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bowie diamond dogs

I was at school when ‘Diamond Dogs’ came out. I’d been a Bowie fan since ‘Ziggy Stardust’ and this new album was very eagerly awaited by me; I’d saved money ready to buy it.

It had a difficult birth. At first it was to be called ‘The 1980 Floor Show’ as it was going to be a concept album based on George Orwell’s ‘1984’. But that idea was derailed when the estate of Orwell refused the rights for Bowie to use it.

Bowie by now was established as probably the most important contemporary musician and songwriter/performer in the UK at that time. He was attracting all kinds of plaudits from unlikely corners – even William Burroughs rated Bowie and they did a photo shoot together after Bowie had a meeting with Burroughs.

Artist Guy Peellaert did the artwork for the cover, having just released a book called ‘Rock Dreams’ which portrayed legendary and then current musicians in fantasy form. I bought the book and remember vividly been quite shocked at Mick Jagger and Keith Richards being portrayed as pirates dancing on the grave of Brian Jones.

It was an age of shock-rock in pop culture and Bowie of course, lapped it up and fronted it and also, flaunted it. It was to be his final fling though with Glam sexual ambiguity and conventional rock stylings.

1974 was a year after the Oil crisis of 1973 and the economy was on a continuing downturn. The political climate in Britain at the time was one of distrust and malcontent. IRA bombings were a constant fear and the whole atmosphere of the country was something of a downer. It was, to coin a cliché, an apocalyptic mood that Bowie tuned into. He was already a confirmed pessimist and his future-shock vision on ‘Diamond Dogs’ was rolled out.

It was a future set in Hunger City, where gangs of teenage mutants roamed the streets in a wanton anarchy. This was a remarkable symbolic foreshadowing of Punk Rock, that was barely two years after this album came out.

Bowie had jettisoned the Spiders from Mars and although guitarist and arranger Mick Ronson played on demos made for the album in late 1973, he was not invited to play guitar on the final album. Pity, because you can easily imagine Ronno shining on this album, that is peppered with dissonant guitar noise.

Bowie took on guitar duties himself, with the help of guitarist Alan Parker, who plays the lead riff on ‘Rebel Rebel’, the first single released in February 1974, that trailed the release of the album in May of that year. It set the tone for the album; music that was often jarring, rough-shod, but also expertly produced, with a drum sound that improved on Bowie’s previous two albums. It had a deeper resonance, especially on the title track ‘Diamond Dogs’.

Bowie’s guitar playing was wiry and sounded very ‘first take’ as if to deliberately avoid it sounding too worked out and slick.

The album itself came in a gatefold sleeve, with Bowie morphed as a mutant dog. The cover reflected the mention of Todd Browning’s ‘Freaks’ in the title song. Bowie as usual, was the lightning rod that led you to other interesting things extraneous to his music. I discovered a lot of writers and cult films through Bowie. I always say, he was my other proper education. He directed me to things that thrilled and captivated me, which is more than can be said of school where as the Clash sang ‘they teach you to be thick’. This was pretty much how I was feeling in those final years of my secondary education. I couldn’t wait to leave and to pursue my own interests: things that were meaningful to me.

Back to the music…

A cacophony of synthesisers takes you into Bowie’s dystopian landscape. Then he narrates:

“And in the death

As the last few corpses lay rotting on the slimy thoroughfare

The shutters lifted an inch in temperance building, high on Poacher’s Hill

And red mutant eyes gazed down on Hunger City

No more big wheels

Fleas the size of rats sucked on rats the size of cats

And ten thousand peoploids split into small tribes

Coveting the highest of the sterile skyscrapers

Like packs of dogs assaulting the glass fronts of Love-Me Avenue

Ripping and rewrapping mink and shiny silver fox, now legwarmers

Family badge of sapphire and cracked emerald

Any day now, the year of the Diamond Dogs

“This ain’t rock and roll! This is genocide!”

It’s pretty much a Glam dream – or should that be nightmare – for a Glam kid like me, totally hung up on the imagery of decadence and decay that emanates from this album. And that’s only from perusing the cover art. This is the beauty of album art, it’s all part of the holistic experience.

‘Diamond Dogs’ itself is almost a T.Rex track, (is it a coincidence that Tony Visconti mixed the album?) a twelve bar chug, with a similar groove to ‘Telegram Sam’ but of course, Bowie makes it his own. We are introduced to a new character in the Bowie gallery: Halloween Jack. We hear that he ‘meets his little hussy with his ghost town approach’ and ‘the elevator’s broke so he slides down the rope’. Bowie’s lyrics are really on form. Bowie’s saxes honk and beef up the verses. This will be the last album for a while that Bowie plays sax on, not picking up the instrument again until ‘Low’.

Then after the title track, comes Bowie’s tease that this album just might be his masterpiece, even going places where ‘Ziggy’ and ‘Aladdin Sane’ only hinted at: ‘Candidate/Sweet Thing’ is a stagey centre-piece, taking the dramatic Brel-like aura of ‘Time’ (from ‘Aladdin Sane’) and places it in a sleazy sci-fi setting.

The lyrics are classic Bowie intrigue. Is this about a straight sexual encounter or is it a gay one? Or is it another example of Bowie’s lyrical cut-ups, a dislocation of words and lines that screw with reality?  ‘If you want it, boys…get it here thing…oh, it’s a cheap thing’ would suggest that it’s about male prostitutes. Almost too much for my 15 year old mind to take in.

It has some other great lines in it: ‘We’ll take some drugs, go see a band…then jump in the river holding hands’. This was the perfect lyric to thrill the teenage weirdo mind and make you forget you lived on a council estate in Middlesbrough.

The track ends in a grinding noise of feedback guitar that is unlike any guitar on any other Bowie recording. Another precursor of the noise ethic of Punk, or maybe a nod to the Velvet Underground of ‘White light white heat’.

Then it’s into ‘Rebel Rebel’ and that classic circular riff that never lets up, being the major hook of the song. This song was apparently written about the New York Dolls, or rather, inspired by them, although Bowie himself never confirmed nor denied this. ‘Rebel Rebel’ is like the ‘Satisfaction’ of the Glam generation; it has that Stonesy beat to it and that half rapped/half shouted Jagger delivery. Not as melodic as other Bowie singles such as ‘Drive In Saturday’ but that’s not the appeal of this song. It’s more of a sleazy rock n roll vibe and one that was rated as great by none other than Johnny Rotten when he was asked to compile a list of favourite records. Bowie had effectively created his own kind of Punk rock with this song.

‘Rock n roll with me’ is an anomaly on the album. It opens side 2 and is Bowie in lounge crooner mode, albeit in a very louche way. The song is the most conventional in terms of its structure and is a tuneful diversion from the rest of the album. It then later occurred to me that the reason this song is different and seems to be a one-off is because it is a co-write with pianist Warren Peace. Bowie apparently vamped the lyrics for the song quickly and decided to use it for the album.

‘We are the dead’ takes us out of the lounge and back into Hunger City. This is one of Bowie’s most emotive songs on the album and he might just be singing out the psycho drama of his increasingly problematic marriage when he sings ‘Something kind of hit me today…I looked at you and wondered if you saw things my way’…

This sparse keyboard dominated track is punctuated with ghostly bursts of distorted guitar that are effected to sound intrusive and atmospheric. This is the sonic signature of this album – invasions of discordant noise that disturb the conventional backing. It’s almost like Bowie is deliberately trying to make it sound ugly.

‘1984’ is next. With its Shaft-like intro and disco groove, it’s a bit of an odd-ball curio on the album as stylistically, it doesn’t sit well with the other tracks. The strings, scored by Tony Visconti, have an O’Jays type of sweep to them, reflecting the trend for Philly Soul at that time in the 70s. ‘1984’ is a funky diversion that somewhat ruffles the consistency of the album. It’s more of a signpost for the musical direction Bowie would take next, on ‘Young Americans’.

The synthesisers reappear for ‘Big Brother’ and we’re back to the sci-fi decay motif of side one of the album.  This track has a contrivance about it that comes across like a number in a musical. In fact, this is what Bowie intended for ‘Diamond Dogs’. He built a stage show around it and designed a stage set. The album was toured, but only in America and by the end of that tour, Bowie abandoned plans to bring it to Britain and Europe. Bowie fans in the UK got to see footage of this tour on the TV documentary ‘Cracked Actor’, which was a riveting insight into Bowie at work. Also, for the more observant viewer, a revealing snapshot of an artist who was in the throes of a cocaine habit. Bowie’s physical shape at this stage of his life was worrying. He was drinking milk and eating red peppers to sustain himself and skirting dangerously close to becoming a drug casualty. A live album recorded on the ‘Diamond Dogs’ tour, ‘David Live’ had a cover shot that even Bowie said of himself:  ‘My god, it looks like I’ve just stepped out of the grave’.

‘Chant of the ever circling skeletal family’ is one of the weirder Bowie album closers. It’s a fractured, circular riff, again, quite prescient in its punky tone; a grinding motorik rhythm that foreshadows his work on ‘Low’. The chant of the title itself ends with Bowie caught in a tape loop on the word ‘Brother’, which sounds strangely like ‘rock, rock, rock, rock’ as only one of the syllables is caught in the loop.  It’s a neat production trick that leaves an enigmatic question mark over the album  (It also may have influenced John Foxx Ultravox with their ‘Rockwrok’ track, some three years later)

‘Diamond Dogs’ then is a flawed album but it has more than enough highlights to elevate it somewhere into a similar quality realm as  ‘Aladdin Sane’.  It also has an influential reach that had an impact on Punk and New Wave. That trebly, wiry guitar sound on the album can be heard in a lot of Post-Punk bands too.

So happy anniversary to Halloween Jack and the last Glam party among the ruins of the early 70s.

t.rex 1970

When you see articles about Marc Bolan/T.Rex albums, it’s usually ‘Electric Warrior’ and ‘The Slider’ that come up as the acknowledged classics. Or maybe the more obscure Tyrannosaurus Rex albums might be lauded for the unique period pieces they are.

Curiously, an album that Marc Bolan made just on the brink of success gets overlooked, or rather, not written about so much. That album is the ‘T.Rex’ album, or as fans call it ‘the brown album’. It is one of Marc Bolan’s most consistent and satisfying albums and the 50th anniversary of this release, and the breakthrough single ‘Ride a white swan’ comes up later this year. When Bolan started to record the songs for this album, he was still a cult figure with a small but appreciative audience. But this status frustrated Marc Bolan. He wanted more. He wanted to be a rock n roll star. His time was about to come…

 Spring into Summer 1970.

Marc Bolan must have felt he was banging his head on the wall. The latest Tyrannosaurus Rex album ‘A Beard of Stars’ had been well received, charted modestly, but the single from it ‘By the light of a magical moon’ did nothing. Bolan was still part of the late 60s underground and by now was feeling impatient to reach a wider audience.

His friend David Bowie had had a hit single with ‘Space Oddity’ in late 1969 and this doubtless irked Marc Bolan, who is rumoured to have gifted Bowie with the stylophone that Bowie used on the record. Still, mutual producer Tony Visconti managed to bring them both together for the only time the two future stars were in the recording studio.

Marc played a tuneful guitar riff on Bowie’s ‘Prettiest Star’ single, the follow up to ‘Space Oddity’. The single did nothing but put Bowie back to square one again as it didn’t chart. The session ended with Marc’s wife June souring the atmosphere, saying Marc’s guitar was the best thing about the song. June and Marc left in something of a huff. Perhaps it was because June was ambitious for Marc, and felt he deserved better than playing session guitar on a Bowie song. This of course is all conjecture, but it’s broadly how it has been reported elsewhere.

Marc Bolan had been tying to break through in the music business since 1965. He had tried the solo route but flopped, he had been in a Who-like band called John’s Children and finally, come the psychedelic era, was in the quirky acid-folk duo Tyrannosaurus Rex. A small hit single in ‘Debora’ was one he failed to follow up and the next three years were creatively very prolific, with a modest and appreciative audience, but ultimately, Marc Bolan grew more and more frustrated as the golden decade of pop drew to an end.

Tyrannosaurus Rex had ended the sixties by splitting up. Or to be more accurate, percussionist and backing vocalist Steve Took was fired by Marc after a disastrous American tour in which Took’s drug intake was becoming a major problem. If anything, this split made Marc even more determined as he asserted through his publicist, that Tyrannosaurus Rex had always been about Marc Bolan’s songs and voice anyway.

Bolan was soon back, with another bongo basher and good looking side-man in Mickey Finn. Together, they made a highly photogenic pair and to insiders working for the furtherment of Bolan’s career, it was only a matter of time before they became pop pinups. They rehearsed together at a cottage in Wales, playing rock n roll songs as well as Marc’s new songs. An instant bonding, mainly over a mutual love of rock n roll happened.

The new songs Marc and Mickey started to record in July of 1970, took the electric stylings of ‘A Beard of Stars’ even further. A purchase of a 1959 Gibson Les Paul Standard ensured that his music became heavier and heading towards the trade-mark boogie blues pop that he was soon to develop, under the auspices of producer Tony Visconti, as hungry for wider success now as much as Marc.

The music was changing and had been since Marc picked up an electric guitar for the single ‘King of the rumbling spires’ in late 1969. Still, the flower child fantasy landscape of the 60s was there in Marc’s lyrics but there was a more conscious pop sensibility being worked into his songs. Marc Bolan was at heart, a rock n roller, and on these new songs, he was edging towards becoming the rock n roll star his teenage self had always wanted to be.

Marc started to look back to the music of the 1950s to inspire him. The prototype of Bolan’s new bopping pop rock was there on ‘Beltane Walk’. Even the title was a clue to where he lifted the guitar riff from: ‘The Walk’ by Jimmy McCracklin.

The song structure was a simple blues twelve bar that then shifted to the doo-wop chord sequence that Marc frequently re-wrote and re-visited, even right up to the end of his short life. C-Am-F-G was a sequence that a million songs had been written around and it was a motif that Marc came to re-brand as his own.

Other notable songs recorded were the fuzzed up freak beat of ‘Jewel’ that took the spirit of Link Wray and Jimi Hendrix and fused it with Bolan’s horny pixie lyrics. It also includes some of his most off the wall avant-guitar playing, a manic burst of chaotic wah-wah riffing.

Another nod towards the new boogie was ‘Is it love?’ Like ‘Jewel’ it was a twelve bar blues form, with a guitar solo that displayed Marc’s gift for a hook, his guitar lines becoming as catchy as his tunes.

The acoustic ballads on the album illustrate that Marc was fast developing his own style of singer songwriter musings. ‘Suneye’ and ‘The time of love is now’ both have the slight haze of the now long gone summer of love over them, not quite stepping into the bold new confessional starkness of the 70s. There was nothing really self-confessional about Marc’s ballads, they were more from his rich and fantasy cloaked imagination, although ‘Suneye’ was a love song to his new wife, June.

‘Diamond Meadows’ has a nonsensical nursery rhyme feel to it, more in tune with the cosmic whimsy of Syd Barrett. The chorus though, hints at a new sexual tease in Marc’s lyrics :’Hey let’s do it like we’re friends/let’s do it do it’.

The monster hit machine of T.Rex was still some way off on these new songs, but at the same time, tantalizingly close. All Marc Bolan needed was the song to change it all for him. That song turned out to be one that was not included on the album even though it was recorded right at the end of the recording sessions in August of that year.

‘Ride a white swan’ was a short song that producer Tony Visconti instinctively felt had something instant and appealing about it. In fact, it was so short that he had to make an edit to extend it to 2 minutes and 32 seconds. There was something in the sharp, clipped guitar riff and the catchy, uplifting melody that screamed ‘pop single’. Although Marc had written some appealing melodies before, this one felt special. Strings were added to the sparse production of guitar, vocals, simple bass and handclaps. Everything about the recording was a hook, perfectly complemented by a brilliant guitar solo that was as much a feature as the vocal melody itself.

‘Ride a white swan’ had come about when Marc’s wife June told him to go to the music room and make some music as Marc was moping around, feeling restless and fretting about his future. Marc had married June Child in January of that year and it was June’s unflagging support that gave wind to Marc’s wings. Her importance to Marc’s success cannot be underestimated. June was his wife, friend, de facto manager and often drove him to gigs as Marc didn’t drive. She was also by all accounts, a feisty negotiator and fiercely protective, matriarchal figure who totally believed in Marc’s talent and more importantly, keeping Marc on the straight and narrow from the more destructive elements of the music business.

Although when put in front of a camera or microphone, Marc appeared supremely confident and self-possessed, in private he was probably wondering when his fortunes would change and looking for a way to bring that change about.

Some things in the pop culture happened over summer that sent Marc into higher and more hopeful spirits. Mungo Jerry had a massive summer hit with ‘In the summertime’, a simple jugband blues song not unlike a Marc Bolan song, with a singer, Ray Dorset, that even seemed to be imitating Marc’s voice.

Rock music on the one hand was becoming heavier and more serious, but on the other hand, there was a good time back to basics feeling coming from bands like Creedence Clearwater Revival and even the Beatles had entered the 70s with a back to basics sound, before splitting.

The timing of Marc’s new catchy and direct pop rock style felt right.

Shortening the name to T.Rex had a talismanic effect; it was also a conscious parting with the Marc Bolan of Tyrannosaurus Rex. Out went the misty eyed poetic Marc, in came the new brash Bolan, determined to find a new audience he knew was out there, but shrewd enough to court his old hippy audience for now.

‘Ride a white swan’ in the meantime was turning out to be that ‘special song’.

DJ friend Jeff Dexter played it all over the weekend of the Isle of Wight festival that summer, even though the single was not released until October. The exposure must have gone a long way to plant it into the consciousness of the thousands of people there.

By the autumn of 1970, T.Rex were creating a buzz, with John Peel enthusing about Marc’s new material and the good timing of the band Family cancelling a radio broadcast concert, gave T.Rex a slot on ‘Top Gear’.

A new young record plugger, Anya Wilson, took on promoting and pushing ‘Ride a white swan’, which she felt sure was going to be a big hit. The make or break time had come. Her connections with producers at Radio One proved to be a clincher and soon, Radio One DJs started to play the record.

But it wasn’t an instant hit.

‘Ride a white swan’ was an agonising slow burning single; it took eleven weeks from entering the bottom end of the charts, to make a journey eventually to number two, where it was kept off the top of the charts by a daft novelty song called ‘Granddad’ by Clive Dunn.

Despite the frustration of not making number one, T.Rex at last had arrived and it was no fluke. Suddenly, Marc and Mickey were courting the teenage pop magazines such as Mirabelle and Jackie. Here was a new pop star for the new decade and Marc was also interesting in interviews; witty and charming.

The T.Rex audience changed very noticeably. The older ‘heads’ were now at the back of the concert hall, and down the front were mostly teenage girls. Fan mania had not yet struck, but was soon to happen as Marc’s face and image started to become more widespread in the media.

Longer standing fans of Marc Bolan probably looked on in a state of disbelief as a man who not so long ago, was an underground cult figure, was now on Top of the Pops.

A friend of mine saw T.Rex live at this point. He had bought ‘ A Beard of Stars’ and this is what he had to say when he saw T.Rex, then still only a duo, yet to expand to a four piece rock group:

‘I went to the gig with a few mates of mine and all these girls were there. They looked about 12 or 13. We were like ‘what’s going on?’ We’d heard Marc Bolan on John Peel but these girls probably heard him on Tony Blackburn. There was a definite split in the audience. It was obvious that T.Rex were now a pop band and were getting bigger. I talked with some of the other lads there who like me, knew Bolan from John Peel. They didn’t really like the way it was going. After that, Marc Bolan became massive and we were all feeling left behind, like he deserted his original fans’.

The album ‘T.Rex’ was released in December 1970 and even the cover was a knowing nod to the new young audience. The cover folded out as a poster of Marc Bolan and Mickey Finn and unlike the stark monochrome of ‘A Beard of Stars’ it was in striking colour. Marc’s face was whitened, his gaze intent on casting a spell over the new teenage audience. Hand rested over his new beloved Les Paul guitar, this was a new Marc for the new decade. Mickey Finn was the more square-jawed handsome male counterpart to Marc’s more ambiguous sexual aura.

The ‘T.Rex’ album is one of Marc Bolan’s more underrated albums, a perfect bridge between the Tolkien fantasy folk of Tyrannosaurus Rex and the new harder rock-edged T.Rex. It wasn’t a jarring crossover from unicorns to cadillacs though; Marc Bolan still kept the fantasy and whimsical aspect of Tyrannosaurus Rex for now. In fact, having a hit single had fuelled his new musical direction further and Marc was surfing on a new-found confidence. He was soon to follow up ‘Ride a white swan’ with ‘Hot Love’ and T.Rex now officially became a four piece rock band. The number one slot denied for ‘Swan’ was given to ‘Hot Love’, which became number one for six glorious weeks.

From being called ‘The Bopping Elf’ by Melody Maker journalist Chris Welch, Marc was soon to transform into the ‘Electric Warrior’ and leave the joss sticks and hippy underground far behind, to become the first pop superstar of the 70s.

 

 

© Alan Savage, March 30th 2020, revised and edited May 21st 2020

Fab Art Pop!

Posted: January 10, 2020 in beatles, pop

the_beatles_magical_mystery_tour

 

 

Although enough has been written about the Beatles to circle the Earth at least ten times, one more credit to be added to their many plaudits is that they invented Art Pop. Or, to put it in basic terms, bringing arty ideas into Pop Music.  It was after all, the Beatles who continually pushed the studio envelope around the time of ‘Revolver’ and warped Pop music into something weird and thrillingly original, paving the way for more progressive ideas in pop and rock music that took its influences from the avant garde as much as Chuck Berry.

By 1966, Paul McCartney especially, had become interested in the more fringe aspects of art and music. The most man-about town of the Beatles, McCartney visited art galleries, independent art house films and performance art happenings throughout that year with his friend Barry Miles, who was a hip mentor to McCartney when it came to all things arty and esoteric. McCartney was blithely eclectic, also going to classical concerts while keeping his ever hungry and competitive ears open to anyone in pop music who was doing freakier and more outlandish things. It is well documented that when McCartney heard the Beach Boys ‘Pet Sounds’, he knew that the Beatles had to up the ante to compete and surpass songs such as ‘God Only Knows’ and ‘Don’t Talk (Put your head on my shoulder)’. Pioneering innovation was in the air; perhaps McCartney and the other Beatles knew that it was time to really rise to the zeitgeist. Rise to it they did.

‘Eleanor Rigby’ was a surprise to people when it was released in August 1966. After the euphoric summer high of England winning the World Cup, here was a song that was a monochrome downer.  Where had the chirpy upbeat Beatles gone? It was the first indication that McCartney’s approach to songwriting was becoming more sophisticated and taking a much bolder step into an uncharacteristic darkness. The song’s over familiarity now sounds conventional, but this was absolutely not conventional for the time. As bleak as a Samuel Becket play, this was no happy clappy fab song. It ended with the pessimistic and atheistic line ‘no one was saved’ Tellingly, this line came from John Lennon, who always brought the shadows into McCartney’s usually sunny compositions. But on this song, Paul too was not glossing over his subject matter with optimism. The character in the song is lonely and abandoned, nobody comes to rescue her, and even the other character, Father Mackenzie, finds no resolve to his loneliness. McCartney may have surprised people with this wintry composition, but he offset it with pleasant ditties on ‘Revolver’ like ‘Good Day Sunshine’ and ‘Yellow Submarine’ as if he couldn’t resist getting back to being the one who entertains the audience.

Not so Lennon. He now gave the impression he was willing to jettison his cuddly mop top image. His infamous ‘we’re bigger than Jesus now, Christianity will go, it will vanish and shrink’ remark caused an uproar when he said it. Now he had gone too far wailed the tabloids. Beatle John, he with OBE, must conform! Lennon was on a quest to distance himself from almost everything the Beatles had done before. It was like he killed off the John who wrote ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ and forced a re-birth through the ego death effect of LSD or acid.

Lennon’s compositions on ‘Revolver’ showed that his mind was being altered by his increasing drug intake. Even the jaunty ‘And your bird can sing’ asserts a druggy ‘you don’t get me’ arrogance as if Lennon was relishing his new experimental self, happy to be someone on the outside of reality. Lennon was always the most unconventional of the Beatles and he didn’t need to visit art galleries or hob nob with painters to be an outsider artist. He was a natural surrealist, as evidenced in his writings and drawings in his books ‘In his own write’ and ‘A Spaniard in the works’. He was also a supreme piss taking debunker and walked the line between being a put on and a genius. In an interview, Lennon once proclaimed ‘avant garde is french for bullshit’. Of course, he didn’t mean it, this was more his working class chip on the shoulder speaking.

‘Revolver’ is for me, the Beatles most enduring artistic achievement. Sure. ‘Sgt Pepper’ took the monochrome of ‘Eleanor Rigby’ and re-decorated it with gaudy psychedelic colours, but it is ‘Revolver’ that shows the Beatles as being the Masters of Surprise.

Lennon had been reading the Tibetan Book of the Dead’ and came up with ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ – the first time a drone had been used in Pop (yes, the Kinks ‘See my friend’ was the precursor of this drone, but it shifted into a different key for the bridge so was not a total drone) ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ is also the first song to use tape loops, something that is more from the avant garde fringe, with composers like John Cage experimenting with cut ups of sound. This Art Idea came from Paul McCartney, and although he had no hand in the writing of this one chord song, his contribution was crucial to the song’s pioneering spirit.

The drone was also being explored by George Harrison, whose first Indian classical music influenced track, ‘Love you too’ mirrored Lennon’s psyched out journey into the void (the original title of Lennon’s track was ‘The Void’) Taken in this context, it is possible to see that Harrison was probably closer to Lennon’s couldn’t give a stuff about being commercial any more persona in this phase of the Beatles, with McCartney keeping up the tunesmith role more than the others (brilliantly of course, not to lessen Paul’s artistic standing)

‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ is that much over-used phrase, ahead of its time. And it really is. Predating the tape experiments of German bands like Faust and Can and also, Eno from Roxy Music, ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ is what rock would be exploring some four years later. So, although it’s a bit of a leap of faith to say so, the Beatles anticipated Kraut Rock.

The Beatles were now a band looking to see how far out they could take Pop music and it was their good fortune that their audience stuck with them. Chiefly, it was Lennon who drove the band into weird waters, as his next major Art Idea was ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’. Starting off as a plaintive folk flavoured song, Lennon wanted this one to be really special and something in his creative yearning made him seek the impossible – to splice together two different versions, both in different keys, which at first, producer George Martin said couldn’t be done. Varying the speed of both versions and then matching them was an incredible serendipitous move; it could have been a total mess, but instead, it came out as the strangest and most haunting dream pop single of that year, 1967. George Martin described it ‘as an electronic tone poem’ and this is not far off an accurate description.

Although the Beatles were in essence, a traditional guitar bass and drums outfit, it was plain to hear that they had now outgrown these limitations and their studio creations were morphing them into something else entirely: a studio band who were using the studio like an artist uses a palette, creating new sounds and new innovations. ‘Sgt Pepper’ is too immense to discuss here, and such a lot has been written about it that to add more would be superfluous. What must be mentioned though is the cacophonous orchestral surge in ‘Day in the Life’, in which Lennon abstractly ordered that the orchestra would rise and explode like a musical orgasm.

As with ‘Strawberry Fields’, George Martin had to bring Lennon’s off the wall ideas to reality and he did this by instructing the orchestra to start on the bottom note for each instrument and to rise to the top note on their instruments. The result still sounds astonishing today, a musique concrete surge that metaphorically drew a line in the sand – the Beatles could never be the same again after this, and neither could any musician in rock. The race for the freakiest sounds in rock and pop was on, and the Beatles, with ‘Sgt Pepper’, leap-frogged a march over Brian Wilson’s masterpiece ‘Pet Sounds’.

The Beatles next major weird pop moment after ‘Pepper’ was ‘I am the Walrus’. The innovation of this song was it used ‘found sounds’ and integrated them into the remarkable layers of electronic distortion and effects treated backing track. ‘I am the walrus’, with its anarchic Goons type of lyric and Lennon’s over-driven vocal, is as extreme as the Beatles ever got on a pop single. It was relegated to be played less than its A-side, Paul’s bouncy piece of pop fluff ‘Hello Goodbye’.

The radio planners were not yet ready for the pop extremist Beatles and neither were large chunks of their audience. The Beatles now crossed over into Rock, albeit a tuneful kind, as a strong melody and sense of pleasing harmony was always present in most of their songs. It was now official that the lovable mop tops had joined the counter-culture. The Mums and Dads who had liked ‘Yesterday’ and their bouncy upbeat style now had the sneaking suspicion that they had ruined themselves with drugs. And John Lennon especially, seemed to be becoming more and more weird.

The aural perversion and subversion of sound on ‘Walrus’ was yet again, another Beatles first and the ripples of this one track alone would inform Progressive rock, Space rock and – like ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ – Kraut Rock. The random radio interference on the play out of ‘Walrus’ is also a bold experimental move; the interruption of an external sound source alien to the track was more from the realm of the avant garde than pop and rock.

This random approach of found sounds ultimately led to the track ‘Revolution #9’ on the Beatles 1968 double album, also known as ‘the white album’. That particular track is often called the self-indulgent stinker on the album, the one track that most people skip and the one track that at least two other Beatles tried to keep off the album. But when you put it in the context of Lennon’s creative trajectory since ‘Revolver’ is actually makes perfect sense. Lennon was determined to challenge the Beatles audience with freaky weird sounds and soon, McCartney took up the weirdo art gauntlet too, making the minimalist ‘Why don’t we do it in the road?’ on that album, a song stripped back to its bare bones and so unlike anything else McCartney ever recorded (apart from the extreme ‘Helter Skelter’ of course)

By 1969, after four years of fevered innovation and pioneering sounds, the Beatles took a great leap backwards and decided to get back to their rock n roll roots. Ever the restless spirits they were, we all know what happened soon after – they imploded, with John Lennon determined to stick to his ‘freak artist’ agenda and for the others to pursue more conventional solo careers. Lennon continued to be the controversialist and genuinely seemed intent on burying the Beatles and starting all over again; another death to re-birth persona, as evidenced on his remarkable ‘Plastic Ono Band’ album of 1970, which was like a personal exorcism of the past.

I suppose the final question remains to be posed – did the Beatles, as well as everything else they achieved – also invent Art Pop?

The answer, given the wealth of evidence, has to be a resounding YES.

One more feather in the Fabs already over-feathered cap, then.

 

*article is from the forthcoming book, a collection of essays:  ‘Pictures of Jap Girls in Synthesis (The influence of Art in Popular Music)

Rockers Reunited – a ghost story

Posted: December 27, 2019 in Uncategorized

rockers

I came to social media late. I kept hearing people say ‘are you on facebook?’ and didn’t have a clue what they were on about. Finally, I decided to take the plunge, and got myself an account. I did it in the library and admit I had to get someone to help me. I’ve just about got the hang of it now.

Like a lot of people, it irritates me. Remember the time when you groaned if someone brought out their old wedding photos or holiday snaps? Well now it seems everybody does it and nobody groans anymore.

It’s great though to be back in touch with old mates I haven’t seen for decades in some cases. The old gang. We used to ride to the coast on our motorbikes and meet at the Seafront Café in Scarborough. We got a bit of bother from those posers on hairdryers – Mods – but that was mostly at bank holidays.

We were rockers. Leather and bikes and rock n roll. That was our thing.

I had a Triumph 750. A beast growling between my legs. If I could have taken that bike to bed with me, I would have. I loved to ride. We all did. In those days- thinking around ’64 here – nobody wore a helmet either. Having the wind in your hair. Man, what a feeling that was.

The Seafront café had a great jukebox in it. Sixpence got you two plays. My choice was always Gene Vincent, and I liked Eddie Cochran too. ‘Race with the devil ’ and ‘Something Else’’.

The café isn’t there anymore sadly. It got closed down in the 1980s and now it’s a tacky Bingo place, totally rebuilt and unrecognisable.

Looking back now, it was all so innocent although we had a good try to be bad lads and lasses. The permissive society? It was hard to get a girl to ‘go’ in those days. A lot were still taking their mother’s advice of ‘keeping it’ till marriage.

The word ‘respect’ was still in use back then and most people knew what it meant. We didn’t even swear in front of women back then. That’s how old fashioned we were. Bad boy Rockers? Not really, we were all pretty well behaved in reality. We just looked mean and moody. The Brando thing. We all wanted that.

Greg. He’s one of my oldest and best friends. We used to laugh a lot together. Always playing pranks like once we put axle grease on the seat of Thommo’s Norton 650. He didn’t find it funny but we did.

I remember once we did something really bad. We broke into a cigarette machine. I don’t know why I went along with that one, but I did.

Greg’s just uploaded some old photos to facebook. I don’t even remember anyone having a camera back then, but Greg did. (Now, coming to think about it, I do remember, just one of those details that left my memory)

There we are. The young dream team in the Seafront Café. Drinking nothing stronger than Coca Cola or Hubbly Bubbly through straws. I was 20 and had just got my first proper bike. The photo has on the message below it ‘Autumn 1964 or was it ’65?;

It was 1964. I remember because it was my Mam and Dad’s silver wedding anniversary that weekend. We did drink beer by the way and we did go to pubs. But pubs back then were places old men went to. Usually, we’d buy some bottles from the off-license and drink them outside. Cider was my thing back then.

We didn’t go to discotheques because they didn’t play the music we liked. Our music was on jukeboxes. Rock n roll was thought to be not with it in the 60s, until later in that decade and almost every group wanted to get back to basic rock n roll. I used to have on the back of my leather jacket ‘Rock n roll is here to stay’ spelt out in studs.

Two more photos are uploaded. On the beach front, bag of chips in hand (that’s me) and all the gang standing proudly around our bikes. It’s the second one that gets me.

Sharp intake of breath.

It’s Julie. My ex-girlfriend I was planning to get engaged to. Smiling, not a care in the world. Poor Julie. Only 19.

I still feel the pain today. They say time heals but I’m not sure it does. It just makes you put it further to the back of your mind, like an old box in an attic with things you haven’t opened for years. Julie died and it was my fault. An accident yes, but an accident that happened because of my stupidity.

Greg is now organising a reunion. In a private message, I tell Greg that I’ve got mixed feelings about it and maybe won’t be coming. It will make me think of Julie. Bring it all back.

“Vic my old mate, it’s life” Greg types.

“It’s not all wine and roses. People die and things happen…

The accident was just that. Stop beating yourself up over Julie…

Come along. It’ll be great to see you. Please mate. Do it for the lads. They’re all going to be there. Even old misery guts Ken’.

I’m still not sure. The photo with Julie in was like a punch in the gut. My memory of the accident is vague to be honest. I was hospitalised for two months, unconscious for a week. They thought I was a gonner. I was told about Julie when I came around. I hated myself for it and worse still, I couldn’t remember. I kept thinking someone was going to say ‘it’s ok. We made a mistake’…but they never did.

I got hate mail from Julie’s brother. He never forgave me. I remember the Xmas after Julie was killed, opening a card that said ‘why are you still alive?’ It was obvious it was from him. I had to move in the end. I couldn’t tell the police. I had no right to do that I felt. Greg always had a talent for persuasion. He could charm the knickers off a nun as one of my salty uncles used to say.

I decide to go to the reunion after all. I’ve got a few of my own ghosts to lay to rest. I’ll stay over in Scarborough so I can have a drink and drive back to Middlesbrough the next day. I then realise it will be 40 years coming up since Julie was killed. Did Greg know this or is it a coincidence?

We meet in the Hole in the wall pub on Vernon Street, a place we used to go back in the 60s from time to time. I’m early and Thommo is the first to show. He moved to Scarborough from Middlesbrough back in the 70s and it’s his local.

He hasn’t changed a bit. Still has that boyish twinkle in his eye and still up to mischief. He tells me he’s got a Harley Davison now. It was always his life dream to have one. Lucky sod managed to retire early with a good pay off.

It’s great to see the lads after all this time. There were also another few women from those days. Wendy and Marj. But they live abroad now. Julie. No, try not to think about her I tell myself.

“Rockers reunited!” shouts Mark, another of my old biker mates as we’re three pints of bitter into the evening. We all cheer, like an old football or rugby team.

The stories of our rocker days fills most of the evening.

Like the time we all went to see Geno Washington and the Ram Jam band and loads of Mods turned up. We ended up running along the pier, chasing them with chains. Being a young man was sometimes violent. You couldn’t run away or not wade in or you’d be thought a nancy.

It wasn’t all like that of course. Plenty of things to laugh about too. We always seemed to end up at somebody’s place at the weekend. Life was like one long party back then. The 60s were a great time to be young.

The night went in a flash. It’s suggested that we have a yearly reunion from now on and despite earlier reservations, I’m up for it. I say goodbye to the lads and head back for the guesthouse I’m staying in.

Good job I chose to do this; I’m pretty pissed. I haven’t had a good drink like that for ages. I look on my phone and end up staring at the photo of Julie on facebook.

I must do something. It’s been 40 years. I decide to go to take some flowers to the place of the accident. I’ll do it tomorrow on the way back.

I’m also going around Thommo’s place tomorrow to see his Harley. I’m in no hurry to get back. It’ll be nice to see his wife who I knew from back then. His kids are all grown up now and long since left home.

My head hits the pillow and I’m out for the count.

The next day I see Thommo and his magnificent Harley. He asks me if I want to have a spin on it but I tell him I haven’t ridden a bike for donkey’s years.

“No you daft get. I meant I ride, you be on pillion”

Thommo takes me around the block a few times. It feels great to be back on a bike. I might even have a late mid-life crisis and get one myself.

I tell him what I’m going to do. Leave my little tribute to Julie.

“That’s a nice thing to do mate” he says.

“Do you want me to come? In case, you know, it gets a bit much? I know how you had a bad time for years after she was killed”

“No thanks. I want to go on my own. You know…just have a little think while I’m there. I haven’t been back since the accident. I’ve never been back to Scarborough either. I nearly didn’t come yesterday” I say.

“So glad you did mate. It’s ok. I understand about Julie”

“Did you hear her brother died about three years ago?” says Thommo.

“Yes I did. I never made my peace with him though”

“That ball was in his court. Don’t think about it” says Thommo, putting his hand on my shoulder.

I then stand with Thommo and his Harley and his wife Jane takes a photo of us on my phone. Thommo and Jane wave me off as I leave.

I then park my car in the town and go to a local florist. No garage flowers for Julie. I want something nice for her. I’m not an expert on flowers but I like the look of a bouquet on display.

“Can you make me up one of those?’ I ask the young girl in the shop. She asks me who or what it’s for.

I lie to her. “My wife” I say.

“Oh how nice. Is it her birthday or some special occasion?”

“No. Not really”

I know she’s making friendly small talk but I want her to shut up as I’m feeling edgy now.

I hand pick an arrangement of flowers and decide to write up a message when I get back to the car.

“That’s 15 pounds please”

I pay and make my way to the car park. I look at my watch. It’s already late afternoon. Best get a move on.

Can I do this? Can I go back to where Julie was killed?

I run it over in my head a few times.

I’ve got the sodding flowers now I tell myself. I must go. I have to go.

The accident happened on a stretch of the A171 on the road back home. I just follow my nose and hope something comes back to me when I get there.

Just around the bend and I start to recognise the location. There’s a huge oak tree on the left that was there back then. And the farm just across the field. That was there too. High Grange Farm. Yes, I recall the name too.

Just to the side of the road is a country lane with a stream and an old stone bridge. I pull over the car and park it off the road in the lane. I get out of the car and walk back to the road, looking down it both ways. I’ve got the flowers in hand that I intend to leave in memory of Julie.

I’ve written a little message too.

‘Julie. 40 years gone. You’re in my heart and memory still. I’m sorry. Rest in peace. Until we meet again.

Love, Vic.

Yes, it’s coming back to me now. This is where it happened. Somewhere close to here.

I wish I could recall the detail but can’t. All I remember is that I was tying to do a ton up with Julie on pillion. I was showing off and it was a stupid thing to do but when you’re so young you don’t think anything can happen to you. I could hear Julie screaming with excitement as we picked up speed. She held me really tightly around the waist. I recall her long blonde hair in the rush of the wind ; the blur of the trees and the white lines on the road coming up faster and faster until they looked like a continuous line. The wind was roaring in my ears.

Then I must have lost control of the bike and…blackness. A blank. Nothing.

I decide to sit down on the grass verge. Cars and lorries rush by. It’s so busy on the road compared to what it was all those years ago. There’s no way you could open up a bike to top speed on these roads now.

I sit there thinking and then realise I’ve been sitting for about half an hour in a kind of nostalgic trance. I can see Julie’s face in my mind. I can even remember the sound of her voice, the way she used to flip her long hair back out of the way of her beautiful eyes. Yes, she was beautiful and so young. I ended her life. I totally understand her brother’s hatred of me and her family, who never spoke to me again or even asked me how I was after the accident.

This is not me torturing myself. I’m being matter of fact. Coming to terms with the reality that she isn’t here and hasn’t been here for the last forty years because of me.

I lay down the flowers and message by the roadside because to be honest, I don’t know exactly where the accident happened. It frustrates me. I wish I knew the exact place.

I go back to my car and sit there for a while. I put on an Elvis Presley best of CD. It’s got Julie’s favourite Elvis song on: ‘It’s now or never’.

I let it play all the way through.

The autumn sun is sinking lower on the horizon now and the sky is a beautiful bruised purple. I fill up and start to cry. After all this time, I finally cry. I let it all go. I let the past wash over me and pass through me.

I decide to leave before it gets too dark. I turn the car onto the road and set off back home.

I only get about maybe half a mile and notice there’s been an accident. I can’t quite see at first, but notice there’s a truck and its front is all bashed in. It’s up on the embankment, obviously careered off the road.

Something weird happens. Goose bumps appear all over my arms and I can feel the hairs on the back of my neck stand up.

The road is blocked with debris from the crash and I’m forced to pull over. I get out my mobile and phone the emergency services. This crash must have just happened and nobody has reported it yet.

I get out of the car because I can see the driver of the truck looking shaken, standing by his vehicle which he only just clambered out of.

“Are you okay?” I ask as I approach him.

He nods but is clearly dazed. Looks like his head hit the windscreen because he’s got a bump coming up already. His nose is bleeding.

“Hold on. You’ll be fine. I’ve phoned for an ambulance” I tell him.

“The bike just appeared in front of me. On the wrong side of the road” he sounds frantic with stress, holding his head in his hands.

I ask if there is anything I can do and he just waves me by almost dismissively.

I walk in front of the truck and see a motorbike about twenty yards up the road, sprawled on its side, right across the middle of the highway. The road side lights have just come on and cast a sickly orange glow over the crash scene.

The front handlebars are warped, the bike is a mesh of twisted steel. I can see a puddle of petrol from the tank, I can smell it, then become nervous in case it explodes. I keep my distance and brace myself, knowing this is going to look very nasty. A fluttering feeling of nausea makes my stomach churn. I almost go back to my car thinking there’s nothing I can do. My morbid curiosity gets the better of me.

I look but don’t see a body. Must have been thrown off the bike. God knows where the body is. In accidents like this, a rider can get thrown somewhere further than you might think is possible.

Then I glimpse a figure standing on the rise of the embankment.

As I crane my neck to get a closer look, I can the just about see the figure in the dimming of the daylight, a silhouette against the darkening sky. The figure then stumbles and falls over, out of my line of vision.

I run up the grassy bank to help. What can I do? Maybe give mouth to mouth? I’m now running on gut instinct. Where is the ambulance? Hurry up.

I get to where the figure was. Where the hell did it go?

Crawled off somewhere? I look around, confused. Just a minute ago, it was there.

I gasp under my breath: “What the hell?”…

Then, I feel a presence; a strong feeling of somebody behind me. A sickly feeling of dread comes over me. I want to leave. I want to stay. I don’t know what I feel now. Once again, goosebumps and shivers come all over me.

A sudden wind blows, the grass ripples and the bushes rustle. I turn around in what feels like slow motion. God, no.

A woman is there in motorbike leathers, about ten yards away. She is staring directly at me. Her long blonde hair blows across her face, obscuring it momentarily, but I recognise the face immediately.

I freeze.

“Julie…is that you?”

Lana_Del_Rey1

Album review ‘Norman Fucking Rockwell’ – Lana Del Rey.

Roll back 7 years to 2012. Lana Del Rey has had a hit with ‘Video Games’ and followed it with ‘Blue Jeans’. Her debut album as Lana Del Rey ‘Born to Die’ has stormed the charts both here and in the US. In the US, it stays on the Billboard top 100 for over 300 weeks, making her only one of three female artists to ever achieve this. (the others being Adele with ‘21’ and Carole King with ‘Tapestry’)

Her music has a singular vision and here is an artist who was like the anti-Katy Perry, the polar opposite of the feel-good bouncy pop of ‘California Girls’. Calling your album ‘Born to die’ isn’t exactly an invitation to a beach party.

Lana Del Rey created a sonic twilight world where she’s on a kind of road trip of self-discovery and carnal longing. Dennis Hopper might even turn up at some point. It’s sexy noir pop in other words, with a slightly twisted psychological undercurrent. There is an unease in this Lana world. The Prom Queen gone to the dark side? Maybe.

Lana appealed to everyone from moody teenage girls, to indie rock guys and middle aged perverts. Her voice is more of a coo in your ear on the pillow, like she is singing just for you and the effect is intoxicating. It really helped that she had an image too that perfectly mirrored the music. In her own words ‘a gangster Nancy Sinatra’. Younger fans might have to google who Nancy Sinatra was, but to the rest of us old enough to remember the Banana Splits and when Batman was on TV, we got the vibe exactly.

And then, everybody started to ask ‘Who is she and where does she come from and how did she get here on the radio, on TV and bust the internet on youtube?’

As with all seemingly out of the blue successes, the trolls started to research Lana’s past and soon were accusing her of being a manufactured hype who was bank-rolled by her rich father. Here was a total faker who was an invented persona, a calculated corporate career whore and us real music fans were all being –shock horror – duped by her.

I read all of this after the fact of hearing her music for the first time and not having any pre-existing bias. The first words that came into my head on reading what a fake Lana Del Rey was, were ‘David Bowie’. He too had built a career on inventing different personas. He too had stirred up similar criticisms of ‘is this real music or is it a kind of theatrical put on?’ And my next thought about the lack of authenticity charges against Lana Del Rey was ‘so what?’ When did authenticity ever matter in rock and pop music except to beery old pub rockers and boring anti-image musos?

Pop and rock has always been about fantasy, about creating alternative realities, about taking you out of yourself and your surroundings. It’s not real and it never has been.

And Lana Del Rey does just that, like so many others before her – takes you somewhere else and out of yourself.

For me, I admit I hit a ‘bored with Lana’ wall with her third album ‘Honeymoon’. After the compelling ‘Ultraviolence’ album before it, this album to me was Lana-by-numbers and apart from a few tracks, more or less passed me by and the CD ended up in a box in the back of my car, never to be re-visited.

However, her last album ‘Lust for Life’ drew me back in again and there was definitely a shift of mood on this album. Maybe Lana wanted to cheer up. Just a little bit. She was even smiling on the cover, but of course, smiling in a creepy Karen Carpenter type of way. Or was I reading too much into it?

Now, we’re five albums in and the authentic or artificial arguments are now more of a mumble in the corner, as Lana Del Rey has outclassed and outlasted most of her critics.

So what’s her new album ‘Norman Fucking Rockwell’ like?

I bought the album before I read the reviews (which I’ve since been pleasantly surprised have been overwhelmingly positive) and find this to be another blissed out road trip through pop culture references and glamorous despair, only this time, the sound and stylings are impeccably refined. The songwriting is more honed and nuanced; this is an artist in total command of her craft and rolling it out with confidence and ease. The lines she writes and sings sometimes come with an arch wink of the eye. She knows we know. And she knows what her audience wants from her. It’s a whole lotta Lana in other words, with a deep and richly layered production. Her singing on this album is fantastic; she stretches out words playfully and puts in little extra trills. It is the sound of a singer enjoying and loving what she does.

The stand out track for me out of the album’s really strong opening three tracks has to be ‘Venice Bitch’. In this, she maxes out the Lana-isms with a sweary opening line that comes across as more tongue in cheek than edgy. The rise to the chorus is one of the best vocal lines she’s ever come up with. It has a lift to it that echoes some vague and hazy radio memory of 60s pop. That’s the thing with Lana Del Rey – she somehow manages to straddle the border between the mega-pixel present and the black and white past. ‘Venice Bitch’ also has a long play-out which I can only describe as a kind of psychedelic dub. It’s something she’s never done before and it works a treat. For almost ten glorious minutes, this is her fuck it, I’m going to let this one run and run moment.

Elsewhere on the album, from beginning to end, we get Lana is your angel, Lana is your femme fatale, Lana is your ‘man’ (in ‘Mariner’s Apartment Complex) Lana is your whatever-you-want-her to be. This is an actress with a well-rehearsed script but it’s ok, she can improvise some scenes and see where it goes.

‘Love song’ starts with the Lana-come-hither line of ‘In the car, in the car on the back seat, I’m your baby’ and it’s the Lana seduction scene of lonesome sounding piano, hushed vocals in the front of the mix and a dream-pop chorus that is not unlike anything she has done before, but it’s now something she does so well and you still want more of it.

Another track worth mentioning is ‘Doing Time’. I didn’t realise that this is actually a cover version of a song by Sublime, who I have to admit I’d never heard. This track is the most breezy and casual on the album and stands out as being stylistically opposed to the rest of the album but is a welcome frivolous diversion.

‘Next best American Record’ is a later in the album highlight, starting with a simple sparse guitar riff and building to a lush chorus that lifts itself out of the neon gloom of the verses. The lyrics are perhaps personal, perhaps fantasy – who cares? The words name-check Led Zeppelin’s ‘Houses of the Holy’ and once again, Lana probably realises us pop culture spotters are listening in. Is this calculated nostalgia or is it just an image of a living loose, dope-happy time? Again, who cares? I don’t need authenticity anyway. I don’t need autobiography. It’s a vibe and it feels good. You’re either in the car with Lana or you’re on the road-side.

So how does this album rate alongside her others?

If you bought or heard her last album ‘Lust for Life’ I suppose you could say that this new album lacks the light and shade contrasts of its predecessor, yet this album has a consistency about it that makes it one of those albums that the longer you stay with it, the more rewarding it becomes.

‘Norman Fucking Rockwell’ then is a triumph overall but it also feels to me like Lana Del Rey is at the peak of her noir pop stylings and where she goes next should be interesting.

So Lana, when are you going to make a weird cosmic country album? I think it would really suit you.

jamie hawkesworth scottwalker_exclusive2 copy

 

The magnificent awkwardness of Scott Walker is a quality that I most admire him for. Scott was the first pop star who refused to play the inane teen pop game and didn’t care to pander to commercial concerns, at least, not when he went solo. From big moody ballads, with a Spector-like widescreen production in the Walker Brothers, Scott delivered a unique debut album in the last autumn quarter of 1967 that was evidently at odds with the prevailing peace love and flowers pop zeitgeist.

He was the first western pop singer to bring Jacques Brel to a wider audience and a certain unknown singer called David Bowie was busy taking notes and would later re-visit some of Scott’s song choices,

Scott’s take on Brel’s ‘Jackie’ gave him his biggest solo hit single; the song was banned by the BBC, who deemed the lyric to be not suitable for a young pop audience with its homosexual referencing lyrics (‘Cute! In a stupid ass way!)

Then, there were Scott’s own compositions, which ranged from baroque vignettes to glimpses into outsider characters – ‘Montague Terrace (in Blue)’ was a song unlike any other at the time. What Scott insisted on was that pop could have philosophical depth as well as emotional resonance.

It didn’t insult your intelligence and it didn’t care too much if you didn’t quite get it.

‘Scott 1’ was a success and Scott’s transition from teen-pop idol to a kind of Frank Sinatra if he’d read Albert Camus and re-located to the left bank of Paris, was complete.

A second album followed quickly, with more of Scott’s unique songs and then there was ‘Scott 3’, an album that perfectly juxtaposed Scott’s torch song persona, with his own songs that were becoming more and more obtuse. ‘It’s raining today’ started with a droning dissonance that provides a startling interference with the song’s pretty melody. Despite inching further away from the mainstream with each release, he was given his own TV show, which ran for six episodes in 1969. The show was somewhat incongruous as it presented Scott as a middle of the road entertainer, duetting with Dusty Springfield for example, but it soon became evident he was left of the road with his song choices for the series, which included more dark chanson by Brel, alongside songs more associated with crooners like Tony Bennett with the odd contemporary composer like Tim Hardin thrown into Scott’s increasingly catholic mix.

The series was cancelled after its brief run, the BBC not really knowing how to pitch Scott. Who was he? The enigma continued to grow around him.

To make matters even more confusing, he released what has now become regarded as his solo masterpiece, ‘Scott 4’ in the closing months of that epicurean decade. It did nothing but alienate the light entertainment audience of his TV series and Scott found himself in an impossible conundrum, torn between his true art and the need to keep an audience.

To this purpose, he further confused his audience by seemingly reverting back to what was expected of him – lush, heart-yearning ballads that a middle of the road older audience would take to. (this was because he had contractual obligations to fulfill and not because he had an artistic volte face)

The problem was, his audience mostly ignored him, so Scott found himself in a wilderness for the next 5 years until he relented and agreed to a Walker Brothers reunion, around 1975.

Scott, although only barely into his thirties by this time, was now a pop veteran, ill suited to the more frivolous side of the 70s, just coming out of its Glam rock phase. Scott, with the reunited Walker Brothers, appeared on Top of the Pops, with the hit single ‘No Regrets’, as if it was a personal reflection on his artistic endeavours. Despite this slight career resurgence, the Walker Brothers didn’t follow through with anything particularly remarkable and looked set to tread the 60s has-beens circuit.

But Scott wasn’t going to be satisfied being a nostalgia whore. He threw another career curve-ball in 1978, with the release of ‘Nite Flights’ billed as a Walker Brothers album but it is Scott’s songs that are the centrepieces.

The songs, ‘Nite Flights’ and in particular, ‘The Electrician’ were elliptical pieces of electro-noir that nobody at the time could fathom. It was like The Carpenters has suddenly decided to go satanic heavy metal, as many still saw Scott Walker as a singer of big torch ballads from the 60s.

Indeed, by the early 80s, Scott’s mystique and outsider status as a pop weirdo was given a further push by Julian Cope of all people, who curated a compilation album called ‘Fire escape to the sky – the god-like genius of Scott Walker’.

Thanks to Cope’s determination to write a fitting resume of Scott’s artistic brilliance, a new audience – albeit a tiny one – were now discovering his solo albums which could be found in second hand vinyl shops and charity shops for very little money. Me included.

Scott re-emerged in 1983, on the Virgin label, with a new album ‘Climate of Hunter’. It was a startling mix of synthesisers and sparse, seemingly random songs, that went over the new shiny pop conditioned heads of the 80s and sank without trace.

Scott once again did another disappearing act and went back to his difficult shed in the obscure forest that nobody else but him lived in.

Like a ghost that had vanished into mist, he came back in the mid-90s, with his most radical work up to that point – ‘Tilt’.

It was an album that was impossible to categorise: often disturbing, challenging and downright weird. It was also hauntingly beautiful, as the deep sweeping strings of ‘Farmer in the city’ take you somewhere you’ve never been before.

Scott continues to not only push the envelope today, but also burn it.

His last studio album was as enigmatic and impenetrable as it was brilliant. Simply, nobody is making music as out there as ‘Bisch Bosch’.

As Scott said in an interview around the release of the album ‘I don’t see the point of mining seams of music that have been over-mined already’.

Long may Scott piss on the conventional and lead us to strange dark mines.

Amen.

*this article was written six months before the death of Scott Walker.

1973-07-14

The Zig Kid and other assorted freaks

I am walking through mist. Strange words are coming at me, like ripped up bits of newspaper blown by the wind from some kind of neon-lit fantasy world where people talk in random snippets. I’ve just bought Bowie’s ‘Jean Genie’ single and its got me hypnotised. Something in that sound, that dirty murk, that haunting noir harmonica and the persistent rhythm really gets me. Bowie’s voice is a cool rap; the way he intonates the words, the way he phrases, is pure insouciant cool.

David Bowie is now a huge part of my teenage life. ‘Starman’ was no flash in the pan and Bowie’s star is now starting to go into its own stellar orbit. ‘The rise and fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars’ finally had Bowie jettison into a million teenage bedrooms, including mine.

I go to Marton coffee bar and put ‘John I’m only dancing’ on the jukebox, asking the Saturday job girl who works there what she thinks of it but soon find out she’s more of a David Cassidy girl. To like Bowie is to render you an outsider, a freak, but that’s fine because I want to be a freak.

Another freak is on Top of the Pops tonight and I can’t wait.

‘What the hell’s a ‘Metal Guru?’ says my Dad, as Marc Bolan boogies around, singing lines like ‘Sitting there in your armour plated chair, oh yeah!’ and ‘Just like a silver studded sabre tooth dream’.

The record is magnificent. A nuclear blast of Bolan’s ego, now at critical mass state.

Soon after, I buy ‘The Slider’ LP, with saved birthday money and hold it as if it’s a sacred relic all the way back home on the 263 bus. I pore over the red inner sleeve, reading the lyrics like they are runes from the Wise One Who Knows Your Inner Dreams.

I am now cultified, converted and irredeemably lost in music. I can’t get enough of it. My mania for Bolan and Bowie is a deep obsession I can’t shake and never do. Soon, Roxy Music are to enter my teenage soul and steal it too.

Top of the Pops is a bizarre window to another world, a world away from grim chip shops on council estates and graffitied library walls.

One week, Hawkwind are number 2 with ‘Silver Machine’ and Alice Cooper’s ‘ School’s Out’ is number one. Roxy Music appear on Top of the Pops for the first time, playing ‘Virginia Plain’. They sound like a rock band from the 23rd century. The glam rock train started by Marc Bolan is now almost careering off the tracks at breakneck speed.

I like Slade too and find ‘Mama Weer All Crazee Now’ to be so exciting, I knock over a glass of Dandelion and Burdock in sheer exuberant freak dancing in my bedroom.

Sweet appear, taking the piss out of Glam, with their bass player Steve Priest wearing hot pants and on another appearance, a Nazi armband and heavily made up face, with the guitarist Andy Scott blowing him a kiss.

Girls will be boys and boys will be girls it’s a crazy hazy shook up world sang the prophet Ray Davies in 1970 and here they are.

The New Musical Express, Sounds and Melody Maker with the occasional Disc or Record Mirror become my new bibles of rock n roll tales of excess and are an arcane gateway to cool records and more bands I’d never heard of like Faust, whose album ‘The Faust Tapes’ I bought mainly because it was only 49p. I listen to John Peel every now and then, who plays loads of bands I haven’t heard of. I began to realise there was a whole galaxy of music that wasn’t in the top thirty.

Bowie name-dropped the Velvet Underground in an interview, so of course I checked them out. The first thing I ever heard was ‘Sweet Jane’ and I loved it immediately. Bowie’s name also was associated with the Stooges and I remember seeing the cover of ‘Raw Power’ and looking at the song titles like ‘Search and Destroy’ and ‘Your pretty face is going to hell’ and knew that these were the anti-christ to the squeaky clean Osmonds.

I listen to Alan Freeman one Saturday and he previews ‘Houses of the Holy’ the new Led Zeppelin album. Already a legendary band, because of ‘Stairway to heaven’, I get to listen to them at length for the first time on Fluff’s show.

‘Houses of the Holy’ is rock as I’d never heard it, such a feast of different styles and even has a reggae track on it, ‘D’yer M’ker’ which has serious overcoat music types up in arms because it’s ‘too commercial’ and ‘it’s not serious, it’s a joke’. The phone in on Freeman’s show reveals an audience of fans who are split down the middle. Some hate it, some love it but at least none are indifferent. I try to phone in from a phone box outside but can’t get through. I put 2p in the slot for dial-a-disc instead and it’s playing ‘Drive In Saturday’.Bowie is now everywhere, with three of his pre-Ziggy albums in the charts.

Marc Bolan is starting to boogie a little bit too much and an appearance on the Cilla Black show earlier that year seems to suggest he has succumbed to light entertainment. Cilla Black sings weird lines like ‘I could have built a house on the ocean’, and does it absolutely sincere and straight.

‘20th Century Boy’ is a great single though and perhaps the last of the great T.Rex singles as it’s a long slow slide out of the charts from hereon.

By late ’73, the pierott mask is starting to slip from the cool face of Glam and it is all becoming a bit of a seaside pier farce with Mud taking it to parody Elvis imitations. Alvin Stardust duetting with Basil Brush sums it up. Bowie senses the sea change, is now wearing a suit and Roxy Music are in their own weird world anyway, so it doesn’t affect them. Bryan Ferry takes to wearing tuxedos as if to distance himself from the more pantomime aspects of Glam, reinventing himself as a cocktail lounge lizard persona.

Roxy make magnificent albums in ‘For your Pleasure’ and later that year, ‘Stranded’.

The first time I heard ‘Do the Strand’ I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. It was so original; it signaled that the 60s were over for good and the Beatles and that entire ilk were now pretty much erased from the pop collective memory. We were the dudes as Mott the Hoople sang, and we never got off on that revolution stuff.

I’m now half way past 14 and not bothering to go to school on Wednesdays so I miss double Maths with Mr. Moody. No point going in on the afternoon either, because then it’s double PE and I don’t fancy running cross country in an icy north sea gale.

I have one burning thing on my mind – I must get a guitar, I must get a guitar. I say it over and over as a mantra, forcing it to come true.

I do get one that Christmas 1973, a second hand one that my Dad bought off someone at work. I still don’t know to this day what make it was but it was white, had a single cut away and f holes in the body.

It sits there in my bedroom for about three months before I bother to find out how to tune it up. When I do, I buy a chord book and take to it very quickly. So quickly that my Dad is amazed when he asks if I can play ‘Peggy Sue’ by Buddy Holly and I work it out in front of him and play it perfectly about five minutes later. Maybe I was born to boogie too.

Chapter thirty-five

BAND2_JPG1

The Nashville Rooms is a small venue in Kensington, London, and it’s hosted many a Punk band since the Pistols first blew the doors open for other bands to come through.

We’ve got a gig there coming up soon in July, supporting a band called Shake.

We’ve organised for a coach full of our supporters to come down with us so we can make an impression and we easily fill a coach and others make their own way down in various shared cars.

It’s a beautiful summer’s day when we travel down, the band going down in the coach with the Teessider crew.

Tubeway Army, with the soon to be solo Gary Numan, have just been number one with ‘Are Friends Electric’ and the electronic vanguard is soon to be upon us, although it takes a good year or so for all those synth bands to start coming through in the wake of Numan.

Gary Numan seemed to come out of nowhere, although I’d heard ‘Down in the Park’ earlier in the year and had a feeling we might be hearing more of him.

It’s encouraging that such a strange and different record as ‘Are Friends Electric’ can get to number one.

We’re not exactly a purely electronic band, but the synth is a big feature of our music so we feel the timing could be right for us.

In truth, we’re pretty confused musically. We have a Kraftwerk side to our music but we also have a more new wave guitar side to it and the two are battling it out in a struggle for direction. This is the wisdom of hindsight speaking now; we never had big talks about musical direction because we were too busy flying in the moment and just doing what we did.

Such thoughts, if we ever had them, are banished because this is a London gig and this is a chance to get some music press.

London gigs always have this strange pressure because we’re all aware that London is where the major music industry is and we’re all aware that we mustn’t waste an opportunity. It all starts to feel vaguely desperate but exciting too.

John always tried very hard to attract press and did eventually manage to get us featured in the newly published ‘Smash Hits’ magazine when they ran a feature on the Teesside scene. We waited for journalists to show up after the very positive feature, but nobody ever did. We were always having to fight apathy and indifference.

Manchester, Sheffield, Liverpool and Edinburgh and soon Glasgow were the outside of London focus cities for music in the music papers, but Teesside was ignored.

It used to frustrate and exasperate us, because we knew that apart from ourselves, the Teesside music scene had a lot of bands worthy of wider coverage but it was like we were living in the forbidden zone and nobody wanted to come up to Middlesbrough and the surrounding towns to check out the scene.

So, because of that lingering feeling of being in obscurity, this London gig was a big deal for us.

We arrive in London in good time. Enough time to walk around. John goes off with Alan and buys some singles from a flea market, Jeff goes to buy a reed for his sax with Mick Todd and I walk around with a lad called Dom who is dressed in a black shirt and asks me if he looks like Gary Numan.

I later meet up with Benny Fuchsia with Jeff and Mick. Benny is a Punk character from Teesside who is now living in London. Benny turns up with another ex-Teesside Punk called Greshy. He is dressed in clown-like clothes, is wearing a small pointy hat and his face has silver greasepaint on it. The London scene has changed and clubs like the Blitz and Club for Heroes has characters like Steve Strange and Boy George spearheading something new. I am yet to find out what this scene is called because nobody has yet named it. I just presume it’s a London fashion scene, but I thought that about Punk and it exploded into the provinces within a year. We promise to put Benny and Greshy and some other ex-Teesside punks we know on the guest list.

We go back to the Nashville to do the sound check. We end up sitting around while the headlining band buggers around for ages, as headlining bands always do. We eventually sound check and it sounds shit but we’re almost used to it now and with a shrug, just get on with it.

It’s now time for the venue to open.

The place starts to fill out and the crowd who came down with us is in good spirits. The drinks start to flow and soon it’s time to take to the stage.

I go on stage dressed in an overcoat which is a bad idea because I already feel the lights start to make me overheat and sweat profusely, before we’ve even started.

Overcoats had become fashionable but that’s in Teesside and I’m probably about a year out of date in London, where fashions change so quickly.

Somebody down the front shouts ‘take your coat off you twat!’ in a London accent. I ignore him.

We open with ‘Success’, a song we always start our set with. The sound on stage is abysmal. I can’t hear my singing and my singing becomes more of a shout because of this. Alan keeps shouting back to have more guitar and bass in his drums monitor and we get ear shredding feedback squeals instead. The Teessider crowd is down the front, cheering us on, oblivious to musicianly concerns.

The rest of the set becomes a blur as we play too fast, the adrenalin motoring us up a notch of two. I can’t remember much about the set we played but I do recall that ‘Hollywood Strut’, already a fast tempo song, was played so fast, I could hardly get the words out. ‘Kirlian Photography’ was a bit of a mess because the synth stated playing up again but I don’t think anyone in the audience noticed.

We get an encore and come back on to play ‘Death’, a song I actually hate but it seems to have become a staple part of our set.

The local Teessider and Rock Garden crowd start to chant ‘We’re the barmy Basczax army!’ to bemused onlookers who can see we’ve brought rent-a-crowd with us.

The set finishes and we come off stage, having gone down great with our own lot but I notice the rest of the crowd were polite but pretty indifferent.

It’s the curse of the support band. You are just a band to pass the time until the main band comes on to most people. This is how it is. Plus London audiences are known for being notoriously cool with an ‘ok then, impress us’ folded arms attitude.

We mingle with the crowd after the gig and notice people like Paula Yates there, and various members of XTC and we wonder what they thought of us but don’t bother to ask because that would be uncool.

We meet a journalist from Sounds called Phil Sutcliffe who tells us he liked us, despite our complaints of the sound being bad. He takes down our set list and promises to review us.

A certain person from Smash Hits also tells us he thought we were good. His name is Neil Tennant, who will go on to be a mega pop star in the 80s, in Pet Shop Boys.

Shake come on; they are professional sounding but mediocre. Joe Callis will soon go on to join the Human League where he will be important in helping them write hits, but there is nothing in Shake that hints at this.

I am not being bigheaded when I say I think that we were the more interesting band, even if we only had a half hour to play and the sound was crap where we were standing.

Time has flown and it now all seems like something we dreamt as we travel back up north. The journey is long and boring and we don’t really know what to think about the gig but we seem to have impressed the right people.

A week later, we are thrilled to see that Phil Sutcliffe of Sounds has given us a favourable write up, calling us ‘an angry urban Roxy Music’. I am flattered by the review but wonder where the ‘angry’ came from because I certainly wasn’t angry up there. Another word is used, that I have to look up in a dictionary. The word is ‘belligerent’ and again, I think, why did he write that?

But it’s nice to get write ups and we’re all pleased that we got the coverage.

Back in Teesside it’s back to Friday nights at the Teessider.

We play ‘Waiting for the man’ and I dedicate it as thanks to our loyal followers who travelled down to the big smoke with us.

A memorable night that summer is when the Flowers come down to play with us. They top the bill and we charge 75p on the door so we can cover their travelling expenses. The Teessider is packed and they play a great set, with people dancing in front of them in the small cramped space. An enduring memory is of Drop singer Richard Sanderson dancing with his newly backcombed shock of hair and his dangly earrings with his new girlfriend Philippa.

The Flowers go back to Mick Todd’s house to stay over and that is the night I got chased by skinheads with a friend of mine called Robbo as we go for the train.

We ended up running alongside the railway track in the dark, with the skinheads pursuing us. We eventually lost them, but not before I got multiple stings from running through waist high nettles.

Robbo plays bass in band called Discharge and I remember one winter night when Robbo was drunk and he started to shout and swear at the icy wind and snow as he made his way to the train station to get back to Redcar where he lived. He ended up throwing his bass at the falling snow and I ended up having to retrieve it before a passing car ran over it. Robbo came to most if not all of our gigs and he became a great friend who I regularly kept in touch with.

Skinheads were starting to turn up at the Teessider to cause trouble and would often pounce on Punks and anyone who looked different to them coming from the Teessider.

One weekend, I go out with some friends from the Teessider and skinheads started on us, trying to incite us to fight them and they would fight you whether you wanted to fight or not.

Life was beginning to get scary, just as it has been when I was 12 and 13. Skinheads were also starting to sour the atmosphere at the Rock Garden. They were a total blight on the local scene and most people hated them.

(note: this extract is an edit of the chapter)

marc_bolan-t-rex-20th_century_boy_the_ultimate_collection-booklet

 

A first musical crush is an intense experience.

Mine, as most people on here know, was Marc Bolan. He caught me at a time in my young life when I just on the cusp of becoming a teenager. His image and music totally gripped me and I became a big fan. He seemed unstoppable for about three years and then sadly and perhaps inevitably (where else is there to go when you are that huge?) went into a swift decline. Like a lot of that early 70s generation, I went on to David Bowie and Roxy Music , with T.Rex becoming a sideline interest; the odd single getting my attention, but not interested in the albums as such, after ‘Tanx’ in 1973.

In only five short years after his peak of popularity in 1972 with ‘Metal Guru’, Marc Bolan was no longer with us. Killed in a purple mini. Not a Cadillac or a glamorous American car that often inhabited his lyrics, but a humble and very English mini. There is something very Marc Bolan about that though, because he was prone to exaggeration and flights of fancy, when in fact, he didn’t ‘drive a Rolls Royce ‘cos it’s good for my voice’ (Marc couldn’t actually drive)

As is often the way with pop stars that die young, we tend to think of only the good times and ignore or make excuses for the not-so good times. The emotional connection is so strong; the jukebox of the mind keeps playing those songs over and over.

The truth is, Marc was creatively lost –or at best at an impasse – when he died and had been for the last three years. He had struggled to find a new and credible direction and came across as increasingly ridiculous on tacky pop shows like ‘Supersonic’ and ‘Get it together’, where he stumbled through smoke machines, looking like a relic of another pop age by 1975.

I remember hearing ‘Zip Gun Boogie’ on the radio only once and thinking it was awful – because it was. Bolan by that point had boogied himself into a stubborn cocaine denial and had a bunker mentality when he should have taken some time out to re-think his direction.

I believe he was certainly capable of doing this. He had, after all, transformed himself from a fey hippy cosmic-folk troubadour, into a fabulous Glam rock peacock pop star in the early 70s. Why couldn’t he change one more time?

I can only speculate of course. I suspect that fame – that hall of mirrors that claims the souls and senses of so many who enter it – went to his head and cocaine made him ego deaf, refusing to listen to those around him such as producer Tony Visconti, who tried to persuade Bolan to re-invent himself and his music. He threw in the producer towel after the album ‘Zinc Alloy’, sometime in early 1974.

Tellingly, Marc’s fortunes took a dive. Visconti had been so important to the success of T.Rex and by now, Marc was running on hubris and a smaller but loyal fan base barely kept his profile above obscurity.

He tried to give his music more of a funky soul flavour for the next year or so– largely with the help of his girlfriend Gloria Jones, now in T.Rex on keyboards and backing vocals. But it all sounded so incongruous and didn’t go far enough to convince as a change of direction. Bolan going soul just didn’t suit him either – his voice was too idiosyncratic and his lyrics too surreal to fit soul music’s more direct lyrics and emotional rawness.

A single, ‘Dreamy Lady’, billed as ‘disco T.Rex’ was actually more of the old doo-wop structure than soul.

Then, in 1976, Marc was suddenly back in the charts with a new single: ‘I love to boogie’.

It was Bolan doing what he did best. Toe tapping, upbeat fun pop rock n roll. The delusional period of trying to go soul was over and Bolan was up for the pop rock game again. He even had his hair cut, as if shedding the baggage of the past.

Marc had recently aligned himself with the emerging Punk scene in London and put his money where his mouth was by having the Damned as his support act in early 1977, when a new slimmed down Bolan, took to the road for a T.Rex tour to promote the album ‘Dandy in the underworld’.

The album had been trailered by a single, ‘Soul of my suit’, which I liked and felt hopeful that Marc was on a creative up.

I got the ‘Dandy’ album and to be honest, didn’t think it was the ‘return to form’ as it had been feted as in some quarters. However, it was a lot better than the previous two albums and Marc seemed to have got his mojo back, sparked by the Punk movement.

He got his own TV show on which he showcased Punk bands that nobody would go near. But the show itself was awful – typical 70s late afternoon tasteless tack, with Marc being flanked by dancers as he ran through old hits with a band that consisted of session musicians. It was great to see Marc back on TV but a lot of it made me cringe. I just wasn’t that star-struck 13 year old anymore I guess and had more sophisticated tastes by then.

An exclusive was announced: that David Bowie was going to be on Marc’s show. I couldn’t wait – two old Mod friends and rivals in Glam together at last.

Marc’s latest single was ‘Celebrate Summer’, a disposable piece of 60s surf-pop with glib lyrics that rhymed ‘punk’ with ‘junk’ and with a slightly punky edge. Maybe if the Ramones had covered it…it might have made sense?

‘Celebrate Summer’ didn’t chart but for now, it didn’t matter.

With a new buzz around Marc, and a new-found credibility among the Punk generation, I decided to forgive and forget the kitsch naffness of the ‘Marc’ show and looked forward to Bowie appearing on it.

Then, on the morning of Friday, September 16th, I turned on the radio and caught the back end of ‘Ride a white swan’. The DJ said ‘I hope that’s of comfort to fans of Marc Bolan’.

I turned on the TV and waited for the news, an agonising half hour or so away. ‘Pop star Marc Bolan has been killed in a car crash in the early hours of this morning. He was 29’.

I suddenly felt guilty for having negative thoughts on Marc. I also felt a strange hollow numbness come over me. Marc figured so highly in my early teenage years, it was like a part of me died with him.

I went upstairs and played ‘Electric Warrior’, an album of Marc at his creative peak (one he managed to sustain for ‘The Slider’ and most of the ‘Tanx’ album)

All the memories flashed back at me: Marc on Top of the Pops, loving every moment of his fame, Marc bizarrely on the Cilla Black show duetting on ‘Life’s a Gas’, Marc in interviews with headlines like ‘T.Rextacy!’ and ‘Bolan’s Triumph’. Marc Bolan posters in the Jackie magazine that you had to collect for three weeks to get the three parts of them. Hearing ‘20th century boy’ on Radio Luxembourg for the first time and thinking it sounded fantastic and thrilling.

The final episode of ‘Marc’ – with Bowie appearing and jamming with Marc, was transmitted a week or so after his death. It was great to see them together but also a sad, shambolic finale, as Marc slipped and fell over before the song hardly got started. The camera crew had pulled the plug on them too, over a union dispute. Two legends, stopped in their tracks by officious union men. Didn’t they know that his was a unique event? Or were they secretly Carpenters fans who just hated strange exotic pop stars?

Then suddenly, as if time quickly forward-wound itself to a horrible present – there was a photograph in the papers of Marc’s funeral, with Rod Stewart’s head bowed in grief and David Bowie, visibly upset. A white swan made of flowers spelling his name. It was all too surreal for a fan like me to take in.

Marc Bolan’s death felt like the end of an era, and maybe it was. It was after all, the death of a Proper Pop Star – the kind of star that does not apologise for who they are, a star who is pathologically individual and could never be anything else other than a Pop star. You could never ever imagine Marc Bolan going to a 9 to 5 job, or living a normal life. He really did seem to be someone who was born to do what he did.

When I think about it now, it was Marc Bolan who first showed me the possibility of another world beyond the factory lined horizon of Teesside. A world where it was ok to not fit in, to feel different, to celebrate your strangeness and to meet others who felt the same. It’s weird when I meet other fans of Marc; there is an instant connection, an unspoken understanding.

I still play his music and a lot of it I never tire of.

The elegant and funky simplicity of ‘Hot Love’ and ‘Get it on’ still amaze me. Marc took three or four chords and made them into something magic and enduring. His words were mostly a mixture of beat poetry and playful nonsense, like a child discovering the sound of language for the first time. He was a master of the pop hook too and for catchy as hell evidence, listen to ‘Telegram Sam’.

The acoustic and very English whimsical Marc was another side to him. Listen to ‘Cosmic Dancer’ or ‘Mystic Lady’ and be charmed.

Marc could merge Syd Barrett and Chuck Berry too: try ‘The Slider’ to hear this cosmic fusion.

In retrospect, Marc Bolan didn’t really need to change musical direction. He just needed to keep making good Marc Bolan music.

I have his latest album in my head right now, but you can’t hear it, because it’s personal to me.

Boogie on in peace, Marc Bolan: the original cosmic Punk.

 

bowie black and white

‘Can’t help thinking about me’– David Bowie with the Lower Third (1966)

Only 19 at the time, this early Bowie song is a little gem. It is of course locked into its period, has a ‘swinging London’ vibe about it, but this song shows how easily Bowie could mimic a certain type of pop style. The chord patterns or harmony of the song change from major to minor –rather like the Beatles ‘I’ll be back’ -and end up in unconventional places, before finally resolving the tension on the chorus, which is a Mod/Soul cry from Bowie, in his best ‘R’n’B’ voice.

The song shows that Bowie was a quirky songwriter from early on, with a good instinct for interesting song structures. The lyrics are somewhat perfunctory to the melody, but get the message across – a little bit of kitchen sink melodrama from Bowie.

 

‘London Boys’ – David Bowie (1966)

Bowie struck out solo on this incredible one off song that has a unique ‘lonely city’ atmosphere about it. Bowie’s emerging skill as a storyteller is evident here – about a young man who goes to London for the bright lights and thrills and ends up disillusioned. Lots of young people poured into the capital in the 60s, looking for a taste of the fab life. This is a theme explored in films like ‘Georgy Girl’ and ‘The Knack (and how to get it)’

Writer Charles Shaar Murray called this song Bowie’s ‘first great song’ and I am inclined to agree with him. Bowie piles on the pathos in his best ‘Anthony Newley’ voice as the melody moves up to the climax of the song, perfectly complemented by a woodwind arrangement that mirrors and reinforces the despairing mood of this remarkable song.

 

‘Wild eyed boy from freecloud’ (‘Space oddity’, 1969)

‘Space Oddity’ was of course a great song, but let’s focus on other lesser-known songs that show Bowie’s rapid development as a songwriter from that album of the same name (actually called ‘Man or words, man of music’ at the time)

Another ‘story song’, this song has a magical atmosphere to it, a kind of charming naiveté with a stagey sense of drama that would become part of the Bowie palette as a songwriter. Indeed, you can imagine this song as part of a West End show – something that Bowie had entertained the thought of at the time, claiming to be a writer rather than merely a singer and keen to not be seen as just another singer songwriter in the Paul Simon mould.

‘The wild eyed boy from freecloud’ showcases Bowie’s exploration with different shifts of mood. Orchestration – somewhat over-ornate in places – ‘answers’ Bowie’s strident melody in a voice that can be called ‘actorly’.

This is a song by an artist eager to be seen as someone who can write songs that expand on the pop form into conceptual ideas – a very post Sgt.Pepper thing. Bowie also had another influence to colour his music – Scott Walker – whose solo albums Bowie was a big fan of. Indeed, this song could easily have been covered by Scott and one can’t but help wonder if it ever crossed Bowie’s mind too?

 

‘After All’ (‘The man who sold the world’, 1970)

This weird waltz time song from ‘The man who sold the world’ conjures a spellbinding atmosphere, as Bowie casually strums a chord pattern that moves up the scale to a minor chord resolution that again, resolves nothing, as Bowie appears trapped in the endless cycle of the harmonic structure. One of his most intimate vocals, Bowie intones a tune that is very Jacques Brel in its mood and has a pessimistic air about it with enigmatic lyrics that paraphrase Aleister Crowley. Bowie also foreshadows his glam rock persona in the lyrics ‘we’re painting our faces and dressing in thoughts from the sky’. ‘After all’ is one of Bowie’s more enigmatic and compelling songs.

 

‘Quicksand’ (from ‘Hunky Dory’ 1971)

Bowie has said that on Hunky Dory he wanted to really prove himself as a songwriter and in many ways it is his most songwriterly album, with ‘Life on Mars’ of course, being the show stopping centrepiece.

‘Quicksand’ ends side one of the album – the songs preceding it, leaving the listener almost breathless with the skill and scope of the songs.

‘Quicksand’ starts in a very plain almost Neil Young type of way, with a wispy vocal melody that brings to mind the voice of Ray Davies of the Kinks. Bowie’s lyrics are dense and quasi-poetic, giving the ‘heads’ a lot to pore over; the words rich with occult and pop culture references. The tune is one of Bowie’s most beguiling, leading to the incredibly inventive and original major to diminished chord rise on the ‘don’t believe in yourself’ coda, that spirals off and ascends to a climax that somehow finds its home key again. The song also changes key twice without you hardly noticing, a trick only really subtle songwriters can manage to pull off without sounding gauche and corny.

Bowie turned another corner as a songwriter on this album and on this song: as a songwriter who could hook the listener in and then surprise them with strange harmonic twists.

 

‘Queen Bitch’ (‘Hunky Dory’, 1971)

Bowie’s easy appropriation of another artist’s style is evident on this song, a wry and accurate homage to the Velvet Underground.

‘Queen Bitch’ takes the three chord trick from Lou Reed’s ‘Sweet Jane’, speeds it up and then takes a very Bowie diversion on the bridge leading up to the chorus, which moves up a tone to a different key, before sliding back down to the verses which are in the key of C major. The lyrics are very Lou Reed – impassively sardonic and ‘street-jive’ and then Bowie camps it up on the chorus: ‘She’s so swishy in her satin and tat/ and her frock coat and bipperty bopperty hat/oh god I could do better than that!’

The song even ends on a ‘Uh-huh!’ and a dry laconic ‘you betcha’ perfectly imitating the off the cuff utterances of Lou Reed. ‘Queen Bitch’ is a song that comes in wraparound shades and would not have sounded out of place on ‘Ziggy Stardust’, which Bowie already had in mind before he had finished ‘Hunky Dory’.

 

 

‘Soul Love’ (from ‘The rise and fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars’, 1972)

After the opening dramatic mise en scene of ‘Five Years’, ‘Soul Love’ comes in; almost throw away in the doo wop chord cycle often favoured by Bowie’s friend, Marc Bolan. Except Marc Bolan would never have written the exhilarating bridge that leads to the chorus, or rather, the non-chorus, of the song.

A total surprise to the ears when first heard, the harmonic shifts are Bowie’s ‘surprise and tease’ method now mastered and he is able to give a fresh twist to a clichéd chord cycle.

The way the chords shift from minor to major on the ‘all I have is my love of love and love is not loving’ line has a great emotional pull to it and despite Bowie’s assertions that Ziggy Stardust was the most ‘plastic of rock stars’ and a creation of Warholian artiface, there is an authentic emotional resonance to his songs that contradict this. To put it simply, Bowie could write a great tune that moves the listener.

 

‘Moonage Daydream’ (‘The rise and fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars’ 1972)

After ‘Life on Mars’ this is often cited as being a great example of the classic Bowie/Ronson musical partnership. The version of this song recorded earlier for Arnold Corns is almost like a camped up limp-wrist gospel song, with a strained and off pitch vocal. When Bowie recorded it again on the ‘Ziggy’ sessions, (nailing the vocal in one take!) Mick Ronson toughened the song up, giving it a great Who-like power chord structure that turned the song into something else entirely. Let us also not forget the superb contributions of the other Spiders from Mars – Trevor Bolder and Mick Woodmansey who also excel on this recording.

The song starts with a tight power chord D, moving to an unusual F sharp, then moving through B minor, a passing A major to E major. This is a rock song with a very Bowie chord structure, a different kind of heavy rock style, one that came to characterise the sound of the Spiders from Mars: rock songs with unusual and interesting harmonic structures.

Mick Ronson’s celestial echo-plex guitar on the play out of the song is stunning; the space rock vibes and the emotive anthemic chorus makes this one of the album’s outstanding tracks.

 

‘Rock n Roll Suicide’ (The Rise and fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars’, 1972)

Coming after the Stooges-like blitz of ‘Suffragette City’ on ‘Ziggy Stardust’, this is a song that is one of the most brilliant (just under) three minutes of Bowie’s songwriting so far.

It starts in C major, moves to a dramatic E major and the melody perfectly matches the dramatic swoop of the harmonies, or chord changes. Starting off in an almost conversational way, Bowie’s voice builds on each verse, reciting some of his most powerful imagery in the lyrics. The melody is an inverted kind of gospel blues, with a Dylan-like phrasing. The drama of the song builds to the ‘Oh no love! You’re not alone!’ part and then the song in the last 30 seconds moves off into a totally astonishing harmonic roller-coaster climb that depicts the emotional desperation of the Ziggy character Bowie plays throughout the album.

The ‘gimme your hands…cos you’re wonderful’ play out must be one of the most evocative and powerful refrains ever recorded. The song ends on a great brief Mick Ronson guitar line and then, a quick sweep of strings and it’s gone, like a dramatic curtain coming down.

There are many highlights on the ‘Ziggy Stardust’ album, and ‘Rock n Roll Suicide’ ends the album on an even greater high. Any doubts about Bowie as a unique and great talent surely must have been dispelled with this song alone.

 

‘All the young dudes’ (given to Mott the Hoople, 1972, recorded by Bowie during the Aladdin Sane sessions)

The confidence surging through Bowie, the electric assurance of stealing the pop moment in 1972, and staking his claim as a great talent, is here on this song. A casual Dylan-like vocal delivery, a ‘whiter shade of pale’ Bach-like descending chord progression is almost too ordinary for Bowie. But then the song takes a great turn on the bridge leading to a chorus that echoes the verse chords, but throws in a totally unexpected G minor chord on the second part of the chorus hook. Again, Bowie playing with cliché and giving it a twist; ‘All the young dudes’ has a hymn-like anthemic vibe to it and is as catchy as hell with it too, but cool and never crass.

 

Aladdin Sane (1914, 1939, 197?) (‘Aladdin Sane’, 1973)

Bowie was seemingly fixated with dooms-day scenarios in his early 70s work, and this song is another imagining of a character on the edge of a world or society that is breaking down. The cryptic speculation of an imminent war in the song title brackets was a reflection of Bowie’s pessimistic state of mind. Was it a literal war, a psychic war, or a war to keep his sanity? Such was the ambiguous question marks over a lot of Bowie’s songs from this period. He was now a figure who projected intrigue; a strange and sexually provocative rock star. The cover shot of Bowie with the lightning flash across his face is one of the most iconic images of the era.

This song was something completely new from Bowie at the time, a song that has no real precedent in his work up to this point. Its melody: wistful and drifting around two notes, is built around spectral chord changes that give the song an eerie atmosphere. The chorus shifts into another key, moving up and down in tones giving it a see-sawing feeling; perhaps Bowie trying to evoke a feeling of the character’s mind breaking up.

The song has a lengthy section of improvised piano by the rather brilliant Mike Garson, who gives the song a strange, unhinged atmosphere. (The hypnotic two-note passage brings to mind the drone experiment of the Kinks’ ‘See my friends’)

’The random notes must have thrilled Bowie; microtones and percussive discords create a jazzy chaos until Bowie floats back into the mix with the chorus refrain, like a ghost from the imagined battlefield in the song.

‘Aladdin Sane’ is yet another milestone in Bowie’s compositional skills and is an example of how even with commercial success, he was willing to take musical risks. This is what made Bowie so much more than another singer songwriter rock star: he had a genuine hunger for surprise and discovery and was willing to push his songs into unchartered extremes.

 

‘Time’ (from ‘Aladdin Sane’, 1973)

There is something about this track that is so of its time – the film ‘Cabaret’ had presented a powerful image of Berlin in the era when Nazism was on the rise: one that was wicked and lewd, with drag queens and the garish and brash character of Sally Bowles, drinking and screwing her way through life in a devil may care, decadent swagger. Bowie as usual, was sucking it all in and ‘Time’ could be something right out of ‘Cabaret’ – a bawdy, camp and existential meditation on mortality and how time is going to eventually get us all – ‘demanding Billy Dolls and other friends of mine’ alluding to Bowie hanging out in New York with proto glam punks the New York Dolls.

Although the songs on ‘Aladdin Sane’ were  written while touring America, and tracks like ‘Watch that Man’ and ‘Jean Genie’ have a strong blues rock flavour to them, Bowie brought a melancholic northern European atmosphere to the album with this track and the title song, as if determined to assert his European identity and not get too sucked into Americana.

The stagey delivery of ‘Time’ is backed by the strident avant jazz piano of Mike Garson whose voicings enhance Bowie’s camp and melodramatic delivery.

‘Time’ is Bowie in dramatis personae, delivering a tune that builds to an exasperated climax. Bowie is now branching out as a songwriter, refining his growing skill for infusing rock with a different voice, subverting the macho cock rock of straight denim and boogie audiences of the time – especially in America, who didn’t quite know what to make of this Anglo-pansexual rock star.

 

Lady Grinning Soul (Aladdin Sane, 1973)

The final track on the album is a totally bewitching song that has all the elegance of a John Barry tune, the verse chords shifting in a flamenco style; a perfect bookend to the first song on side two, ‘Time’.

Bowie sings in a voice he would later display again in ‘Wild is the wind’, shifting up and down the vocal register, slipping into falsetto with ease. The chorus, starting with the line ‘and when the clothes are strewn’ is a totally unpredictable harmonic shift and Bowie takes the listener into the aural equivalent of a maze. The effect is almost disorientating but nonetheless, thrilling.

The harmonic structure is once again, strange and inventive, as Bowie ends the song on the repeated line ‘she will be your living end’, the chords moving up and down semi-tones and shifting from major to minor, now the composer’s signature and recognisable as a ‘Bowie move’ in the harmonic colouring of the song.

 

‘Candidate/Sweet Thing’ (from ‘Diamond Dogs’ 1974)

As with ‘Time’, Bowie now could now summon a dramatic conceptual piece at will. This second track on ‘Diamond Dogs’ is astonishing in its scope, starting with Bowie crooning in a lower register than he’s ever displayed before, with a melody that has an alluring and Sinatra-like phrasing to it. The song builds to a climax, with Bowie at the top of his range, singing a tune that recalls the style of Leonard Bernstein in its dramatic sweep. This is no ‘West side story’ though; this is Bowie in dystopian mode, in an imagined city where mutants stalk the streets. ‘If you want it, boys, get it here, thing’ being one of the strangest lyrical refrains hitherto. The whole atmosphere of the song invokes a doomed romantic encounter, with the music then morphing into a change of tempo, Bowie becoming more and more desperate as the melody finally gets swallowed in a sweeping change of key, ending in a chugging noise of industrial grinding guitar and robotic rhythm.

‘Candidate/Sweet Thing’ is Bowie on glam Broadway, a show tune for the mutant pop generation who were by now, expecting nothing less than more weirdness from Bowie, who never takes the easy listening route.

 

‘Can you hear me’ (‘Young Americans’, 1975)

In 1975, Bowie did one of the most audacious volte face movements in his career – he ditched the Glam and went Soul, complete with image make-over and songs that were pitched at the American R’N’B market. It was as radical a move as any in his career and his music over night became unrecognisable from the Bowie of ‘Ziggy Stardust’; even Bowie’s singing style was different.

‘Can you hear me’ is one of the most straightforward songs on the album, so deftly crafted in the style of a slow groove soul song, it almost could be Gladys Knight or Al Green. Bowie intones a lyric that is carried by a great tune that has a slinky and intimate atmosphere to it. Bowie had been listening intently to the music of Philly Soul – big at the time – and in particular, the music of Barry White. This is Bowie at his most authentic as a soul man; an example of his genius for assimilating a style quickly and making it sound like he owns it.

 

‘Station to Station’ (Station to Station 1976)

The epic track that opens the album of the same name is an astonishing piece of music and a track that can be described as having three distinct sections to it. The song’s verse melody (‘the return of the thin white duke, throwing darts in lovers’ eyes’) is one of Bowie’s most strange and original tunes, moving from C minor to G major, then to a totally unexpected F sharp to D major, with Bowie crooning in his recent ‘Sinatra/Scott Walker’ lower tenor voice. Bowie sings throughout with total conviction, the harmonic structure shifting beneath his soaring melodies to give an unsettling feeling, reflecting Bowie’s fractured state of mind during this period. The counter melody played on an organ on the last repeat of the ‘return of the thin white duke’ refrain gives the song a sinister feeling, this is music that shows Bowie’s compositional skills developing into cinematic textures, soon to be fully realised on the instrumentals on ‘Low’. The musical ambition of this track signals another startling musical change from Bowie.

 

Word on a wing’ (From ‘Station to Station’, 1976)

His record company were thrilled that Bowie had finally broken America in a big way, with ‘Fame’ from the ‘Young Americans’ album reaching number one. Then, as if to confound his record company and his new found ‘soul’ audience again, he relocated to Europe and went back to his European muse – with just enough of a trace of the new ‘funky Bowie’ in the mix. ‘Station to Station’ was and is an incredible album. It only has six tracks on it, but every one of them is great.

One of the great tracks is ‘Word on a wing’, a song that is almost like a hymn in its opening gospel simplicity until it takes unexpected harmonic turns and ends up in a totally different place to its home key. All of this happens without the listener really noticing, as the song comes across as so natural and deceptively simple; an illusion that masks a harmonically complex structure. Bowie sings as if he is lost in some spiritual crisis, addressing his creator: ‘Lord, I kneel and offer you my word on a wing’…then with the agnostic line ‘and I’m trying hard to fit among your scheme of things’ but finally offering that he is ‘ready to shake the scheme of things’ – a phrase with more than a hint of dramatic irony about it, as Bowie was about to embark on the most radical and experimental phase of his career so far.

‘Word on a wing’ is a classic Bowie ballad, the kind that only he can do and get away with, and the melody is one of Bowie’s best, shape shifting and turning new corners almost all through the song.

 

‘Always crashing in the same car’ (‘Low’, 1977)

Like ‘Young Americans’, the album ‘Low’ was another Bowie turn that few expected. It was not well received when first released and some critics bemoaned its lack of lyrics and proper songs; one side dedicated to instrumentals. However, those critics soon had to admit they were wrong – ‘Low’ is now regarded by many as one of Bowie’s best albums.

Of the songs on the album, ‘Always crashing in the same car’ is probably the most accessible but that is not to say it is ordinary. The song hangs on a ‘retro doo wop’ chord sequence, echoing ‘Drive In Saturday’ but then, as if to lure the listener with the comfort of familiarity, Bowie twists the song form into new shapes, gradually reaching a phrase where Bowie stops singing and lets the guitar carry the melody, snaking and spiraling where the vocal might have been. The music here is almost sarcastic and deliberately going for a kitsch effect, as if Bowie is taking the piss out of his own song.

The song is half spoken, with a tune that is as ambivalent and as deadpan as the lyrics. The song is remarkable because it is Bowie taking a form, deconstructing it and reshaping it into something new and something that is the indefinable ‘essence of a Bowie song’, making something so normal on the surface sound weird, but never alienating the listener. Bowie’s new songs on ‘Low’ have pop hooks, but they are never obvious nor conventional.

 

‘Warzsawa’ (‘Low’ 1977)

What a surprise side two of ‘Low’ was at the time. No artist as popular as Bowie had ever had the nerve to devote a whole side of an album to instrumentals but by now, it should have been a given that Bowie was not an artist to do anything in the conventional way. This track is a collaboration with Brian Eno but has an unmistakable Bowie presence all over it. Eno apparently layered the doomy sounding single notes while Bowie was away from the studio and Bowie was thrilled with the results when he came back; immediately setting to work on the track.

The piece is almost glacial in its slow moving ambience; creating a soundscape of a Europe haunted by the Holocaust. The simple melody that comes in after 16 or so bars of synthesiser drones, is very reminiscent of Kraftwerk: a tune that is linear and precise, with no American blues influence whatsoever. This is music from the ‘european canon’ Bowie sang about on ‘Station to Station’.  The  harmonic textures shift from major into minor (again, a distinctive trademark of Bowie’s composing) until Bowie comes in singing with his wordless vocalese, creating bleak and mournful textures. At one point, his harmonies hit a discordant cluster, not unlike ‘Lux Aeterna’ from the ‘2001: a Space Odyssey’ film soundtrack.

‘Warzsawa’ is not only a great track on an album, it is one of the late 20th Century’s greatest pieces of contemporary classical music. Yes, it really is that good, and composer Philip Glass thought so highly of it, he recorded a version of it with an orchestra.

 

‘Sons of the silent age’ (‘Heroes’, 1977)

1977 was an incredibly fertile period for Bowie as any fan knows and he kept that fire going for at least the next three years. The album ‘Heroes’ of course has the magnificent title track, but let’s praise another track that is not often given the time of day.

‘Sons of the silent age’ comes right at the end of the album, almost like it is an after thought and it’s an example of Bowie bringing that aforementioned ‘essence of Bowie’ to the proceedings again. The song anticipates the gothic vibe of some forthcoming new wave or post punk, with a melody and vocal phrasing that could be The Psychedelic Furs except they didn’t yet exist.

The chorus is an unexpected mood shift; whimsical, and slips into pastiche in its use of the cliché ‘baby I will never let you go’…it is Bowie the arch pop ironist, elevating the form to pastiche or denigrating it, depending on your point of view. ‘Sons of the silent age’ is not a great song, but it is a very good one and shows that Bowie has long since been so confident with the traditional song form, he can turn it on its head when the mood takes him and even mock it.

 

‘Fantastic voyage’ (‘Lodger’ 1979)

This low-key opening track to ‘Lodger’ is a great song and shows that Bowie has lost none of his skills for traditional song craft. The harmonic structure of the song starts off quite conventional but then turns into a minor key shift, casting a cloud of doubt over the songs relaxed and upbeat opening bars.  The tune Bowie sings is one of those that only Bowie crafts; a melody that lures you and then takes you off somewhere else, somewhere you don’t expect. One of the most conventional songs on the album, but again, far from ordinary, ‘Fantastic Voyage’ is an often overlooked gem because it is so unassuming.

Boys Keep Swinging (Single and ‘Lodger’, 1979)

One of my favourite Bowie singles, this song makes this list because it is an example of Bowie throwing caution to the wind and using the Brian Eno ‘Oblique Strategies’ cards to bring about a spontaneous musical moment. The cards were designed to help musicians and artists – anyone really – to take decision making out of their hands and let the messages on the cards lead or prompt the creative idea. Hence, Bowie got the ‘Reverse Roles’ instruction, so had the band playing instruments that were unfamiliar to them.

The song itself is a wry, knowing throwback to the Ziggy to Diamond Dogs era Bowie – a rock song, that of course, coming from the post ‘Heroes’ pen of Bowie, is elliptical and very much in inverted commas. The song follows a pretty routine chord progression on the verses, but then, where a lesser writer would have gone to the normal chord to resolve the cycle, Bowie goes to a minor voicing, bringing in a brief change of mood that offsets the throwaway fun vibe of the song. Yet again, Bowie takes cliché and subverts it.

I also like this song because it is Bowie having fun and showing a deadpan sense of humour in the lyrics.

The chorus is a great hook, with camp hands on hips backing vocals, anticipated by a rock n roll riff that is played firmly tongue in cheek. The play out too is great; kronky out of tune guitar that somehow perfectly suits the chaotic atmosphere of the song.

‘Boys Keep Swinging’ is Bowie at his playful best, an artist quite literally willing to throw the cards in the air and go wherever they land.

 

‘Teenage Wildlife’ (‘Scary Monsters’, 1980)

With an intro that recalls the pounding two chord chug of ‘Heroes’ this at first sounds like Bowie is referencing himself in a too obvious way, but as the song unfolds, within the first minute and a half, you realise that this is a very different song, the melody and harmony shifting almost too fast to keep up, climaxing in a crescendo of a chorus that like the rest of the song, is part of a complex harmonic structure that snakes and weaves all the way through. The song takes another turn about four minutes in and the effect is almost too much to take in, with Bowie delivering one of his ‘histrionic’ vocals. This song is a very under-aired and underrated gem in Bowie’s already formidable musical canon, where by the end of the 70s, his albums amounted to a legacy of influence and pop culture shaking brilliance.

 

‘China Girl’ (‘Let’s Dance’, 1983)

This co-write with Iggy Pop (who wrote the lyrics) is a great example of Bowie’s commercial instinct for a subversive pop song, albeit wrapped up in a rich and luxurious production for the new pop 80s generation.

It has been speculated whether the lyric is about drug addiction (both Bowie and Iggy were trying to stay clean in their time in Berlin – could the song be a reference to ‘China White’, a pure form of heroin?) or whether it is literally about an abusive love affair with an Asian woman. Whatever it is about, the melody and harmonic structure from Bowie is a sumptuous delight; this is a tune that goes places and takes several turns, building to a dramatic climax: ‘I stumble into town/ just like a sacred cow/ visions of swastikas in my head/ and plans for everyone’. I’ve included this song on here, because it has been somewhat marginalised by its obvious commercial appeal, but this is a Bowie pop song that is deceptively subtle and has all the hallmarks of a great Bowie tune. He also puts in a superb and emotive vocal performance on this track. ‘Let’s Dance’ is an album some Bowie fans are a bit sniffy about – ‘it’s too commercial’ being a criticism of it. But this song, the title track and ‘Modern Love’ are songs that show he could hit the mainstream and have massive international hits when the mood took him.

 

‘Absolute Beginners’ (1986)

Critics and fans alike are fond of calling the 80s Bowie’s creative nadir decade. Even Bowie himself disowned a lot of his music from that time. However, that is not to say he didn’t have the occasional flashes of brilliance and this song, written for the film soundtrack of the same name, is a classic piece of Bowie songwriting, the kind he could probably do in his sleep. The song has echoes of the 70s Bowie in its opening ‘bop-bop-ba-ooh’ hook and then goes into a simply gorgeous tune that Burt Bacharach would have been proud to have written. The tune has a lush and sublime romantic mood but Bowie makes it the coolest love song you ever heard. The chorus is great too, a classic Bowie melody, emotive, commanding and almost like a torch ballad in its dramatic impact. The song manages to avoid cliché and as usual for Bowie, takes some neat and surprising turns.

If Bowie is not remembered for much from the 80s, he certainly should be remembered for this song from that decade.

 

‘Amazing’ (Tin Machine, 1989)

Tin Machine was Bowie wanting to be ‘just the singer in a band’ but of course, being Bowie, this plea for anonymity didn’t hang. Critics have mostly panned Bowie’s Tin Machine short phase (2 albums and a live release) as being a wrong footed move in an unwelcome direction. NME scathingly called it Bowie’s ‘pub rock band’.

I didn’t mind the first Tin Machine album at all, in fact I enjoyed it at the time. It was Bowie stretching out, relaxing, letting his hair down a bit and just having a good time, rediscovering what it was like to be in a band again after so long. I think he was in way, trying to clear his head, clear the decks and just bask in a background role so as not to feel any pressure.

Tin Machine has been called his answer to the Seattle grunge scene, but a lot of this is high octane, jammed out rock and not grunge at all. In amongst the scuzzed up rock riffs there is this track, ‘Amazing’ and it’s a good Bowie song that deserves an unearthing. The tune has all the hallmarks of a good Bowie melody and the chords beneath it move into some unexpected places on the chorus, as is a trademark of Bowie songs. It’s all the better for being brief and is a tuneful oasis in an album that is not high on melody.

 

‘Buddha of Suburbia’ (single and soundtrack to TV show, 1993)

As if to show that he could still write an old style Bowie song, with echoes of ‘Hunky Dory’ and even a lift from ‘All the madmen’ on the play out, Bowie released this brilliant song with a wry nod to his past; putting paid to those who said he didn’t or couldn’t write ‘proper songs’ anymore. The melody climbs and spirals, Bowie singing in his affected Anthony Newley- or is it Ray Davies? –voice, to a chorus in which his vocal soars, not unlike his singing on ‘Wild is the wind’.

The recording also has a jangly 12 string guitar throughout, an echo from ‘Ziggy Stardust’. The proliferation of references on this song gives it a vaguely nostalgic air and is one of Bowie’s best ‘pop’ songs since ‘Absolute Beginners’ from the 80s. ‘Buddha of Suburbia’ is Bowie pulling all the stops from his bag of songwriting tricks.

 

‘Hallo Spaceboy’ (1.Outside, 1995)

Bowie’s so called creative recovery is generally agreed to have started in the early 90s when he released the soundtrack to ‘Buddha of Suburbia’ and the album ‘Black tie, white noise’ in 1993.

‘Hallo Spaceboy’ from the ‘1.Outside’ album (that had Bowie re-uniting with Eno) didn’t get anywhere near the attention it deserved when it was first released. It took a Pet Shop Boys collaboration remix to bring it to wider acclaim. It was Bowie back to being sci-fi weird and obliquely referencing his past but determined at the same time to forge ahead to a different future.

‘Hallo Spaceboy’ is a good Bowie tune, with some weird almost atonal changes in it that are not the root of the home key and this makes it jarring on the ear until you get used to it and then you realise it really is quite brilliant. Bowie is back on form on this song and the artistic renaissance of Bowie was now official.

 

‘Thursday’s Child’ (Hours, 1999)

One of Bowie’s most over-looked releases, the ‘Hours’ album has a lot of good to great Bowie moments on it and this song is one of the great ones.

A melancholic minor key tune with Bowie in yearning voice rises to a lovely chorus in which the chords shift into unusual places, reflecting the dark to light tension in the song. Bowie seems already thinking of his mortality and how he will be remembered: ‘Something about me stood apart’ he sings, as if he hasn’t quite figured out his appeal to his audience himself.

 

‘Sunday’ (‘Heathen’, 2002)

Bowie had continued to follow the career of Scott Walker and said many complimentary things about his music and determination to not follow already over-mined musical seams. This track is very Scott Walker, albeit Bowie absorbing an influence and making it part of his own style. ‘Heathen’ is a fresh start of kinds. It is Bowie forcing himself to go places he had never been before. Although he doesn’t manage it for all of the album, this opening track is a great Bowie moment; a melody that shape shifts and creates a sense of Bowie entering his autumn years, a man all too aware of the weight of his past, yet looking for a way to leave it behind. What lies ahead is uncertainty, Bowie is not the brash, assured man he once was and on this track, you get the sense he is looking for the next ladder out of normality. It’s a great track and a song that foreshadows the more reflective and rueful Bowie of his last two albums. As Bowie enters late middle age, he is more than willing to rage against the dying of the light.

 

‘The Loneliest Guy’ (Reality, 2003)

The Scott Walker influence is once again evident here. Bowie sings a melody that emerges from the heavily reverbed fog of the mix and shines as good as any of his melodies. The song is another indication of Bowie wanting to avoid rock and all its incumbent clichés, the mood is jazzy and down tempo. It’s a song that exists in its own time and takes its time too. A new Bowie is emerging in this song and it is a Bowie who is prepared to once again, walk into the wilderness alone if that is what it takes to make his artistic quest valid to himself, never mind his audience.

‘Where are we now?’ (‘The Next Day’, 2013)

An elegiac Bowie singing a beautiful melody that, so late into his career, he showed that he was still a songwriter who could be inspired and inspiring. The tune is wistful and haunting in the best sense of the word. The climb to the chorus is the craft of a master songwriter at work. The chorus is very moving and this is one of Bowie’s most affecting songs, with an emotional resonance that borders on pathos. It is the sound of a man taking stock on his life and of course, his long-standing audience could relate to the question posed by the song title.

 

‘Sue (or a season in crime)’ single, and track on ‘Nothing has changed’ 2014

The album ‘The Next Day’, a surprise release in 2013 after 10 years of no musical activity, was well received, although not the radical album that many of his long standing fans had hoped for. ‘Sue’ (a season in crime) put that slight disappointment right.

The whole song makes for uncomfortable listening and the vocal melody echoes the torment of the character in the song, framed by a noir jazz backing of horns and saxes that drift in menacing atonal clusters. It is a song indebted to the more abstract aspects of Miles Davis, or even the space jazz of Sun Ra. It is a Bowie we have never heard before; a man finally able to break free of his past.

 

‘Blackstar’ (single, 2015)

Before the album of the same title, there was this: the first new track from Bowie of 2015, arriving in the dark month of November. Another elliptical twist from Bowie, following the dissonance of ‘Sue (or a season in crime) ; ‘Blackstar’ is nearly ten minutes of gothic electronica and the message is clear: Bowie is back to his experimental muse, the one that never gave a damn of who he might alienate from his audience.

The song centres around an Arabian harmonic structure, with Bowie singing an almost medieval dirge over the top of it. The harmonic minor key moves into a second section, a more optimistic major key melody rising from the bleak pessimistic feeling of the first part. The effect is like sunshine breaking through brooding clouds before being swallowed again as the doomy motif returns.

It is almost impossible now to listen to this track and not hear death in the music. Bowie knew his time was coming and he seems to have decided that if this was to be his last gesture, he was going to go out with no compromise to his art.

A stunning track and one that will endure as much as his many other classics.

 

‘I can’t give everything away’ (‘Blackstar’, 2016)

We didn’t know it at the time, that Bowie’s final release was a swan song, an album that now has an air of imminent death about it. Bowie’s last album showed that he had lost none of his thrilling edge as an artist capable of surprise and also, could still compose a lovely aching melody such as this song. The way the chorus glides into the vocal refrain and lingers on the word ‘away’ is beautiful and sad; a reminder that the dying Bowie was an artist with even more great music in him.