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‘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.

A Basczax reunion?

Like a lot of enjoyable things in life, it was not planned.

In January 2010 I wrote a song called ‘Disco Apocalypse’ – it was an affectionate and droll retro-recall of the Post Punk and early New Romantic era – when you would go to certain nightclubs and come across garage mechanics in make-up and bank clerks in what looked like their Mum’s blouses and table cloths draped over their shoulder. With that song, it was a feeling of coming full circle: looking back on those halcyon post punk days of my young band days. For some strange reason I also went back to listening to bands like Magazine, PIL and Wire. I hadn’t heard them for years. They sounded every bit as great as they did back then.

I was at the time, in touch with Richard Sanderson (a friend from those post punk days, himself in bands: Drop and Halcyon Days, later The Euphoria Case) through facebook, sending some improvised vocal vamps for him to mess around with. We did a couple of things – ‘Your shoes’ – which he put a really cool mash of Kraftwerk and Dr.Feelgood to. And one called ‘Dancing with the martians’ – with suitable Martian disco backing. It was just for fun of course, no agenda.

One of my missives to Richard came under the eyes of a certain John Hodgson – ex-keyboard player from Basczax way back from the late 70s. He asked if we could do some collaboration, so I sent him my basic demo of ‘Disco Apocalypse’. He put some nifty keyboards on it and I was impressed with what he did. I then mentioned that I had some ‘lost songs’ from the late Basczax days that I was thinking of recording for fun. One of them was ‘Sexy Robot’ – a song originally inspired by the German electo outfit DAF – except of course, when it went through my T.Rex and glam-art filter, it came out as something else entirely. John suggested a Basczax reunion – he was already in touch with bass player and founder member Mick Todd and also, suggested getting in touch with Jeff Fogarty – ex-sax player, now a keyboard and guitar player. We were now spread all over the globe: John and Mick in the North East of Britain, Jeff in Australia and me at the time in Manila, the Philippines.

I think it happened in a day. Suddenly, everyone was back on board, apart from drummer Alan Cornforth – sorry, Alan, I was using a drum machine on the demos and didn’t see how a drummer could be recorded over the internet.

‘Sexy Robot’ – a drum machine beat, an acoustic and my voice demo, was sent to the other members. Again, it came out great: this was better than I ever could have hoped. And it felt natural and easy – although we later fretted over a lot of things as musicians always do.

From my point of view, we were maybe recording an EP or mini-album – four or five songs, no more. Three ‘lost songs’ and one, a new version of a Basczax oldie ‘Hollywood Strut’. I also happened to have an idea for doing another old song ‘Neon Vampires’ in a strident acoustic style. To be added to these was the new song ‘Disco Apocalypse’. Oops, that makes six already.

What was a trickle soon became a flood.

I found myself subconsciously tuning into my formative influences from those post punk days of 1978-1981. New songs – and even more remembered ‘lost songs’ started to form in my mind.

I was writing songs almost all the time – about two to three a week average at one point.

This new Basczax reunion was turning into something else. It seemed natural or rather, inevitable to make an album. And that is just what we did.

I had a bit of a panic about using the old band name. Couldn’t we call ourselves something else?

John dug his heels in and insisted if we were four-fifths Basczax, we might as well call ourselves that. I fretted over the spelling of the band name. Couldn’t we change it to something easier to pronounce and google? Something like ‘Bassax’, as that is what we were phonetically called?

But then I realised I was getting far too uppity about this. A Basczax reunion is what this was: so that is what we stayed.

‘Hollywood Strut’ was one song we recorded early on in the making of the album. I had always wanted to record a version with a tempo that allowed the tune to breathe, as I always felt the old Basczax version was played way too fast – but it was post-punk days, then, after all.

Similarly with ‘Neon Vampires’ –I was strumming around with it and slowed it right down, making a bit of a gothic melodrama out of it. I wrote a new chorus for it as I always felt the old chorus was not very good. Some new lyrics were written too – mostly because I could not remember all of the old ones. This was the album’s first ‘production number’. John surprised me by putting strings and effects on it and some very ‘european’ sounding piano. It took it to a completely different musical place to the old version and it works well, I feel.

As the album progressed, there were many highlights. It really did feel like it got better and better as we went along.

The band did a great job on an old song of mine called ‘Velvet and She’. It was far better than the original, which was a new wave pop song back then. Now it had a cool tempo and a Bowie cum Velvets feel to it. It also had a much better chorus as the old one was only really two thirds written and needed that elusive ‘something else’.

Another highlight was the recording of a new song called ‘Automania’. The original lyric for this dates back to the early 80s, but I never got around to making music for it. A simple three chord strum into the drum machine and the tune came straight to me. It felt like it wrote itself; one of those songs that fall into your lap from nowhere.

‘Darkstar 17’ was another ‘instant song’ that happened when I was jamming along to the drum machine. I was originally thinking of using an old riff from a song called ‘Influence Invasion’ – but it turned into something else. I sang the words ‘Darkstar 17…goddess in a limousine’…having no idea what the song was going to be about. Sometimes songs start like this : a line that sparks an idea and is then developed from thereon.

‘In a room’ (originally called ‘someone turn the lights on’) was another new song that came to me quickly.

It was one of my ‘follow the mood of the music’ songs – the riff sounded dramatic and elliptical in some way and the lyrics ended up being loosely based on that horrific abuse case where a girl was kept in a room for years and sexually abused. I didn’t even know what I was going to sing about when I followed the mood of the music – the words just came out and I thought ‘ah, so that’s what it’s about’…

About half way through the recordings, I had the idea of making instrumentals from each member – each one, kind of reflecting our musical personalities in some way. John returned to his prog-rock roots for his contribution: Track XXX, which was meant to be a kind of battle of the bands between Captain Beefheart, The Carpenters and a fictitious punk band. Yes, it was pretty barmy idea, but listen to it and it makes sense.

Jeff contributed a beautiful instrumental piece called ‘The Calm’ – one of my favourite tracks on the album, incidentally.

Mick came up with an update of an old Basczax riff with ‘Mekanik 2010’ – a mash of samples, beats and sound effects.

Me?

I came up with a twangy guitar instrumental for an imaginary spy thriller: ‘Spies in the wardrobe’.

Jeff contributed another instrumental piece called ‘Russian Winter’. By coincidence, it perfectly fit a lyric I had called ‘Siberian Eyes’. This was one of those ‘eyes down, straight ahead’ tracks. Surprisingly, it was the one track that took the longest to nail. I later wrote a separate instrumental opening to it we edited it onto the song. Getting the mix right proved to be tricky and this song probably had more remixes than most – but I think we got it in the end. This was the last song we worked on for the album.

The last song written – but not really intended for the album – was ‘That Dress’. Again, a drum beat and a riff started it and I started to sing the hook line into the mic at the same time. The song was, in my head, a kind of Phil Spector throwback. It also felt off the cuff and throwaway and not at all right for the Basczax album. But everyone loved it when I sent a basic demo, so the song went on the album. John followed my brief of trying to get that ‘epic Spector’ feel to it. The band all did a great job on the song, and their enthusiasm for the song can be heard – at least to my ears, anyway.

It seemed a great fitting ending to the album – a trashy, feelgood pop song.

But it wasn’t the last track.

I had the idea of recording a second version of ‘Velvet and She’ – more in an actual Velvet Underground feel – slowed right down and with a different ‘downtempo’ mood.

We had actually recorded it earlier in the sessions when we were trying arrangements out. I couldn’t make mind up about this song and then thought: why not have two versions?

So that is what we did, and John sang it –his laconic voice suiting it perfectly. He also added some staccato strings that surprised me when I heard them. In a good way.

When we came to sequencing the tracks, it became obvious that ‘Sexy Robot’ should start the album, and that ‘Velvet and She (slow version)’ should end it as a kind of winding down.

The album took six months to make – mostly because of time differences and people’s busy working and personal lives.

If we had had none of these distractions, it probably would have taken much less time.

One thing I found that surprised me with the reunion and the album, is that we still had a chemistry between us: we instinctively seemed to know what songs needed and how to execute them. If I said ‘it needs to sound like a kind of out of control juggernaut in Europe, with Iggy Pop driving’ they knew exactly what I meant.

I feel good about the album –proud even – and I think it is a good representation of where we came from musically and where we are at today.

Yes, it is partly a retro-experience as the music is intrinsically linked to a different era, but I feel that we managed to ‘update’ ourselves in a way that felt natural and with good instinct.

It is also a real ‘DIY’ album, recorded initially on a low budget field recorder and then sent to multi-tracking facilities – all done over the internet.

The spirit of ’79, filtered through thirty years, arriving in a time capsule in 2010.

Rip up the flag and dance.

Again.

Electric Warrior – 40 years on…

Posted: September 14, 2011 in 70s, marcbolan, pop, rock

I remember the first time I dropped the needle onto side one of ‘Electric Warrior’…because it changed my life, or at least, the world around me. It was an internal dialogue, like entering a church. Yes, it sounds corny, but it was almost like I imagine getting religion to feel.

It was also simultaneously external: I could make sense of the world through the music of Marc Bolan, I could meet other like-minded people: I felt alone, but not lonely. I had the vague sense of belonging to a sect, a cult even. I imagined signs and strange incantations. I became a fan in other words.

My head became a maelstrom of sex, identity and music, battling it out on some cosmic plane between the good the bad, the cool and the uncool.  I entered the mind of Marc Bolan: I was connected. My universe – the universe of me, started to form. I was 12, and Marc Bolan caught me at the right time. If I had been three years older, maybe the impact would not have been the same. I had no preconceptions of what was cool, or even what good music was – but hearing T.Rex earlier in the year with ‘Hot Love’ on the radio, I was transported to the wonderful fantasy world of near-adolescence. I was transformed by the experience. I started to think differently, to dress differently. The old ‘child’ me was dead, or rather, buried for now, as my butterfly persona started gradually to emerge and awkwardly form.

Yes, it was that intense.

‘Electric Warrior’ was a major landmark in my emotional development, to say the least. It was the first album to really captivate and steal me away.

Even the cover fascinated me. Black and gold, with an outline image of Marc Bolan hunched over his guitar; the ‘Vamp’ amplifier behind him: it seemed cool and enigmatic at the same time. The inner sleeve had drawings of Marc Bolan and Mickey Finn, cosmic images weaved into both faces. The label on one side had the ‘Fly records’ logo; the other side a colour picture of Marc and Mickey: two pansexual men challenging traditional ideas of how men should look. A pre-Raphaelite iconography exuded from them.  This was an album as a whole auditory and visual package. The image was the music and the music was the image.

So the needle hit the grooves of the slightly crackling vinyl and the rock ‘n’ roll tablets from the mount were handed down to me. I can still smell the hot valves of the Dansette record player.

Track one, ‘Mambo Sun’, was Marc directly addressing me and his new found audience:

‘My life’s a shadowless horse…if I can’t get across…to you’…the invocation hypnotic – he really was seducing us all, and we were for some reason ready and willing to be seduced.

That was the effect: a sonic seduction as much as anything. T.Rex records were produced in such a way that the sound drew you in, made you want to swim in the sound waves, to live inside those grooves. I studied every nuance of Marc’s voice, I pored over every sound that I could hear hidden in the mix, or imagined in the mix. The off-mic talk back, the casual ad libs, the snakey weavings of the guitar: I spent many hours listening very intently.

In a dream-like state, I await track two…

‘Cosmic Dancer’ is the first Marc Bolan song and track I would call superb. It is a whimsical and haunting song, built around a cyclical chord sequence, mirroring the song’s theme of reincarnation. This is Marc playing up the ‘mystic’ – still perhaps conscious of his old hippy audience. The song has a rather oblique spiritual atmosphere. Marc was not yet the hardened rocker of ‘20th Century Boy’, he was not yet on the conveyor belt of hit after hit: it was all new and fresh to him. He was exploring his musical options and open to new ideas, new avenues.

This is the track where the production of the album really shines for the first time.

Tony Visconti was Marc’s producer. He was also crucial to his success; a musical partner who gave Marc’s songs form and shape from Marc’s vision.  I cannot stress enough the importance of Tony Visconti. He did after all, help Marc form T.Rex: bassist Steve Currie and drummer Bill Legend were Tony’s strong suggestions. Conga player Mickey Finn was also Visconti approved: Tony knew a great visual foil when he saw it too; Marc and Mickey made a very photogenic pop subject matter – until it soon became ‘all about Marc’…

T.Rex as a whole band is exemplary throughout the whole album. On ‘Cosmic Dancer’ the performance is great; all locked in to the trance like tempo of the song; great drum fills from Bill Legend and excellent sympathetic bass from Steve Currie. Micky Finn too, weaves some great congas throughout: he was just as essential to the sound of T.Rex as anyone else in the band. Pity he got such short thrift from the press, who saw him as surplus to requirements mostly. This persists today too. Let’s set the record straight and repeat so it sinks in: Mickey Finn was part of the T.Rex sound too. Got that?

On ‘Cosmic Dancer’, the string arrangement by Visconti is excellent; it takes surprising turns and introduces new counter- melodies to Marc’s vocal melody. It spirals and snakes around the tune; a perfect piece of Beatle-esque strings, but uniquely Visconti. His strings elevate the song to a classical plane. It is for me, the best example of the Bolan and Visconti partnership: and at this point, it was a partnership, not a dictatorship.

It was this track, ‘Cosmic Dancer’ that really reached me at the time. I had not expected such a soft, mesmerising song from Marc Bolan. I had ‘Hot Love’ and ‘Get it on’ in my mind, but this acoustic side was new to me. Two tracks in, and ‘Electric Warrior’ already cast a powerful spell over this listener.

‘Jeepster’.

Had to put a full stop there because what can you say about this track that has not already been said? It is a classic toe-tapping rock ‘n’bop song, a party on record, a sexual come on loaded with innuendo; a great, catchy tune. It is Marc Bolan knocking out cool couplets – they come in rapid fire: ‘Your motivation/is so sweet/your vibrations are burning up my feet’…’you slide so good/with bones so fair/you’ve got the universe reclining on your hair’…and the killer line ‘just like a car/you’re pleasing to behold/ I call you jaguar if I may be so bold’…

The car as sexual metaphor was a lyrical theme that Marc returned to a few more times. He liked his cars, even though he couldn’t drive. He also liked his rock n roll and blues. ‘Jeepster’ is a great example of Marc Bolan’s pop and rock nous:  the riff is lifted, sure, you’ve heard that rock n roll riff before, but somehow he makes it all his own. Talent borrows, genius steals: something that applies very much to Marc Bolan at his best. He was a rock magpie, a library of musical references, a doo wop aficionado, a lover of 60s pop and also The Beatles, Bob Dylan and the Beach Boys. Hell, ‘Hot Love’ lifts the riff from ‘California Girls’ pretty much wholesale.

Speaking of Doo Wop – a mostly vocal harmony, ‘barbershop’ form of music popular in the fifties and early sixties – track number four: ‘Monolith’, reinvents Doo Wop as a kind of cosmic meditation on the meaning of meaningless things. The lyric is one of those Marc pranks – making nonsense sound good. What is ‘the throne of time?’… ‘lost like a lion in the canyons of smoke’ is more Bonzos surrealism than anything else. Marc Bolan was great at sounding like he meant every word of it. And you believed it. You sang along. You talked to friends about the meaning of the words. And all the while, Marc Bolan was probably giggling to himself: his lyrical schism was mostly word play and playful nonsense; with a bit of mysticism and eroticism thrown in. He blended words for the way they sounded; it was all part of the overall sound: a sonorous mash of vowel collisions and pop culture references. And he started to use the word ‘baby’ a lot and whoop and scream on his records like he was having the time of his life. Because he was.

So ‘Monolith’ – why the title? – who knows? – it fuses mystical bollocks to ‘Duke of Earl’. And it works a treat. Haunting backing vocals from Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan – both ex-Turtles – give the track a weird aura.  And Marc gets to show off some of his weird blues guitar riffing, with his foot on the Hendrix wah-wah pedal.

The last track on side one ‘Lean Woman Blues’ sounds like any blues song you ever heard really. It comes across as a fun track, a goof off from serious artistic duties. It is also immensely enjoyable and fits in great with the vibe of the album. T.Rex music was also plain fun, let’s remember. ‘I’m like a child in the sand on the beach of the land…of you’…Marc gets to explore the infinitesimal. Done with tongue very much in cheek. Let us not forget that Marc had a wicked sense of humour too and was referencing riffs for the hipsters in his audience. He was enjoying himself on these sessions and you can hear the exuberance of the whole band on the album. It is a unit in tune with each other. It is T.Rex as a band with Marc Bolan as the singer, songwriter, guitarist and front man. Not yet ‘the Marc Bolan show’…

Speaking of referencing riffs, the opening track of side two, ‘Get it on’, references Lightning Hopkins, via Chuck Berry and the vocal is almost Peggy Lee in its ‘come hither’ intonations. It has a similar sexy atmosphere as ‘Fever’ – yes, it lifts Chuck Berry of course, as often has been said; Marc’s own ‘Little Queenie’ – but it is also drenched in the horny coo of female singers like the aforementioned Peggy. There was a feminine as well as masculine power in Marc’s peacock blues poetry strutting: it is the indefinable essence of his vocal charisma that is so hard to really pin down. It creates a kind of enigma: these are sexy words, but with strange mythology referencing lines ‘You’re dirty and sweet/you’ve got the teeth of a hydra upon you’….and ‘a cloak full of eagles’…are not your regular pop song words. This was another quality that gave T.Rex records a unique aura: the words were often a potent blend of the strange and the sexy. But somehow, not sexist, or macho blues braggadocio…that came later with ‘Groover’ and the feeling that Marc was becoming all rock but no roll. This is the essential difference between the Marc Bolan of ‘Electric Warrior’ and later albums like say, ‘Tanx’. ‘Electric Warrior’ had some great grooves going on: latter T.Rex did not, they became rather hard edged, concrete rather than liquid, clompy rather than slinky. ‘Electric Warrior’ was simply an album that was almost impossible to better: it has all the great and quintessential elements that make Marc Bolan so great: he out classed and out gassed himself on ‘Warrior’.

‘Planet Queen’ is another strange seduction song. Quasi mystical verses give way to obvious sexual intent:  ‘flying saucer take me away/ give me your daughter’…is almost a grooming line: Marc’s young female (and male) audience would have gladly been stolen away by Marc Bolan. The song takes the basic blues template of ‘Get it on’ but recasts it as a funky kind of shuffle. In the key of E, like a lot of Marc’s songs, it threatens to sound too samey, but gets away with it as the chorus takes a different turn. It also has more great backing vocals on it – Kaylan and Volman echo and response Marc’s vocal line perfectly, giving the song a textural depth in the production.

‘Girl’ is another Marc ballad: a philosophical troubadour song, a kind of vignette to off-set the boogie tracks. It starts, like ‘Cosmic Dancer’, with a spiritual atmosphere: ‘O God, high on your fields above Earth…come and be real for us’. The lyrics then move through different scenarios: ‘the boy – sunk like a boat’….the ‘electric witch’ and the subject matter of the song, the un-named ‘girl’ of the title. The melody is also a similar shape to ‘Cosmic Dancer’ – circular and looping back onto itself – something of a trademark of Marc’s songwriting. The track is beautifully scored – again, like ‘Cosmic Dancer’ – by Tony Visconti, with some unusual Flugel horn, giving the song a chamber pop feel.

‘The Motivator’ is another of the album’s fun, feel-good tracks.  It is like ‘Get it On’ and ‘Planet Queen’, another blues pop song in the key of E, this time played choppy and to maximum repetition. Still, the song has a playful, seductive (that word again) atmosphere to it, before ‘Electric Warrior’ unleashes its final two killer tracks: ‘Life’s a gas’ and ‘Rip off’.

‘Life’s a gas’ is arguably Marc’s most popular acoustic love song, although being Marc Bolan, the words were anything but straight forward. They replace love song lyrical clichés with a series of couplets, short but memorable all the same: ‘I could have loved you girl like a planet/ I could have chained your heart to a star’…is almost Shakespeare in its use of cosmic imagery, but let us not get pretentious: it was a catchy tune with some unusual words that sounded romantic. It also has an air of self-pity about it: ‘But it really doesn’t matter at all/ Life’s a gas’…was probably an irony lost on Marc’s new young audience. I certainly had no idea what he meant by ‘Life’s a gas’…a friend unhelpfully told me he didn’t mean that life was good at all…which I admit, went over my head at the time.

‘Life’s a gas’ could have been released as a single. It turned up in fact as the b-side to ‘Jeepster’, and doubtless many casual single buyers may have been surprised by this track – something very different, and more conventionally ‘songwriterly’ from Marc Bolan. Cat Stevens fans might have liked it.

The final track on ‘Electric Warrior’ is the most bizarre recording by T.Rex. It is a thrash with mostly shouted lyrics: spinning around a loony tune chord sequence that is a strange, almost gothic sounding heavy metal progression. It is almost a proto-rock ‘n’ rap track, with the drums and congas playing a break beat loop over which Bolan riffs in block bar chords. It ends with a kind of musical nervous breakdown, Ian Macdonald riffing some hard bop sax over the feedback fade out, that ends with sustained strings that quickly disappear after the track finishes. ‘Rip off’ is a total surprise, and gives ‘Electric Warrior’ a kind of enigmatic yet manic finish: rock n roll madness, Marc vamping and ad-libbing his way into a frenzy of nonsense: it was the wordless spirit of ‘awopbopaloombop’ revisited: a cool ending to a cool album.

So, ‘Electric Warrior’ was an album that did not disappoint: it hit all the right ‘teenage’ buttons and was the start of Marc Bolan’s three and a half year reign as a hit maker. It crossed over from Marc’s old audience and initiated a new pop audience, average age 13. Me included.

But is ‘Electric Warrior’ an album as great as any great album? I am talking ‘Revolver’… ‘Ziggy Stardust’…any acknowledged and critically sanctioned ‘classic’?

I say yes it is.

‘Electric Warrior’ has endured over the passage of time. It is not nostalgic ears that say this: the album still sounds fresh, funky and vital today as it did then. Other T.Rex records do not: ‘The Slider’ for example, although a strong album, is too rooted in the glam rock summer of its release in July 1972. ‘Electric Warrior’ in comparison, is an album that seems timeless. It was an early ‘birth of glam’ with the production values: handclaps on the back beats for example on some tracks. But, apart from the glitter on his cheeks and the flamboyant dress sense, no one had yet uttered the term: ‘glam rock’. That came a little bit later.

‘Electric Warrior’  captures an important time in British pop: the moment when a mass teeny pop audience emerged after the sixties had sunk into a kind of serious sulk with itself, and  Marc Bolan made pop music  invigorating, catchy and cool again. But this was a different kind of pop: it was informed by psychedelia as well as sixties pop and blues. It was retro as well as forward looking and not everyone understood that at the time. ‘Electric Warrior’, was a synthesis of the Warholian pop art/trash aesthetic, but also of ‘progressive’ musical ambition. Although Marc Bolan’s songs are essentially blues in form, 12 bar, and elsewhere folk like ballads, they are arranged with a musicality (Tony Visconti mostly) that gives the album a sheen of sophistication, contrasting and complimenting the raw and edgy rough take quality of T.Rex. The album has a spontaneity about it, inhabiting a place in time that is somehow then but also now.

The album is Tony Visconti’s, as well as Marc Bolan’s triumph.

On ‘Electric Warrior’ you are hearing a ‘live performance’ in the studio, but also a pop production par excellence: the perfect marriage of Marc Bolan’s songs and ideas, realised and in sympathy, by Tony Visconti.

There is also magic in the grooves, something unique and unrepeatable happened during the recording of the album: I won’t even try to define it.

It not only reached a new young pop generation, it also inspired a whole host of musicians, who were very encouraged by the almost punk-like simplicity of Marc Bolan’s songs. This album was made in an era of musical noodling and increasing self-indulgent virtuosity.

It was a big two fingers up at so called progressive rock, at authentic rock and blues bands.

Some musicians at the time, doubtless, were scornful of its simplicity.

But, just like the blues, which are easy to learn and play but difficult to play really good and get the feel, ‘Electric Warrior’ reminds us that simplicity that is engaging and magical is very difficult to achieve.

The illusion is: Marc Bolan, T.Rex band members and Tony Visconti, make it sound so effortless and easy: herein lies the greatness and lasting appeal of ‘Electric Warrior’.

So this is it: I officially declare and confirm ‘Electric Warrior’ to be a classic and important album in the canon of great British pop and rock.

It was all over then:  official.

Sometime in April of 1988, the Flaming Mussolinis lost their record deal. We knew it was coming, but probably hoped that they might go for one more single. I spoke to our A@R man and he told me he was sorry how things had worked out, but there was nothing he could do about it: the decision had come from the board room and was a financial one. They didn’t see us as a viable proposition any more.

We continued to demo regardless, around our old friend Don Cox’s house on Oxford Road, Middlesbrough. We had now given up our own rehearsal room as we simply could not afford to pay for it. We still had lots of songs, lots of ideas; the well was far from dry. The Flaming Mussolinis third album would have been a strong album, I am sure. But it was not to be.

Don Cox was someone who let us demo songs around his house; we had all known him going back to the early 80s. He was a generous and accommodating man and we appreciated his ‘no charge’ offer to demo at his home.  He was also a gifted photographer and why we never used his services as a photographer, I don’t know!

He also had an endless supply of ginger nut biscuits I seem to recall!

In the meantime we wondered if we should just wipe the slate clean, change our band name and come up with a new plan. We were worried that the band name had left too much bad feeling in some music business corners as we found out our management had left a trail of unpaid bills in our name. A change of name would give us a fresh start too.

Our agent Dan Silver said no: he could get us gigs if we were the Flaming Mussolinis, but not if we were a new name band, as nobody would know us.

In time honoured career suicide tradition, we didn’t listen to him. We decided to go for a name change. As usual, settling on a name was difficult but in the end we opted for ‘Zoom’ as it was short and dynamic. (There was also an acid house club called ‘Shoom’ that may have been on our minds – maybe)

Music was changing again. Acid house was starting to gain prominence and it was music that to be honest, I could not relate to, although I got used to it. I recall going to a nightclub and seeing people dancing like puppets to bleepy acid house music, arms waving in the air. I also remember hearing of a band called Happy Mondays at the time. A good name, I remember thinking. When I got to hear them, I thought they were rubbish though. Sean Ryder could not sing at all and they all looked like a bunch of car thieves from a rough housing estate. (Which in fact, they probably were!) But I was totally missing the point and later realised how good they were for at least a couple of years. Manchester was becoming the new musical lightening rod, the so called ‘Madchester’ scene was already coming to the fore and the rest of the country caught on to it around late 1989 – 1990.

Rave and cries of aciiiiiiid! seemed to be everywhere within six months. Once again, I felt outmoded and outdated.

I wondered if guitar bands were dead?

No.

The Melody Maker one week ran an article on the Pixies and the ‘new noise bands’ that were coming up. I decided that being a guitar band was not a bad thing after all. I heard the Pixies and to be honest, at first, they went over my head, but I eventually got it: elliptical guitar rock that sounded like it didn’t give a shit about making the radio. A good thing, I decided.

Another band catching my ear was the Sugarcubes. They had a unique sound and of course, a great singer in Bjork. I got to see them the following year at Newcastle Riverside and they were fantastic live.

The ‘new alternative’ sounds were starting to catch my ear, but I was also getting more retro in my listening habits: Led Zeppelin, Cream, Sly and the Family Stone, late sixties rock generally.

There was something in the air, something was coming: you could feel it.

Meanwhile, Clune left the band. It was a big blow to us but he was living a totally different and separate life in London. I didn’t bother to try and persuade him to stay, there was no point. The next time I saw Clune he had turned into a Manchester ‘rave’ clone, with forward combed hair like a choir boy. He went on to get involved with ex-Killing joke bass player Youth, calling themselves ‘The Mouth’ and made an acid house 12 inch that I cannot remember the name of. Clune later – ten years later, that is, went on to find success as the drummer with David Gray. He now doesn’t even drum – he left David Gray in 2007 and has done nothing since, living off his substantial royalties from his co-write of the single ‘Babylon’.

A tragic waste of talent…he should be drumming.

Gradually, over the next few months, The Flaming Mussolinis all started to fall apart, leaving only me and Kit.

Doug went to Australia and Jeff got a job as a photographer on a cruise ship, eventually ending up in Australia too.

In summer 1988, we recruited drummer Paul Lynagh, then of local band signed to Fontana, the Shy Reptiles. Paul was no longer with them. He was thrown out of the band for having the sense to put his share of the record company deal into a house. The rest of the band didn’t find that very rock n roll, and sacked him.

I moved over to bass and vocals, and Kit of course, on guitar. We decided to stay as a trio – something new for us.

It was good because it forced us to strip back the music and use space and tempo as a virtue.

Our set mostly comprised of songs that the Flaming Mussolinis would have done for a third album, had we done one: ‘Ghost Train’, ‘Blank cheque Radio’, ‘Ninety Nine Per cent’, ‘Sweet Deceiver’ ‘Blue Horizon’ and a cheeky little song called ‘Kill the star!’.

We were back to being a local band, trying to service debts from our record deal, usually failing to meet them. A big ‘ulp’ was getting a tax bill for twenty four thousand pounds. I had to go to an interview with a tax inspector and an accountant and try to persuade them we didn’t owe it, having made an appeal against it. After a few nail-biting months, it was decided that, yes, we did not owe it.

In the meantime, I was selling some of my equipment just to get by

Zoom were a good band – not original, but we had a good sense of rock classicism and went down really well everywhere we played. We once did a gig in London and a band turned up with their own supporters. It turned out to be the Stone Roses, soon to explode onto the scene in about six months from then.

I later saw them play at Middlesbrough Town Hall Crypt in 1989. It was obvious something big was happening around them. I liked them, even though I was a little resistant at first, and soon almost every band in the land had a guitarist with a wah wah pedal and a singer who flopped around, his fringe in his eyes, pretending to be on drugs.

Meanwhile, Zoom – as we were now- got a new manager and a publishing deal too, which allowed us to wage ourselves for about a year, while we chased another deal. Our manager was a laid back kind of guy called Jeff Gilbert. He had once worked at Arista and had ‘discovered’ Lisa Stansfield who had that hit: ‘All around the world’. He liked us and thought he could get us a record deal, although I do recall his annoyingly uninspiring catch phrase was ‘in the music business there is no such thing as a guarantee’.

Still, it was great to have someone with faith in us.

This was the problem for us: always chasing a record deal. We should have just thought ‘sod record companies’ and gone totally independent. But we had tasted the sweet apple of being so close to the big time and we wanted to get back to it, I think is the honest answer to that.

We did see sense the following year when we released our own 12 inch single:  ‘Ghost Train’ backed with ‘Blank cheque Radio’. We gamely called our record label Tank Top Records.

We were now rehearsing a lot in friend Graham Robinson’s studio in Darlington and we recorded a lot of good songs there, mostly live.

We looked different now too. I had long hair, purple dyed jeans and baseball boots. It was, I suppose, an oblique nod to the American alternative scene, soon to explode in the form of grunge and Nirvana.

Zoom of course, were not a pre-grunge band, but we had more extreme elements in our music for sure. We were now rocking out and not caring what people thought. It seemed timely and real.

Speaking of grunge, I remember the first time I heard ‘Smells like Teen Spirit’. It was in Darlington, late summer, 1991. We were packing away after a gig and the DJ put it on. It made me stop in my tracks and listen. It was kind of heavy metal, but somehow punk too. It had an incredible intensity about it. I know it is now one of those ‘oh no, not that again’ records but at the time it was a revelation. I also immediately recognised that it was a bit of a Pixies rip off. Kurt Cobain later admitted that the ‘quiet-loud’ dynamic of a lot of Nirvana’s music was taken from the Pixies.

Zoom did not last very long.

We expanded the line up in early 1990, recruited ex-Jank Mamba guitarist Martyn Alderdice on bass, me moving back over to guitar.

We opted for another name change and became Disraeli Gears. No, we weren’t a Cream tribute band, we just liked the sound of it. I always call us ‘The Gears’ as I got to feel a bit cringed out about the ‘Disraeli’ bit. I should have listened to friend and DJ Alan Rhodes who said ‘that’s a daft name…like calling yourself ‘Sgt Pepper’!’ When I asked him for a suggestion the best he could come up with was ‘Anal Spasm’. Thanks, but I don’t think we’ll go with that!

Alan Rhodes proved to be good connection to new and interesting music. He was always pushing stuff my way: Sebadoh, Pavement, Fugazi and Adrian Sherwood Sound System. I didn’t like listening to these bands though because they reminded me of how musically conservative Zoom was compared to them – but I was not about to pretend to be a 22 year slacker in a noise band from Seattle.

Disraeli Gears again, always went down really well with audiences.

In this band, I wrote what I consider to be one of my best songs: ‘Nothing’s going to get me down’. By now, I was really retro in my listening habits: Dylan, mainly ‘Blonde on Blonde’, Beach Boys: ‘Pet Sounds’ and the Small Faces and the Kinks. I was reaching to the past to try and find fresh inspiration. I didn’t realise at the time that what I was doing was ‘Brit Pop’ before it came about with Blur and Oasis, a couple of years later.

We released a 12 inch EP, this time on our own label Ram Raid Records, which we stole the ‘Rolls Royce’ logo for. But it all felt too little, too late and we just got stuck playing the same old places to the same old faces.  We had played a showcase gig in London for some record labels but they passed on us. This was really the final downturn in our fortunes and despondency started to come into the band.

Disraeli Gears came to an end in 1992 because of me.

I was now feeling like I was banging my head on a wall permanently, I was broke and feeling like crap as my life was just one long struggle and waiting for a change.

We played a gig at the Sun Inn, Stockton, and I remember feeling that I didn’t want to do it anymore. Is this what almost fifteen years in music led to? The back room of a local pub?

I announced I was leaving the band that summer and prepared to go back to University to try and sort my life out. I just gave up on the hope of ever making a living out of music. The wolf had been knocking at my door for a long time and now I was hearing it loud and clear.

I effectively tried to turn my back on music forever. But it took some time before I was totally ready to quit.

I still wrote songs from time to time; it was a compulsive habit that was hard to break. Songwriting comes as natural as breathing to me. I always have songs coming into my head – they just won’t leave me alone!

In fact, in 1994 I wrote a batch of songs that seemed to have a continuity to them and I recorded them, mostly at a studio in Hartlepool over only two days.

 They became a solo album: ‘Songs from the wilderness’, released through Northern Sky, a label set up by old friends Ian Luck and David Thomas. It was a very low budget recording and really, they were demos, but I just could not afford to pay for studio time to make a production of them. It was a mostly acoustic based album, pretty folksy and countryish in parts, and one of the songs ‘The not so great escape’ was very personal for me:  it was me realising I had come to the end of the road with my dreams in music. The album, although patchy, has some good songs on it I feel – one of them, ‘Northern Rain’ was written pretty much on the spot while I was trying to work out a melody for it, recording it around Marty’s flat on his 8 track. It was mostly recorded very quickly and I wanted it to be pretty basic and unfussy. I also recorded a lesser known Kinks song in this session: ‘Big black smoke’ which was one of their b-sides. I cheekily wrote an extra verse for it and seeking permission, Ray Davies would not allow it, so it was kept off the album. I did get him to autograph an old Kinks single though.

The album title said it all: that was where I was: the wilderness.  I felt cast adrift now, my band days getting further behind me.

Still, I wrote a lot of songs in this period, up to thirty I would say, most of which never saw the light of day.

I continued to play solo with my  acoustic guitar for about a year, playing some interesting dates with folk legend Bert Jansch (who was a miserable anti-social git by the way) an also, Roy Harper’s very talented son Nick Harper. But I wasn’t a folkie and I missed playing in a band.

As a way to satisfy my urge for a band, I recorded some rock based tracks as The Reformers: ‘Hey! Jack Nicholson’, ‘I Wanna Sellout’ and ‘Pretty Poison’. The Reformers were a ‘pick up’ band but I could not keep a stable line up. We played only two gigs – one in Darlington, and one at the concert for our good friend and musical journeyman, Dave Johns, then soon to be lost to cancer. The concert was filmed and we played a version of the Byrds ‘So you wanna be a rock n roll star’ at that gig, as well as ‘Success’ – an old Basczax song of mine.

But the Reformers fizzled out. I had a set full of songs for the band too.

By 1996, there were plans for a second solo album, but it came to nothing when Northern Sky ran out of money. Once again, songs I had written just ended up on cassettes on my shelf at home. That old banging my head on the wall feeling was coming back to me.

In 1997, I quit music for good.

Through most of the next decade, I did nothing musically. By 2002, I was a Secondary English teacher and needed to keep my life together. My musical life now started to feel like something I had dreamt.

In 2007 I started to write songs again. I actually wrote a musical play based on the life of Beach Boy Brian Wilson called ‘Surfs Up’.  I also wrote a batch of songs for a kind of folk-rock project called The Satanic Mills. It was the result of discovering Fairport Convention, a band I had previously over-looked. I heard ‘Liege and Leif’ for the first time in that year and loved it. I also started to listen to songwriters that I had heard, but not really stuck with: John Martyn was one, and I returned to listening to quality songwriters like Joni Mitchell, who I had not listened to since the 70s when I had her ‘Hissing of the Summer lawns’ and ‘Hejira’ albums.  I was astonished at how the quality of her music stood up after so long. I kind of re-discovered her in a big way. I also started to get back into contemporary music like LCD Soundsystem, whose album ‘Sound of Silver’ I thought was great. The past was there, with all its richness and great music, but I started to realise that there was still a lot of great music around in the here and now.

I was starting to feel reconciled with my past, realising that it had all been a great, unique experience.

I could now listen to some of my old music with a sense of objective distance.

In 2008/9, I started to think about songs I had written for old bands like Basczax but never completed, or left them unheard. I drew up a list from memory and was amazed at how many I had half-written or just left un-aired.

This all led up to an online reunion with old Basczax members online, in 2010. We recorded some old songs I had meant for Basczax:  ‘Sexy Robot’ and ‘Velvet and she’ being two of them. We ended up making a full album and it felt great to be back making music. I had got my mojo back and started to write songs prolifically. In the first six months of that year, I must have written something like forty songs easily – some in a state of progress, but a lot of them ready to roll.

Later in 2010, I did something completely different: an over the net collaboration with old friend and ex-Drop member Richard Sanderson. There was no real agenda: Richard created mash up loops from samples and I wrote words and sang over them, in a kind of persona. A lot of the songs were about life in Teesside, in a very humourous way: we called the ‘band’ FootPump. We recorded a whole album over about four-six weeks and put it up as a freebie.

In early 2011 (up to now), I wrote songs that harked back loosely to the post punk era. I put them out as a series of free EPS on Soundcloud. I called my ‘band’ Dada Guitars.  I had no idea what the music was going to sound like until I almost spontaneously wrote a song called ‘Juvenilia’. It was the most extreme and uncompromising music I had made for a long time. I followed on from there and got back to my long forgotten experimental glam/new wave pop rock muse, last heard in Basczax way back in 1979.

I have finally reconciled myself with the fact that music is a huge part of who I am, and whether it is an audience of three or three million, it is nice to be appreciated and it is mostly a labour of love on my behalf to make music.

So here I am: back to my 19 year old self in spirit, making music for the right reason: because I love it.