Rip It Up JULY 1979 - by Duncan Campbell



To describe David Bowie as a trendsetter is a misnomer. He's more accurately an astute observer, keeping one eye on current musical directions, but always running parallel to them, sussing out what is useful, discarding the trivia he then adds his own ingredients to the stew, more often than not serving as a barometer for the future. In his hands, ideas surface where others have only speculated. His unique clarity of vision realises the potential of any concept he seizes upon and makes it his own.

In this way he began the glitter trend of Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane by paying tribute to The Velvet Underground's New York decadence in the Hunky Dory track Queen Bitch. But even then, he was able to spot the self-destructive elements of the lifestyle, and Ziggy was well and truly laid to rest in the stark and harrowing Diamond Dogs, still his most brutal and direct statement. Already, he could forsee the punk reaction against all that was glamorous and chic. It was an unsettling picture, and remember, 1984 is drawing steadily closer.

The disco phenomenon drew his attention long before it became the monolith it is today. Bowie describes Young Americans as a "cynical" work in retrospect, and the joke was on everyone who thought he'd been bowled over by the sound of Philadelphia or anything else remotely funky. He owes allegiance only to himself.

Station To Station got him onto the American Soul Train programme but that was the end of the flirtation. Nobody could have expected what followed.

Low was a period of introspection, as Bowie closeted himself with Brian Eno in Berlin at the heart of the cold war, where tension is a way of life, and staring at a wall is a pleasure. The songs were sparse, in keeping with the environment and the state Bowie's mind at the time, and some were more fully realised on the Stage album.

"Heroes" was the breakout, a celebration of life and love under the spotl;ights and in the shadow of the machineguns. The title track was a glorious, inspiring anthem which gave two resolute fingers to those who would suppress anything so human. The innovative use of electronics on both albums has served as a pointer to other bands which we will not name here, but they know who they are.

So we come to Lodger, widely touted as the closing episode in a trilogy that began with Low. It was recorded in New York, where Bowie says he felt like a lodger, i.e. a temporary resident. Again, the observer trait emerges.

Side two is the most accessible, as the band which slayed everyone at Western Springs thunders its way through D.J., which every self-styled king of the airwaves should listen to real hard, Look Back In Anger, which is The Man's vision of the angel of death looking over your shoulder, Boys Keep Swinging, Bowie's salute to the joy and innocence of youth, Repetition, a depressingly accurate portrayal of the hideous wife-beating syndrome, and Red Money, which shows you don't have to be a bloated capitalist to love gelt.

Side one provides the confusion, the contradictions, and maybe the keys to the future. And yet, Fantastic Voyage is nostalgic in its treatment, with acoustic guitars underpinning a string section and a pretty melody that recalls the Space Oddity days.

The rest of the tracks reveal a fascination with ethnic sounds: African Night Flight, featuring a wall of percussion and spoke vocals, is about drunken German ex-pilots living in Kenya, according to the horse's mouth. Bowie describes Move On as "blatantly romantic" in its attitudes, the eternal rolling stone seeking a safe harbour.

Yassassin is Turkish disco, as opposed to Richman's Egyptian reggae, while Red Sails is decidedly Oriental, a little like the sound you hear if you pick up Radio Peking on shortwave.

"I've never been convinced I'm a musician," Bowie said recently. "I just put ideas together... none of it's pleasure, I've got to do it - like sneezing."

A sneeze, a cough or burp from Bowie is worth a thousand words from the other lesser figures. Judge for yourselves.