By Karl Coppack
LAST week saw David Bowie’s 66th birthday and his first single in a decade. Twitter had musicians and writers hailing his return and it even merited a mention on the Nine O’clock News. Despite years of near silence, David Bowie is still a big deal indeed. As a man who spent years as a Bowie obsessive I bought the single immediately.
Thanks to the inconvenience of age I missed the Bowie party of the 70s. When I could finally be persuaded that bands other than The Beatles and The Jam existed I was 13 and the Dame was just someone who’d done something with Queen a few years earlier and used to be good once but not enough to warrant my attention. One lad in my year liked him but he had dyed hair and liked synth bands so was best ignored by a guitar puritan like me. Different strokes and all that.
A year later Let’s Dance came out but it meant nothing to me save for a passing interest with the girl in the China Girl video. Smash Hits, which was THE musical organ for pop brats at the time, featured lots of artists banging on about how important he was and how great it was to have him back but for me they might as well have been talking about Glenn Miller. Then, in a regular feature where pop stars talked about their favourite songs, our own Ian McCulloch chose Fantastic Voyage from the Lodger album. Mac praised his voice, citing the lack of overdub shite and how stark, strong and magnificent it was. I liked the Bunnymen so I made a note to listen out for it but left it there.
A few months later Bowie played Wembley Stadium in his comeback ‘Serious Moonlight’ tour and Smash Hits did a full page review with his peers again singing his praises. Enter McCulloch again. He wasn’t best pleased. He was appalled, and pointed out his ‘end of the pier act’ clothing and tame cabaret performance. My mate Al, who knew more about these things than me, called him ‘a hip bloke in his 40’s who’s just trying too hard’. I went back to The Style Council.
A few years later I borrowed a copy of Ziggy Stardust from a mate. I liked Starman but wasn’t expecting much.
Where do you start with Five Years? Talk about a statement of intent. I’ve got a dim recollection of stopping what I was doing at the time when it was on. Let’s just say that it was something of an improvement on Modern Love. From ‘pushing’ to ‘wonderful’ The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars is a masterpiece and it shook me. I wasn’t going to go around with dyed orange hair, platform boots and inch deep make up just yet, the good people of Croxteth would have aired strong views, but I was on board.
My God, I was on board.
While I was snaffling up his back catalogue, the real Bowie was distancing himself from my ideal of him. I was playing Station to Station on more or less an hourly basis while the Dame was poncing about in Labyrinth and Tin Machine (he gets a pass for Absolute Beginners). Telling uninterested parties in Macmillans that I liked Bowie always bore a caveat ‘old Bowie, up to Scary Monsters – not the new shit.’
The good thing about ‘good Bowie’, Space Oddity to Scary Monsters, is that there is something in there for everyone in those thirteen studio albums. Hippy, glam rock, prog (concept albums being de rigeur in 1974), white soul, electronic and goth ‘genres’ all get an outing somewhere. For example, I’ve always found Philly Soul to be a bit cheesy and his version of Across the Universe to be bloody awful so I could afford to give Young Americans a miss and wait for something better and something better always came along. The notion of him being a musical chameleon is a bit of cliché but he went from jauntily crooning Golden Years to the dirge-like Always Crashing In The Same Car in just twelve months. A jack of all trades and master of all.
The 1970’s were more about albums rather than singles and it was the album tracks that made him. People may like Jean Genie from Aladdin Sane but it’s practically criminal that Lady Grinning Soul is tucked away. The sheer beauty of that song still grabs me to this day but I’m fairly sure that it’s obscure enough to be a good answer on ‘Pointless’.
In fact, he only had one number one single in that time (a cash-in reissue of Space Oddity in 1975) and a lot of his output wasn’t exactly chart friendly. Try putting Sense of Doubt from ‘Heroes’ on at a house party and see how you get on. A mate of mine likes to put miserable songs on pub jukeboxes and then leaving – an exercise he calls ‘Wyatting’. I’ve seen him put ‘In A Lonely Place’ by New Order on, a song that makes Leonard Cohen sound like The Cheeky Girls, and then exit, giggling at the downturn in atmosphere. Well, you could do that with much of ‘Low’ and ‘Heroes’, two of Bowie’s ‘Berlin trilogy’. Sullen, desperately miserable and bleak. Perfect for the misunderstood adolescent. Mind you, as Bart Simpson observes, making teenagers miserable is like shooting fish in a barrel.
Of course, there can be no true beauty without decay and the eighties and nineties never saw a great return to form. I finally got to see him live at Maine Road in 1987 when he came onstage by descending from the belly of an enormous glass spider. Er, yeah. Okay. Sod it, it was Bowie and he sang Diamond Dogs fifteen feet away from me so I was happy. I also worked out that I was more of less standing on the same spot that Rush had scored from a few weeks earlier so, all in all, a good day. I didn’t bother with his next tour when he asked fans to vote for their favourite songs as I was snobby enough to think that the general public shouldn’t have a say in a Bowie set list. The NME launched a campaign to include The Laughing Gnome but, no, I’d moved on. By that stage unless he lost three stone and chain smoked Gitanes from behind a bank of synths while playing the second side of Low I wasn’t interested. The folly and fickle nature of youth.
The new single ‘Where Are We Now?’ is introspective and reflects the thoughts of a 66 year old man rather than an androgynous alien. The new album’s out soon too and there’s talk of a festival appearance. I’m older now too and a little less stupid so will be there. After all, I’m still hoping for a live version of Lady Grinning Soul.
Oh, and MacCulloch was right about Fantastic Voyage.