Author Archive

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.

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Chapter thirty-five

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

david-bowie-ziggy-stardust-pin-ups

 

It is late summer ’72 and I am sitting in a café in Marton, Middlesbrough. I was supposed to meet a friend there from school but he didn’t turn up.

There is a jukebox mounted on the wall, one of those where the cards flip as you leaf through them and you can choose a record.

I put in my 5p and play ‘John I’m only dancing’ and the b-side ‘Hang onto yourself’ over and over. I only have 25p and run out of money quickly, having bought a cup of tea, which I linger over.

The girl behind the counter who serves me is unimpressed. She shrugs and then ignores me when I ask her if she likes the Bowie tracks I am playing. I wither and slouch back into my chair, defeated by her indifference.

I am trying to find someone who likes Bowie as much as I do and so far, am failing miserably.

At school, some of the lads like him but not in the obsessively fixated way I do. I don’t know any girls – not a single one – who like him. I guess council estate kids are just not that interested in the weirder pop stars.

In the macho-backwater of Middlesbrough, it is potentially dangerous to admit to liking someone like David Bowie. I’d already suffered ribbing over liking Marc Bolan – the usual taunts of ‘he’s a bummer’ or then turning it on me ‘are you a puff then?’

Bowie took the variety of possible insults to new heights, except strangely, even the really straight kids quickly gained a respect for him. I have no idea why, maybe they realised he could write a good tune or something as basic as that.

I had on me that day, a copy of the Disc music magazine and on the cover there was a headline ‘Bolan slams Bowie!’ My hero Marc Bolan, now having some serious competition was maybe getting a bit rattled by all the attention his old friend was getting.

‘He’s only had one hit…and hasn’t got the balls’ Bolan dismissively said.

David Bowie had just broken through a few months before, with ‘Starman’. I had borrowed the ‘Ziggy Stardust’ album from the older brother of a friend. He let me keep it for about a month before I finally had to give him it back.

I couldn’t afford records, I was 13 and if I wanted money, had to wait until birthdays or Xmas as in my household, money was tight and I didn’t have parents who could afford to indulge me too much. It was agony – all these records I wanted to possess but couldn’t!

I did manage to buy music papers most weeks. I knew of up and coming releases then and I remember reading that Bowie’s next single would be a new song called ‘The Jean Genie’. I planned my manipulation campaign carefully. I had to have this one. I got some pocket money from two of my uncles and held onto it, waiting for the single to be released. It is now later in the year, November in fact.

‘Jean Genie’ comes out and soon is at number 2 in the charts. I go out one Saturday to buy it. My Mam gave me the extra 15p or so I needed to get it. I walked into the town, as I didn’t even have the bus fare. It was worth the pilgrimage though. I had already heard it of course: a stomping glam riff with Bowie talking/rapping enigmatic lyrics, a haunting heavily reverbed mouth organ on it; Mick Ronson’s barely audible guitar solo (that made you listen even closer to it) and that great chorus. It got the Pan’s People treatment on Top of the Pops too.

Bowie had now well and truly arrived. ‘Ziggy’ was no flash in the pan one-off. The music papers were already writing about Bowie as a major new musical force and his interviews were compelling in which he said things like ‘I’m very cold. A bit of an ice-man’…and ‘I’m like a Xerox machine’…or ‘I’m really an actor and Ziggy is the most plastic rock star of all’.

He didn’t give interviews like yer average rock star, he came on as someone with interests outside of rock music and gave the impression he was using music as some kind of artistic palette – and although he was in the pop charts, Bowie was ‘rock’ because of the obvious depth to his music. Here was a mind at work, an intellect that was smart and hip to all kinds of hitherto unknown things like The Velvet Underground and Iggy and the Stooges and name-dropped writers like William Burroughs and Jean Genet.

My Bowie odyssey had begun.

Bowie’s next big entrance was as ‘Aladdin Sane’ in early 1973, which I remember was provisionally titled ‘Love, a lad in vein’. Or was that Bowie’s publicist teasing the music press?

I went out to buy ‘Aladdin Sane’ the first day it came out. I took the morning off school to go to Fearnley’s in Middlesbrough to get it. I got the money from a paper round I briefly had. It didn’t last, I only did it to get the money for the album then packed it in as getting up in the morning was something I found hard to do.

‘Aladdin Sane’ was Bowie’s full-on glam sleaze album that captured the decadence and pessimism of the new decade, with a bit of sci-fi doo-wop (‘Drive-in Saturday) and the stagey ‘Time’ being the show-stopping centrepieces of the album. The whole thing finished with a beautiful haunting love song called ‘Lady Grinning Soul’ – although, a love song unlike anything you’d heard before, with imagistic lyrics that seemed random and like the best kind of poetry, ambiguous.

Nothing prepared me for what Bowie released next. Actually, it was an old track from his ‘Hunky Dory’ album. Now Bowie’s star was high in the sky, his old albums were being re-packaged and re-promoted for his new legion of fans to discover.

‘Life on Mars’ was, and remains an incredible song and I remember wondering why the hell had it been ignored when it first appeared in 1971? How could such a beautiful tune and epic, melodramatic arrangement not have been praised to high heavens at the time?

Bowie was now in the tabloids with headlines like ‘Wowie Bowie!’ I remember my Dad holding up the centre-spread of the Daily Mirror to embarrass me. It was a feature on Bowie, with a photograph of him onstage with nothing much on but a jock strap. ‘Is this the singer you like?’ my Dad asked me with an eye-brow raised in mock disgust.

‘Yeah, he’s great’. I said. Then, in clichéd teenage rebuke I said ‘but you wouldn’t understand, I know’.

Bowie, more than anyone at the time, provoked outrage from the older generation. A word they had probably never heard before started to circulate: ‘bisexual’. Bowie had said ‘I’m gay and always have been’ in a Melody Maker interview in early 1972 – just pre-fame – and the papers were starting to bring it up as a red rag to dangle before straight macho sensibilities that had mostly been the premise of rock music. Long hair didn’t make you queer, right? Those rock bands like Deep Purple sang about women and having it off and all things manly. Bowie confronted that cock rock mentality and challenged it.

It’s difficult to express the impact Bowie had on the macho rock culture. Sure, Marc Bolan came on all camp and swaggering, but he never made any proclamations of being anything less than straight ‘I’ve checked it out and prefer chicks’ he once said, keeping up with Bowie, probably lying.

Bowie raised so many questions and became an endless source of fascination and inspiration within barely a year or so. He had an enigma that Marc Bolan surely must have envied more than just a little bit.

Bowie was now massive. All his old albums in the top 30. ‘Aladdin Sane’ had glided to number one, having sold 100,000 copies on pre-orders alone – so the press said.

Then, in July of 1973, I bought my weekly copy of the New Musical Express and it had the headline ‘Bowie Quits!’

It was the talk of the morning in break time at school too.

‘It’s a publicity stunt’ someone said. ‘He wants to go out on top and not fade away, which he probably will’ someone else said.

‘I don’t care, Slade are better’ came another voice.

I was confused more than anything. Why? Why quit when you are a rock superstar? Especially after trying for so long to break through in a major way as he had done?

I was 14 by then and taken in by it. Bowie was indeed quitting. What he really meant was, he was clearing the way for the next phase and effectively firing his band.

One more album came out that year.

‘Pinups’ was an album I acquired by swapping my wrangler jacket for it from someone at school who had bought it but ‘didn’t really like it that much’.

I loved ‘Pinups’ and remembered believing that this was his last album as I had read, Bowie was going to go into films and turn his back on music.

It was all press release tease again and it strung a lot of people along, me included.

Bowie was in fact, buying himself some time to work out his next move, soon to be announced.

‘The 1980 Floor Show’ was meant to be a film or maybe a TV play to precede his next album, a re-working of George Orwell’s ‘1984’. This ambitious project ended up as being the album ‘Diamond Dogs’ of course, as apparently, the estate of George Orwell would not give permission to use the author’s work in this way, recast as a kind of play.

‘The 1980 Floor Show’ was indeed filmed and was screened in America, but never saw the light of day in the UK. Bowie abandoned the idea and made a quick volte face on the project.

It’s hard to know what the actual truth is – had Bowie just changed his mind half-way through, stopped at the song ‘1984’ and completed the album as a compromised version of what he originally intended? Never mind the reasons; ‘Diamond Dogs’ was another great album in Bowie’s rapidly growing artistic canon and his last glam hurrah, with the world he described in ‘Five Years’ now in post-armageddon ruins.

A single ‘Rebel Rebel’ was released as an album trailer and what a great single it was: another classic in fact. I bought the album, this time I can’t remember how I got the money, but buy it I did, about a week after it came out. I remember poring over that weird freak show sleeve, the record company had airbrushed out the dog’s/Bowie’s penis on it but I had read some copies had got out without the airbrush treatment. I didn’t have a copy of that, even if it did exist.

I want to stop my Bowie journey right here, although of course it didn’t end there.

Bowie moved on in 1975 to a new image and new music. It was as radical a move as any he made in that decade.

I didn’t go for ‘Young Americans’ at the time as I didn’t like the idea of Bowie ‘going soul’ and (believe it or not) wondered if he was copping out and trying to reach a more ‘straight’ audience – which in fact, in a way, he was.

As soon as I heard ‘Fame’ though, I realised I was wrong: Bowie’s take on soul was innovative, if only on this track alone – a stripped down, skeletal funk riff that was daringly sparse and not necessarily ‘commercial’ either. Featuring John Lennon – such an unlikely pairing at the time – this was the sound of Bowie never going back to ‘Ziggy’ and saying to his fans ‘come with me or stay behind’.

Bowie did this all through the 70s and thinking of it, he did it all his life.

I could write another twenty thousand words on Bowie easily, but would only be re-treading a lot of what others have already said, in the wake of his death.

I finish here because I wanted to relate that giddy and life-changing moment when you first become a fan and the immediate years after that, when the magic has gripped you and still lingers.

Bowie’s magic has stayed with me all my life and it always will.

So long Major Tom, Thin White Duke…whoever you chose to be, a whole generation travelled with you, including me.

Summer of ’72. The freaks were making the charts. Hawkwind at number 2 with ‘Silver Machine’. Alice Cooper number 1 with ‘School’s out’.

Then, on came the real freaks.

They had a singer who looked like a glammed up Lawrence Harvey. A weird guitarist in bug eyed shades. A sax player in lurid green satin turned up collar.

Then there was the real weirdo on synthesizer. Brian Eno. He twiddled knobs like a boffin, had a sci-fi vibe about him and rivaled the singer for adulation.

Taking the contrived, the Oscar Wilde anti-authentic credo to new areas, Roxy Music was a band like no other. You could hear no Beatles or Rolling Stones or Beach Boys in their music. You could hear no heavy blues rock, no folk rock, no Dylan. It was like the sixties never happened for this band. But maybe the 2060s were happening for them.

I of course, loved ‘Virginia Plain’. It had a relentless 12 bar brilliance about it but somehow didn’t sound like a 12 bar. It had strange imagistic lyrics that referenced some kind of unattainable Hollywood glamour, pop art pastiche and camp archness. It was words with permanently upturned supercilious eyebrows.

I didn’t buy it, but I did buy their second single, the fabulously weird ‘Pyjamarama’. Even the title intrigued me. I knew I’d like it before I heard it – first on Johnny Walker’s radio one show one lunchtime when I was home from school. I remember Johnny Walker, obviously at a loss for description said ‘that’s great, so unusual’ or words to that effect.

I didn’t get to hear Roxy Music’s first album. I remember looking at the sleeve and feeling disappointed that ‘Virginia Plain’ wasn’t on it. And one of the songs was over seven minutes long. I didn’t bother with it for the time being.

It was ‘For your pleasure, their second album, ’ I heard first.

I borrowed it from a school friend’s older brother.

I had never heard anything like it. I was stunned by the opening track ‘Do the strand’. At that point, it was the weirdest pop I had ever heard. Was it pop at all? Was it rock? What the hell was it?

Roxy Music seemed to me to have a year zero approach to their music. They were punk before punk because they seemed to sneer at the past, or if they did reference it, they were clearly using it as a pastiche to elevate or desecrate if you prefer – rock n roll, doo wop, to kitsch levels. There was an audacious lack of respect for the past – this was music that was forcing pop into new elliptical shapes.

‘Do the strand’ captures the essence of everything that makes Roxy Music in 1973 so great – loopy, unpredictable chord sequences, brilliant and witty lyrics, Ferry’s un-rock voice – and the chaotic and thrilling interplay of the band, all taking cameos.

Ferry’s songwriting on this album leapt into a new dimension. Sure, his songwriting prowess on the first album must have given Bowie something to think about, but on this outing, Ferry really hit his stride.

‘Beauty Queen’ is a gorgeous melody, set to lyrics that play with clichés and have a knowing sense of the attraction of fading glamour. ‘Your swimming pool eyes…in sea breezes they flutter’…

It’s an album that explores the nether regions of beauty, glamour, decay and depravity. It has a creepy undercurrent to it.

You meet it head on ‘In every dream home a heartache’ which has the infamous reference to a blow up doll and a Ballardian sci-fi sex vibe about it.

The vacuous materialism of the consumer dream was a topic new to me at the time. It was a considerable lyrical advancement on ‘Metal Guru’ that’s for sure.

Roxy Music were weird. In a good way. They pinned it all on great songs and without Ferry’s skewed pop sensibility, would have been a great weird band – but without tunes.

It sounds lazy to use the word ‘weird’. But you must remember, this was a 13 year old mind’s reaction.

I was not prepared for the opening track on side two: ‘The Bogus Man’. To be honest, I thought at first it was rather turgid and droned on and on in a non-poptastic way. It had no chorus. It was repetitive. It went on even longer than I expected. No, I think I’ll take the needle off this track. But then, one night I put on some new headphones and I got it. It was a trance track before trance. Eno mentioned a band called Can in an interview. An influence on him apparently, as Eno had a big part in the writing of this track. I never got to hear Can until several years later and to be honest, I couldn’t hear the connection. Then I heard ‘Tago Mago’ and got it. But I admit this was only last year. So it took me 42 years to join the dots.

The time came to give the album back. I didn’t want to give it back and hoped the big brother of my friend would forget it. But he demanded it with menaces as I recall.

So I had this memory of this great album and my first introduction to music that was arty and strange and showed me that pop didn’t have to conform to the linear trajectory of its past.

I didn’t hear the album again until 1977, when I finally bought my own copy.

It sounded as fresh as when I first heard it. Still had that weird edge to it.

I still get that feeling today.

Sure, familiarity has made me render it normal. The strange is no longer so strange, the exotic now everyday to me. We’ve had jerky quirky new wave, the art punk of Devo – and it all owes a huge debt to Roxy Music.

Roxy went on to become hip yuppie music, culminating in their slick sound scapes of ‘Avalon’ in 1982. Bryan Ferry had long since perfected his tuxedo lounge singer image to the point of parody.

The Roxy Music of 1972-1975 are long since lost to an era when music seemed to willfully engage itself with the art fraternity and became the soundtrack for strange boys and girls that dressed like 1940s film starlets.

‘For your pleasure’ should be pulled out when your son or daughter asks you ‘Daddy…what does original sound like’.

You say, ‘THAT…is what original sounds like’…roxy 73

bowie and spiders

 

Absurd really.

A man pretending to be a bi-sexual space alien, five years before the end of the world, makes it big as a rock star and then at the end of his fame, commits suicide. That is the basic idea of David Bowie’s ‘The rise and fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars’. How did it happen and how did a generation of young dudes fall for the hammy and extremely contrived persona of David Bowie as Ziggy Stardust?

Well, it was the 70s. And like most places in the past it is a  foreign country now. This was a country of economic gloom, post-sixties epicurean comedown, post-Beatles, post optimism. And pop music was being re-born again, this time around, dressed in satin and tat. Marc Bolan had signalled it was tongue in cheek party time, with his sexually infused blues pop and glitter under his eyes. He made Top of the Pops something worth watching again.

So, mid 1972 and the freak party that was Glam rock, was in full swing, with Marc Bolan at the centre of it all…well, that is, until Bowie came along.

Except Bowie’s glam rock party was taking place in an end of the world setting: ‘Ziggy Stardust’ was a pretty gloomy affair, when you think about it…

Bowie’s pessimistic take on culture was one of those zeitgeist defining moments. He would often refer to himself in interviews as ‘an actor’ and ‘ a Xerox machine’. His ironic detachment made his Ziggy Stardust persona a Grand Pop Experiment. It appealed to the teeny boppers who dug T.Rex, but also the ‘heads’ into progressive rock. Hey man, ‘Ziggy’ was a concept album after all…well, kind of. It was also an escapist fantasy ride, a diversion from the IRA bombings and terrorist-threat atmosphere of the early 70s.

But of course, I was blissfully unaware of all this at the time. Like most kids and teenagers, I lived in the sensation of the moment.

I had just turned 13 in June 1972. I was already reading the music press like New Musical Express (not yet, ‘NME’) ‘Sounds’ and ‘Melody Maker’.  I was aware of David Bowie of course, because of ‘Starman’, a recent hit. I was taken by its camp ( I didn’t even know what the word meant then) aura and its sci-fi vibe, being a Star Trek and Dr.Who child of the space age sixties. Bowie tapped into my on-the-brink-of –teenage-psyche, as he did for millions of others. ‘Starman’ was also a great tune with a chorus that soared, not unlike ‘Somewhere over the rainbow’. Plus it had that great boogie chug on the ‘la la la’ play out.

Shit!

I didn’t see the Old Grey Whistle Test appearances, heralding the arrival of David Bowie as Ziggy Stardust, in around early 1972. But I DID see Bowie on a late afternoon pop programme for kids called ‘Lift off with Ayshea Brough’. This was when ‘Starman’ was not yet a hit. I asked my friends if they had seen this ‘weird bloke singing this weird song’ as I broadcast it to my school mates. They hadn’t seen it. I felt like someone who had seen a UFO, and found it hard to relate it back to reality bound terrestrials. If someone had told me he was indeed, Martian, I probably would have believed them.

The next I knew, aided by airplay by the unlikely Bowie champion of Radio One’s Tony Blackburn, Bowie was on Top of the Pops; that famous arm with the calculated limp wrist, adorned with bangles, draped around guitarist Mick Ronson. (thinking of it now, Bowie’s ‘gay persona’ was more Danny La Rue end of the pier camp than anything)

It was the appearance that made your ICI process worker Dad, squirm.

(Interestingly, a couple of years ago, I played this famous TV appearance via youtube to a class of Year 8 kids (ages 12-13) and their response was to laugh at it – they just thought he looked silly and funny)

Everyone was talking about him now. The perception at the time was that he was some kind of novelty – but reading the music press, now gushing about his singular talent- it became apparent that this was man who was about to become huge.

If only Middlesbrough Town Hall had reflected this, when Bowie played there as Ziggy, in June 1972. It was apparently only two thirds full, the Teesside macho rock ‘n’ blues contingent perhaps too embarrassed to attend a concert by a man in a Japanese designed jump-suit and a jock strap, who sang vaguely gay themed pop songs such as ‘Lady Stardust’. (‘People stared at the makeup on his face / laughed at his long black hair/his animal grace’)

I remember seeing the advert for the tour in the music press. Bowie was drawn as a cartoon character and the tag line on the advert read: ‘David Bowie IS Ziggy Stardust’. I had read about the amazing show he put on and desperately wanted to go. I was now buying any publication with Bowie in it, absorbing his interviews and being totally entranced by his image.

I begged my cousin to take me to the gig, but she was more of a Tamla girl and not really interested in strange insectoid men with bright red hair. In her opinion, he was ‘probably a bum chum of that other talentless freak, Marc Bolan’ (well, she was from Middlesbrough, remember and she was strangely accurate in one way)

So alas, I did not attend this gig – my parents would not let me go on my own, possibly fearing I would be abducted by drug addled homosexuals, who would convert me to a life of debauchery and start quoting Oscar Wilde. And so, the Ziggy Stardust stage show passed me by, much to my eternal regret.

I did not even own a copy of ‘Ziggy Stardust’ until the following year. The copy I heard, and tried to hang onto as long as I could, belonged to an older brother of a school friend of mine.

But how I remember playing that album. It was a teenage bedroom moment: my imagination stolen away by the opening track: ‘Five Years’. The soft pitter patter of the drums fading in;  it was the musical equivalent of curtains being raised, when Bowie sang ‘Pushing through the market square…so many mothers sighing’…and then there was that weird echo repeat on the last word of the line, making it sound like he was walking through empty city streets at night. It conjured to mind visions of clockwork orange droogies stalking deserted alleyways. (Another influence on Bowie was this film: it is not hard to see that he based the Ziggy and the Spiders outfits on the droogie characters, except making them into ‘cosmic yobs’ as Bowie called himself at the time)

Ziggy Stardust had arrived, and his tenure for me, was to be a life long duration.

For someone who pored over the lyrics of Marc Bolan, I think that by the third track into ‘Ziggy Stardust’, I was aware that Bowie was a talent operating on a much higher creative plane than Marc Bolan. Sure, Bolan was my first major musical crush, and his weirdo pop still haunts me today, but with Bowie it was something else entirely.

Bowie’s songs took unexpected turns that made the hairs on the back of my neck raise. The play-out of ‘Moonage Daydream’ sounded like a band being transported into warp drive deep space. The bridge on ‘Soul Love’ delighted and surprised, and this was uplifting, life-affirming music too. The ‘wham bam thank you ma’am’ show stopping moment in ‘Suffragette City’ was another ‘wow’ moment on the record. ‘Ziggy Stardust’ was a great album because it had great tunes, great hooks, as well as being the compelling work of a pop art imagination.

The closing track ‘Rock ‘n roll suicide’ was simply amazing to my fresh teenage ears at the time. The whole song is a psycho drama, climaxing in the audience of the mind plea of ‘gimme your hands! You’re not alone!’ Instantly, I wanted to be in that audience. And I was.

I had no idea why I was responding to the emotional resonance of the album, because it was a strange, sexually ambiguous atmosphere that emanated from the grooves of the record – but that is what it was: emotional. Despite Bowie’s ironic detachment from his subject matter, despite his claims in interviews to ‘being a bit of an ice man’ – this was emotional music and it lodged itself into my mind like a kind of bomb. It blew my mind to listen to ‘Ziggy Stardust’ at the time, in other words.

Now, the stench of the familiar and the over-played, has given the album the aura of being a period piece – a kind of ‘Sgt Pepper’ of the Glam rock era in Pop music.

But on the right day, the opening power chords of ‘Moonage Daydream’ still manage to jettison me back to that initial thrill, that euphoric moment of ‘what the hell is this?’ excitement.

The jangly intro to the title track ‘Ziggy Stardust’ still gives me an excited flutter in the stomach. The way the song unveils its vignette of a rock star ‘killed by the kids’ still takes me on a journey, if I let go and remember how I used to feel as a young teenager.

The barely pausing for breath near segue from ‘Ziggy’ to ‘Suffragette City’ is still one of the most exciting pieces of track sequencing on any album. The Who-like power chords are traditional, yet the synths on the track give it a futuristic flavour. Droogie rock ‘n’ roll is what it was. You can imagine Alex and his friends getting reading for a night out of ultra-violence to this track.

Bowie of course, went on to make decade defining music after Ziggy. (In fact he was already doing this with the two albums before ‘Ziggy’ – ‘The man who sold the world’ and ‘Hunky Dory’ – but nobody but a tiny minority of hipsters were listening then)

I am not going to use this piece to go into pretentious piffle about how Glam rock was a kind of social and sexual revolution (it wasn’t – it was mostly a Top of the Pops phenomenon and collision of effete cross-sexual fashion meets post- Warhol rock ‘n’ roll sensibility)

(Now that’s pretentious – I can’t help it, can I?)

I would however, like to simply say that ‘Ziggy Stardust’ still sounds like a tremendous achievement of the pop imagination and that the songs – after all the space alien drag act hype – still stand up today, forty years after its release in 1972.

And let us not forget: discovering Bowie was a world that led to other rock ‘n’ roll outsiders like The Stooges and The Velvet Underground, hitherto, unknown to most. Bowie brought the perceived rock ‘n’ roll losers out into the mainstream and basically initiated some kind of weirdo ball that was to cast its long shadow up to and including Punk: which when you think about it, was as much about the art of self re-invention as Bowie’s ‘Ziggy’ was.

But now I am stating the obvious.

Awwwwwwwww….

Wham bam thank you ma’am!

Happy 40th birthday, Ziggy Stardust.