INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
The Age JULY 4, 2015 - by Robert Forster
SMASH HITS & EGON SCHIELE
The man who blew our minds is a bewitchingly good songwriter who remains without peer.
One day in 1972, when I was fifteen, I stayed at home sick from school. I was sitting in the lounge room with the radio on. My mother, home from work to care for me, was nearby sweeping the floor. A cloud of dust particles sparkling in the rays of the Brisbane sun had my attention, as a new song burst from the transistor speaker and the glittering mist: Didn't know what time it was and the lights were low-ow-ow / I leaned back on my radio-oo-oo / Some cat was laying down some rock'n'roll, "Lotta soul," he said.
Being an AM radio pop connoisseur, I was immediately struck by several things about the song. The vocal, pitched somewhere between male and female, had a confessional tone, as if it was letting the listener in on a secret, and the first sounds of the song were not try-hard bubblegum pop or hairy, bluesy Top-40 rock, but an exciting, taut acoustic guitar groove. Then, bang: a skyscraper chorus sucked the breath out of me. There's a starman waiting in the sky / He'd like to come and meet us / But he thinks he'd blow our minds.
For a generation of kids, the starman was David Bowie. We had been waiting for him and, among many things, he was going to deliver us from the '60s. The moment the song finished, that decade was dead, and in a coup de grace as revolutionary as the cut of his song, his physical appearance would conflict a tribe of adolescent boys and girls. The most beautiful pop star of the early '70s was a man.
At the time, I didn't play a musical instrument. Soon I would be learning the guitar and exploring the Bowie back catalogue. He was not easy to emulate. Bowie was never strum-along. Bob Dylan had simpler songs, as did James Taylor and Neil Young, and a host of other male singer-songwriters who all looked like singer-songwriters should: denim and scraggy hair.
Bowie in full Ziggy Stardust regalia, with spiked orange locks, blue-mascaraed eyes and an outrageous array of onstage and offstage costumes, was more in sync with the apparel and deportment of a pampered show-business star, not a serious rock composer. Here was another conundrum from someone who delighted in turning heads and minds.
His albums to the point of Starman - the dizzy, spooky rock of The Man Who Sold The World and the glorious fey masterpiece that is Hunky Dory - showcase the talents of a bewitchingly good songwriter, one who was capable of slipping off the clothes that one record wore and effortlessly fitting into another.
The razor-sharp rock of his new album, The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars, was solid proof of that.
A pattern of relentless change was set for the rest of his career, never more evident or used to greater effect than in the '70s, Bowie's best decade by some distance as a recording artist, an actor (The Man Who Fell To Earth), a hairdresser's dream and certainly as a songsmith.
A clue to his style is what he accepted and rejected from the '60s. Like a number of other early-'70s songwriting stars, including Rod Stewart, Cat Stevens and Elton John, Bowie had been very active through the previous decade. He began his recording career in 1964 aged seventeen, and was a shadowy yet engaged figure, a witness to the musical and cultural convulsions that London, Bowie's home, was experiencing at the time.
Released a year after Ziggy Stardust, Pin Ups was a fond and finely executed set of cover versions described by Bowie on the album's back sleeve as "among my favourites from the '64-'67 period of London". The album shows a musician appreciative of the moment when pop became rock - as in the early Kinks and The Who - and when it went a bit weird, as in Pink Floyd and The Yardbirds.
Crucially, Bowie had other interests. An eager reader, a compulsive self-educator, he Was exposed to an assortment of non-rock influences buzzing the city - Zen Buddhism, mime-training, acting, the Cockney vocal style of entertainer Anthony Newley, and the outsider song dramas of Jacques Brel and Pink Floyd's Syd Barrett. What's missing are traces of Beatles worship, their classicism a bullet to dodge when trying to maintain eccentricity of style, and the ubiquitous psychedelic rock album, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, that even The Rolling Stones with Their Satanic Majesties Request couldn't avoid.
Bowie wrote his first masterpiece at the end of the 1960s. Space Oddity, of which Starman is a scaled-down version, is the song that removed him from other writers. With its ludicrously ambitious lyrical concept - an astronaut trapped in space farewelling his wife, gorgeous melodic sections underscoring every emotive turn of the story, to be sung with the power to make the fate of Major Tom believable - it marked Bowie as a great new singer-songwriter.
Material of similar scope and size followed: Changes, Life on Mars? and Rock 'n'Roll Suicide. Beneath the make-up and the pretty face was a musician who knew all the weirdest chords and how to wield them into startling constructions, his voice enabling him to navigate every note-bending curve. So the chorus of Starman was an easy leap, the verses soothing and seductive, If anything, the fabled characters of Bowie legend - Ziggy Stardust, the Thin White Duke, Halloween Jack - were a distraction, the one eye-rolling moment for fans as Bowie, at times lost or too indulgent of his various personas, did his "It's not me, it's Ziggy" bluff.
The joy of Bowie, though, was watching his development. It was a '70s preoccupation, like the career of Jane Fonda or the steps of the Cold War. The characters would thin out, the theatrics of his dress and shows simplify, and so, too, would his music. Having proven that he could master and expand conventional songwriting styles and convincingly create a soul and funk hybrid that he termed "plastic soul" for Young Americans (1975), Bowie shaved his melodies to brilliant new points for his late decade Berlin albums - Low, "Heroes" and Lodger.
Only a great artist can reduce to intensify, and this is what he did with the help of collaborator Brian Eno, another odd late-'60s presence who morphed into a Glam Rock peacock (via Roxy Music) to then become a central figure in the development of ambient and electronic music.
These albums, known as the Berlin Trilogy, have as a defining characteristic their soundscape, especially the crashing, high-in the-mix drums - a revelation at the time. Bowie, as ever, had the songs to fit new conditions. They are shorter, flatter in melodic range, and lyrically a spit compared with the flood of words needed on his previous records.
All these twists and turns and stellar songwriting would have meant little, and perhaps not even exist beyond 1973, say, without one thing: hit singles. That's what converted me on my sick bed, and Bowie was miraculously able to produce them at every bend of his career until the mid '80s - not only to introduce each new musical phase, but importantly to draw attention to them.
Rebel Rebel, Fame, Golden Years, Sound And Vision, "Heroes", Boys Keep Swinging, Ashes To Ashes, Fashion and Let's Dance were brilliant songs heralding new albums, and stopped ' Bowie from becoming what he so easily could ' have been - a cult artist with a few albums, now fetching high prices, to his name.
For Bowie it's art and commerce, smash hits and Egon Schiele. In any summation of him, this can't be forgotten. It gives depth to his work. Hit songs are a discipline unto themselves, and they enabled his more than fifty-year career.
The trick was deftly deployed-one more time in 2013 when The Next Day, his first album in ten years, was lead by the exquisite Where Are We Now? - Bowie descending from the heavens to remind us that, when it comes to evoking trembling feelings of time, alienation and redemption in song, he is without peer.
Robert Forster is a singer-songwriter and co-founder of The Go-Betweens. His latest album, Songs To Play, will be released on September 18.