on an artist who opened the door through which the future came.

After being greeted as one of the major albums of his career before it was released on his sixty-ninth birthday, the bold, shapeshifting Blackstar has tragically become David Bowie's self-determined epitaph. His death three days after the album's release, which follows the eighteen-month battle with cancer he hid from the world, gives Blackstar a poignant new resonance as it now becomes the work he knew was going to be his last-ever statement.

The album appeared to suggest that Bowie was entering a whole new lease of life and era of activity. Or so we thought. Unlike the time in 1973 when he killed off his Ziggy Stardust persona, Bowie was now facing down his own mortality, which was confirmed by producer Tony Visconti, who described it as "his parting gift to us". Even in the face of death, Bowie made sure he went out with the biggest bang he could muster. Now the album can only be held up as one of the landmark events of this whole century by future generations who need to know which artist left the biggest footprint on the early twenty-first century.

Blackstar will now inevitably be endlessly analysed by scholars and the devoted for clues and subliminal messages. All I can think right now (apart from "what a way to go") is how a major part of my adult life has gone and there is no longer a David Bowie in the world to keep it interesting in these soporific times. No other artist has managed to inspire, confound or challenge more than Bowie, even when he was at his lowest ebbs. During his recent, low-level years of "retirement", Bowie's enormous shadow still hung over music in both sound and vision. From perfect pop to audacious experimentation, or from busting society's taboos on sexuality, image and behaviour, to carrying the eternal torch ignited by history's greatest, most enigmatic stars, Bowie carried a mystique and stature which was so uniquely his own that, even up to his death, he stood unrivalled.

Blackstar can be seen as the latest of many seismic contributions Bowie made to the history of the world's music and culture. Here, written through a cloud of shock and grief for this essentially kind and beautiful soul, are some more examples of Bowie's achievements after he fumbled into action in the '60s as a mime-fixated singer-songwriter looking for a direction and a place where he could blossom. Then he flamed-on into arguably the single most important musical artist of the past two centuries, achieving a respect and status to which few of his contemporaries could hold a candle. Like having the tracks running in reverse on his last greatest hits collection Nothing Has Changed, Bowie was always going up the hill backwards. Here are thirty ways he changed things.

1 Bowie gave the moon landing triumph its defining song with 1969's Space Oddity. It was used in the BBC coverage of the event and, only recently, astronaut Chris Hadfield was captured singing the song on the International Space Station, pulling in more than twenty-three million hits on YouTube plus a delighted tweet from Bowie himself.

2 Bowie invented glam rock and contributed to the development of heavy metal on 197O's The Man Who Sold The World As early champion Charles Shaar Murray said, this is Where the story really starts. Produced by Tony Visconti, the album was his first to feature Mick Ronson and the nucleus of the upcoming Spiders From Mars, who whipped up a dense, churning head of steam on songs about insanity (All The Madmen), government-sanctioned war (Running Gun Blues) and unbridled lust (She Shook Me Cold), with the spectres of Aleister Crowley and Friedrich Nietzsche hanging over dark missives such as The Supermen. Computers ran amok on Saviour Machine and Ronson already had his future stage vehicle in The Width Of A Circle. The album proved too dark for its time, but was way ahead of it.

3 Bowie was the first to aunt bisexuality and wear a dress (a whole year before mischievously announcing in Melody Maker: "I'm gay!"). On the original sleeve of The Man Who Sold The World he reclined in his Mr Fish "man's dress" with blond locks owing, his new look reportedly inspired by a pre-Raphaelite painting by Rossetti. This was how he looked when I first saw him, appearing in a little hall in September 1971 as a nervous creature, but with the world in his secret sights. He knew his other-worldly looks were going to get him the stardom that he craved; he just had to come up with the right image.

4 Bowie liked to highlight vaguely obscure singer-songwriters in his live sets and choice of cover versions, tackling songs by Biff Rose live, the tragic Ron Davies' It Ain't Easy on Ziggy Stardust, and sitting on a stool halfway through his sets between 1971 and 1973 to deliver tour de force readings of first Port Of Amsterdam, then My Death, by Belgium's enigmatic Jacques Brel. That latter Brel song, which I saw him play in 1973, is currently swirling around my brain on repeat, as Bowie exudes feeling and emotes through lines such as: "My death waits to allow my friends / A few good times before it ends / So let's think of that and the passing time."

5 Bowie gave glam rock the substance of true musical depth and a proper hero, who launched more looks than any other performer in music history. Without him, this movement would never have risen above some dressing up fun and a few brassy teenage anthems, as instigated by his friend Marc Bolan and carried on by loveable opportunists such as Slade and Sweet. While these bands gave lives a welcome jolt of fun and eternal pop music magic (for Slade, reignited each Christmas), Bowie actually changed them with Ziggy Stardust and its attendant shows and circus. From here, he could be relied upon to shape the way young people dressed for the rest of the decade and beyond (partly as a holdover from his days as an "ace face" mod).

6 Bowie brought rock'n'roll's original unfettered spirit into the '70s. As Lemmy, another recently deceased pioneer, once said, modern rock'n'roll all comes from Elvis Presley, Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis, and the rulebooks they tore up to break down barriers of sexual awakening, wild behaviour and long-ingrained artistic taboos. Bowie knew that when he gave music its ultimate '70s incarnation, he should never lose sight of rock's original energy, attitude and potential to change the future.

7 Bowie inspired countless lonely, vulnerable teenagers to be true to themselves and walk down the road wearing whatever they pleased, whether it was brightly coloured hair or make-up. Pre-dating punk, he inspired them to form bands and make whatever loud, garish noise they felt they had to make. His arm around Mick Ronson on Top Of The Pops is always cited as the moment in the '70s when being gay was no longer something of which to be ashamed.

8 Bowie brought Andy Warhol's name to a wider audience. He gleefully plugged into the artist's ethereal presence, subtle manipulation of louder characters and groundbreaking artistic visions at a time when Warhol was little-known beyond his soup cans changing art, and his name adorning The Velvet Underground's first album. He wrote a song titled after him, but their first meeting, where Bowie performed a mime, was less successful. Bowie also brought former Warhol affiliates such as Wayne County, Leee Black Childers and Cherry Vanilla into his organisation and the world's spotlight - itself a two-fingered gesture at conservative rock stereotypes. He also played Warhol in the movie about the doomed New York artist Basquiat.

9 Bowie brought Lou Reed back from the doldrums. Smitten by the Velvet Underground and including their songs in his set, including I'm Waiting For The Man and White Light/White Heat, Bowie was horrified to encounter the lacklustre first solo album Reed had recorded after leaving The Velvets in 1970, and duly got his own manager Tony DeFries to snarf him up for his MainMan stable. He then produced Transformer, which provided Reed with one of his biggest hits in Walk On The Wild Side.

10 Bowie also resuscitated the career of Iggy Pop (above), inspiring the Detroit demon to reach deeper into his turbulent psyche, first on 1973's Stooges album Raw Power, which he facilitated and mixed, then 1977's The Idiot and Lust For Life, which he co-wrote and produced. On learning of his old friend's death, Iggy described his friendship with Bowie as "the light of my life".

11 Bowie rescued Mott The Hoople and gave the '70s one of its greatest anthems with All The Young Dudes, which he hurriedly finished and presented to the shattered band after learning they had split up in March 1972. This unbelievably generous gesture saved the band, while the Bowie-produced All The Young Dudes album catalysed Mott's rise to the point where they became one of the most vibrant hit-making outfits of the era, again presaging punk. Ably assisted by Ronson, Bowie emerged as a consummate producer after this time.

12 Bowie raised the bar for theatrical presentation in rock'n'roll. At London's Rainbow Theatre in August 1972, he turned to his old mime teacher, Lindsay Kemp - with whose troupe he had learned the art of mime, used in his performances - illustrating his songs with an eye-blasting array of moves and effects on a stage which looked like the set of Elvis' Jailhouse Rock movie. No one else had attempted anything quite so audacious until then.

13 Bowie embraced and brought the freedom of jazz into rock'n'roll. When he took Ziggy to the US in September 1972, he enlisted pianist Mike Garson in The Spiders, turning him loose and inciting him to bust out his avant-jazz chops on the title track of the album he was to call Aladdin Sane. He uncannily repeated the exercise with the young New York jazz musicians he gathered around him for Blackstar, his final statement of the panoramic liberation which could be found in the music which had inspired him to take up the saxophone in the early '60s.

14 Bowie honoured literary giants such as William S. Burroughs and George Orwell, prompting further investigation into their works. In 1974, he gave one of his most revealing interviews to veteran beat writer Burroughs, which appeared in Rolling Stone and straddled Bowie's plan for a lavish Ziggy TV presentation, the use of cut-ups which Burroughs inspired, and much soul-baring honesty. That same year, Bowie would try to adapt George OrWell's I984, but was met with a refusal, which led to Diamond Dogs.

15 Bowie was the first British rock star to build an untouchable image founded on old-school Hollywood glamour. After the unexpected rise, and before the premeditated fall of his Ziggy Stardust persona, Tony DeFries subjected Bowie to a myth-stoking isolation which cut him off from press and public. Though delighting in breaking his curfew, Bowie certainly succeeded in bolstering his mystique, but his work was always done through what he chose to put out. Those incisively evocative lyrics and enigmatic photos told fans they could be themselves, just as he was doing and having so much fun in the process in a variety of guises. Fantasies became reality after Bowie unlocked the door.

16 Bowie set further, if impossibly unwieldy, precedents for concert-staging with the Hunger City backdrop, catwalks, skyscrapers and elevated chair contraption which went into l974's Year Of The Diamond Dogs tour. The product of his coke-fuelled vision, the set lost money nightly and broke down, but its ambition inspired everyone from The Stones on down. By the end of the jaunt, the performance would be scaled down into the prophetically-titled Soul Tour.

17 Bowie brought soul music to the fore when it was besieged by disco and deemed "uncool". He already knew the power of the groove and unleashing emotions through music, so adopting soul - even if to make his own "plastic" variety - on Young Americans was just a short, logical step for him to take. Those ballads, which could have sounded pale and contrived, shone through and became profoundly moving as statements from his own, then-precarious, psyche. Even through the cocaine years, the unearthly, near-operatic power and searing soul of Bowie's voice still reared and soared from the wracked artist.

18 Bowie took his music and the jagged extremes of a bending mind as far as they could go in his awesomely terrifying Thin White Duke persona, as unveiled on Station To Station and its accompanying white light-strafed stage shows. Glacial, megalomaniac and futuristic, nothing had been seen like this in 1976, and punk took much from its stripped-down assault.

19 Bowie fearlessly eschewed his own past formulas to follow his muse into whatever area it would take him, notably on the electronic soundscapes of Low and "Heroes". In the process, he greeted the punk era With his most defiantly uncompromising sonic experiments, which owed something to German electronic music but more to a new desire to focus his recovering mind on producing something more startling than ever before.

20 Bowie brought the eyes of the world on to the segregated city of Berlin and, according to the German Foreign Office reacting to his death, played a part in bringing down the wall with "Heroes".

21 Bowie never lost the art of songwriting as a craft to be cherished and nurtured. As shown on sparkling tunes which arrived unexpectedly in such disparate outings as Life On Mars?, Sound And Vision and, most recently, Blackstar, Bowie had the kind of classic melodic sense with which few were blessed. Bacharach, Gershwin, Lennon & McCartney... Bowie could sit with any of the greats; effortlessly, it seemed.

22 Bowie easily inspired, then lorded over, the early '80s New Romantic movement as its main icon and source of inspiration. 198O's Ashes To Ashes ushered in a new form of electronically enhanced future pop, with the video to match. Legions of bands started dressing up, cavorting to vapid soul and Bowie retreads, kissing off the anti-glamour of punk in the process. Another great thing about Bowie was that he always seemed to have much bigger fish to fry.

23 Bowie appreciated Chic as one of the most misunderstood but innovative bands of the 70s and was listening to a lot of James Brown and Louis Jordan when he embarked on recording a new album in late 1982 at New York's Power Station. Here he found the creative sparks flying between his freshly-questing self and Chic guitarist Nile Rodgers, resulting in Let's Dance - one of his biggest successes. The album also turned bluesy guitar giant Stevie Ray Vaughan loose into the world.

24 Bowie could shoot himself in the foot and, unlike many of his contemporaries, laugh about it afterwards as he responded by pulling another fat, thumping rabbit out of the hat. Tin Machine, which killed off what he called his "Phil Collins years", and the extravagantly panto-like Glass Spider Tour, spring to mind but, ultimately, did no harm when set against Bowie's stellar pantheon of inspired triumphs.

25 Bowie enjoyed a mutual respect with surreal filmmaking genius David Lynch, appearing in 1992's Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, the year's best but most misunderstood horror lm, and supplying a song called I'm Deranged to 1997's Lost Highway. His film appearances met with varying degrees of success, but 1976's The Man Who Fell To Earth set new standards for a rock star making the transition to the silver screen (and his stint as The Elephant Man on Broadway proved similar in 1980).

26 Bowie was the first to release an album as a download. 1999's Hours... was released on the internet two weeks before physical copies appeared.

27 Bowie dealt with the 9/11 atrocity in much more authoritatively sensitive fashion than many. Without stating the obvious, 2002's Heathen, described by returning producer Tony Visconti as "a little symphony", managed to plug into the anxiety and grief which riddled his adopted home of New York City after the attacks, beautifully displaying his talent for writing deeply affecting songs and placing them in evocatively unusual settings.

28 Bowie knew when to disappear. After 2003's firing-on-all-cylinders statement Reality, Bowie chose to retire after suffering a heart attack on the album's attendant tour, living quietly in his New York home and only making sporadic concert appearances and cameos on other artists' records. He seemed to like it that way and deserved the right to put his feet up.

29 Bowie knew how to make the most seismic of all comebacks. No Bowie fan can forget that morning of January 8, 2013 when he announced he was about to release a new album, trailered by the poignant reflection of Where Are We Now?. The Next Day displayed an artist taking stock, playing with his legend and, once again, firing up that uniquely magic touch with a melody to show that David Bowie was still very much alive and kicking.

30 Bowie showed how he could still deliver a career peak at a stage in his working life where most artists would be content to recycle decades-old hits and well-worn formulas. This is where we came in. From its shockingly confrontational and abrasively haunting title track onwards, Blackstar looked to New York jazz in the hands of its current generation to translate the ideas careering through his reawakened muse to create one of the greatest albums of his long and storeyed career. Visconti's revelation that the album was intended as a final farewell lends it an impossible new resonance. Even throughout the wait for the album's release, Bowie fought the cancer, and was still writing as his Off-Broadway production Lazarus got under way - even though he became too sick to attend rehearsals. His final public appearance was on its opening night.

Finally, I have to add that, for just a short period between January 1972 and mid-1973, I regarded Bowie as a friend, as well as a life-changing hero (as described in the last two issues of RC). He was one of the most affable, considerate and enthralling characters I have encountered in over forty-five years of meeting celebrities who usually fell short in several departments. From music and art to integrity and class, Bowie cut them all down to size, still dwarfing all-comers for decades. Now he has gone out with his most spectacular statement.

I Can't Give Everything Away - the title of the final song on Bowie's final album - sums up his lifelong ethos nicely. He gave all to his art, but always did seem to be holding something special back for another day. The excitement was in finding out what that was, even if the wait would be for ten years. Now that's stopped, and there's the biggest black hole imaginable.

But we should be happy to have been blessed with someone brave enough to open the door through which the future came, happily soundtracked by that colossal, timeless legacy.