best articles of 2016

The Bowie Tribute | The Songman Years 1966-74

In the first instalment of our tribute to David Bowie, where we track his amazing career through the thoughts and memories of artists, writers and musicians, we look at the early years, in which he matured from 60’s wannabe popstar into a writer of immense sophistication who released a succession of classic albums, and penned songs of the calibre of ‘Life on Mars’, ‘Man Who Sold the World’ and ‘Changes’.

Graham Tomlinson (writer)

Not long ago, I finished reading Jonathan Coe’s brilliant biography of BS Johnson. One of Johnson’s many frustrations was the unwillingness of his literary agents to accept all the different aspects of his literary output: not just his novels, but his poetry, his drama and his screenwriting as well. Picking up on a phrase Johnson himself had used in a letter on another matter, Coe refers more than once to his subject’s view of his own work as the ‘enormous totality’ of his talents.

When I heard on Monday morning that David Bowie had died and I started thinking about his body of work, the phrase that kept coming back to me was ‘enormous totality’. Pop fans can exist, for a while at least, on scraps. An unfamiliar chord change or a well-turned guitar solo can secure a place in our hearts for any old band or singer. If Bowie’s solitary contribution to pop music was the opening 15 seconds of ‘Modern Love’ – that silly, gulping guitar rhythm, Omar Hakim’s perky 6/4 drumming, and a nasal, suburban voice assuring us that he knows when to go out, but also when to stay in and get things done – that would be something. But there was also ‘Rebel Rebel’. And ‘Golden Years’. And the first side of Scary Monsters. And the whole of Hunky Dory. And the Berlin albums, and the Pye singles, and the impeccable cover versions, and a host of other stuff I never even got around to buying. And of course, that’s only the music; you could devote a lifetime to his contributions to modern art, his films, or simply – ‘simply’ – his look.

He’s beyond lists, beyond compilations, and almost beyond belief. All I can do is relish the thought that there are still David Bowie songs for me to discover, and to give thanks for the enormous totality of his talents. Rest in peace.

Deke Leonard (guitarist)

David Bowie – or Dai Jones from Maesteg – was not my favourite artiste nevertheless he was a giant of the craft. I admired his sense of adventure and charisma but his music, by and large, left me lukewarm. There were exceptions, like his Tin Machine period and ‘Golden Years’ which was a fabulous single. I never met him but I know a Man who did. The ‘Man’ in question was the band in which I spent most of my professional life. Let me take you back to 1969…

By then Man had recorded and released two studio albums for Pye Records. They were well received and we started to build a reputation. All we lacked was management. Pye Records and Carlin Music, our publishers, put some feelers out. They suggested Barrie Marshall, a manager with a fearsome reputation, and invited him to an upcoming gig at The Marquee Club. At the time I was going through a personal crisis, so left the band. The Marquee gig would be my last gig. The upshot was that Barrie Marshall loved the band and immediately signed them up for a management deal. The Manband were euphoric and I, gutted, went to back to Wales to sort my problems out.

One of the first gigs that Barrie arranged was a three-day tour of Scotland, supporting David Bowie. Bowie and Tony Visconti, his manager, loved the Manband and made them an offer they couldn’t refuse. Bowie had written a song called ‘All The Young Dudes’ and they were looking for a band to record it. There was also some talk about becoming Bowie’s backing band. Should they agree, it would mean signing a management deal with Tony De Fries. It was a tempting offer but the ink wasn’t yet dry on the Barrie Marshall contract, so they had no option but to decline.

Six months later, my personal crisis resolved, I returned to the Manband. Barrie managed us for more than a decade and became one of our closest friends. Still, one is occasionally haunted by ‘what ifs’? Maybe I’d have become a Spider From Mars? I don’t think I’d have lasted long because I’m a mouthy bastard so, sooner or later, I’d have taken Bowie to one side and given him some advice ‘Look, Ziggy,’ I’d have said, ‘forget all this arty farty Major Tom crap and rock, you bleeder, rock!’

That said, what do I know? He died a zillionaire and I will, no doubt, end up in a pauper’s grave.

Jo Mazelis (novelist & photographer)

The morning after David Bowie died and before I heard the news I was holed up writing. This is part of what I wrote:

‘Dai rocking slowly on his heels as if inside his head the same old tune was playing, “All The Young Dudes” or “Stairway to Heaven” or one of those whiny Neil Young songs he liked so much. Autumn leaves, golden and dancing as they fell, but eventually just black slime underfoot’.

The fiction is a picaresque tale of a middle-aged man reviewing and revisiting his past. There was no psychic omen in mentioning a Bowie song, like so much of popular culture this stuff is always there – the soundtrack to a confused adolescence that is deeply embedded.

When I was a young teenager staring avidly at Top of the Pops, David Bowie unsettled me – I didn’t know what to make of him. There were posters of his album covers on the stairs that led to the record department in Boots, a skinny man in a blue jumpsuit in a dark back alley, the same man reclining on a couch in a dress. I craned my head to see them, to understand.

He was always on the edge of my consciousness, going in and out of focus. Then on a long, a very long coach ride from Brighton to Swansea, sitting on the other end of the back seat, a boy with a cassette player, the sound turned up loud enough to hear, played non-stop David Bowie and I finally realised that I loved every song even though I’d only been aware of each of them in isolation before.

Later living in South East London I heard that Bowie had a flat in the same street in Beckenham as a friend. Or she’d seen him. Or knew someone who’d seen him. I looked at those suburbs in and around Croydon, so dull, so tidy, so middle-class and it seemed impossible to situate Bowie with his sharp little teeth there.

Matthew David Scott (novelist & playwright)

‘I wanted to tell you before you saw it online.’ That’s how my wife justified waking me up to let me know David Bowie had died. I don’t know what I did next but when asked she says I simply sighed and bowed my head.

And for once cynicism never found a way through for the rest of the day. Even as the tributes piled up on every media channel possible the only sense I got was that we’d lost someone who’d been special to a lot of us — a feeling of genuine sadness.

I bought my first Bowie record when I was fourteen or so. I say record, it was a cassette. I was on holiday with my folks in Tenby and managed to spend most of the money I’d saved up on one trip to a record shop in town. I only bought two albums (I’ve never been that good at saving up) and they were Hunky Dory and Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On. As you can imagine, I spent the rest of the holiday running down the batteries in my Walkman. I’ve spent the rest of my life listening to music shaped in one way or another by those two albums. Fair to say it was one of my more successful shopping missions.

Bowie though, became a bit of an obsession. I’d been primed. My family had readied me for a life of David love — a favourite story told at get-togethers being the time one auntie turned up to the Bowie/Roxy Room at Pips nightclub in Manchester only to find her younger brother wearing the blouse she’d been trying to find when getting ready. If that feels a little too close to the ‘brickies wearing eyeliner’ cliche let me compound it: said uncle is a plasterer.

That’s the thing really, because in all of the ‘he came from another planet’ stuff, the reason I believe Bowie had the effect he had on some of us is because of the complete opposite: he was just like us.

David Bowie played dress-up with the social fabric of his times. He was simultaneously symptom of and cure for the insanity of his age, and this is a potential we all have to some degree — the ability have a two-way relationship with the culture in which we live. When we talk of him giving us permission to be freaks what we are really talking about is him exemplifying, again and again in the most thrilling and glorious ways imaginable, that very potential. Thank you, David.

Charley Rogers (writer & critic)

David Bowie didn’t just cross boundaries, he eviscerated them. In school, no matter who your friends were, what you wore, or what you generally listened to, Bowie was always cool – a true rarity in the face of a notoriously fickle and tribal teenage crowd.

Enter adult life. Few elements of those intense and experimental teenage years remain with us; the clothes, the hairstyles. But one thing that often does stick, is the music. The ability to hear your favourite album and instantly be transported into a world of possibility and safety, the aching need to jump on the sofa and sing your heart out to your favourite track, the wonder of hearing ‘Life on Mars’ and feeling the absolute absurdity and beauty of life.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t claim to be the most knowledgeable Bowie fan. I haven’t heard every bootleg, or even gotten to see him live. But that’s the beauty of his music. Die-hard fans and casual listeners alike can all gain something from this remarkable talent. Whether that’s a life filled with his music, movies, and fashion, or whether it’s the occasional smile from hearing a real Bowie classic on the radio. It’s an unmistakeable experience, one that gives us a glimpse into his sequin-studded, idea-strewn, completely one-of-a-kind creative playground of a mind.

So that’s where I am now. Sat on the floor in my flat in front of the record player, listening to a vinyl copy of Hunky Dory and singing my heart out. For all the kids who learned from this music that being weird was OK. For every teenager that dyes their hair bright red and goes nuts with the eye shadow, because why not? For every adult that feels that unmistakeable pang of teenage enthusiasm and joy every time one of these extraordinary songs reaches their eardrums.

Nigel Jarrett (critic, poet & author)

Not the least amazing fact about Bowie was that his alter ego Ziggy Stardust was killed off in 1973. That’s 43 years ago. Up until he went off the radar with serious illness 18 months back, he seemed immune to ageing and its depredations. There was something extra-terrestrial about him. The eyes had it. How did he manage to remain unaffected by the changes in style which are the pop industry’s raison d’etre?

No-one else has managed to accomplish anything like that immunity and immortality. Those whose Peter Pan attempts to look and act as though they were untouched by the passage of time appear ever more ludicrous. Even soberly dressed of late he resembled a leader, not a follower, of fashion. I might be wrong but I don’t think there’s a Bowie tribute act, as there is for many of his contemporaries; and by ‘contemporaries’ I mean those he outlived in terms of popularity and sheer personal survival. His 1970s coevals now play, if they play at all, to people in their sixties, because in popular music, by and large, we like the music we liked when we were younger, even if we’re in our thirties. We might wish to think otherwise, but our idols are our age.

Bowie was the exception to all this. Although his stature among the young today has been over-stated in the obituaries, he earned their respect if not their clamorous following. He was always cooler than the kids. When and if we can be cajoled into attending a gig by the Kast Off Kinks (the original band minus Ray and Dave), they and we know that we’re all headed for a bathe in nostalgia. David Bowie didn’t ‘do’ nostalgia; he always did something new. In the cast-off midden that is popular music, most acts come and go. Bowie and precious few others have come and stayed, and will live in the memory. We are the followers, and where he went, we went too – across the decades. That’s a long time in pop and it makes us feel good about ourselves. Thank him for that.

Paul McVeigh (novelist)

This is not a tribute, as such, but one of those stories you dine out on as a fanboy. I’ve loved Bowie for many years and have a photo of him above my bed – sad, I know. It’s a pretty rare photograph though. I saw one from the same shoot at the V&A Bowie exhibition a couple of years ago.

Years back, a friend of my flatmate was a photographer and came to visit one night. He told me a story of how, walking along the street in London, Elephant & Castle, I think it was, he saw a roll of film on the pavement. Being a photographer he picked it up and took it home. He recognized Bowie immediately and did some research. They were taken by the world-famous Terry O’Neill, a shoot for the cover of Diamond Dogs. The record label decided against using the photos and went for a painting instead. Anyway, he contacts Terry O’Neill and tells him he found the roll. It seems they were the outtakes but it was a mystery how the film ended up on the streets of Elephant and Castle. Turns out Terry was a bit of diamond geezer as he said ‘Finders Keepers’ and let him keep the roll!

As I was a big fan this guy let me see the roll, pick the one I liked the best and had it printed and gave it to me. Now, as I tell it, no one else has a print of this particular shot. It has been with me for years, through all my moves, and when I get back from Ireland next week I intend to put on my favourite album, Hunky Dory, have a glass of something and stare at it for a while.

John Lavin (writer and critic)

I always remember the first time I really got Bowie. I was fourteen and it was the Christmas holidays and my parents and I were snowed in, in a cottage in Windermere. One of the gifts I had received that year was Bowie’s Singles Collection, an album that utterly consumed me during that cosy, almost hermetic holiday, so much so that whenever I think of it now I always think of that cottage and of Windermere in the snow.

Although I was already rapidly becoming obsessed with music at the expense of literature I had nevertheless always been a bookish child and so it was two of the maybe more obviously literary-minded singles that initially drew me in: ‘Diamond Dogs’ and ‘Young Americans’. I didn’t laugh and nod as admiringly as I would do now at that ‘As they pulled you out of the oxygen tent you asked for the latest party’ – no, rather it was the almost Wilkie Collins-like stylings of ‘Come out of the garden baby, you’ll catch your death in the fog/ Young girl they call them the diamond dogs…’ that captured my imagination. There was certainly something of the sinister fairy tale about it. Who were these ‘diamond dogs’? And why might they harm the young girl that Bowie was addressing?

Furthermore, ‘Young Americans’ began with the same kind of scene setting that accompanies a great poem or short story: ‘They pulled in just behind the fridge / He lays her down, he frowns / ‘Gee, my life’s a funny thing / Am I still too young?’ It’s that ‘pulled in’ that let’s you know that you’re in the presence of a real writer because it’s exactly the right choice of words – no other construction would describe the situation quite so well. And looking back on it, I suppose what appealed to me so much at that age was the way that Bowie sang about sex and death and decadence and all of the standard preoccupations of pop culture with the eye of a fantastically talented poet or short story writer. Before delivering them in a manner that was just the right side of theatrical – like some kind of drug-fuelled, soul music-loving, counter-cultural version of Lawrence Olivier. Indeed, you can almost imagine Olivier’s crazed Hamlet intoning, ‘Well, well, well – would you carry a razor? Just in case, just in case of depression?’

Naturally, as I subsequently began to luxuriate within the mindboggling depth and range of the Bowie studio albums, I began to increasingly appreciate the sonic innovation, visual aesthetics and innate grasp of melody that are an intrinsic part of the oeuvre of somebody who genuinely elevated pop music to the same level as any other art form. Indeed if any artist made the pop song the artistic medium of the second half of the twentieth century, then it is Bowie more than The Beatles who did so. However, for all that, it’s still always the lyrics that have left the greatest impression on me personally.

In his infamous 1974 interview with Dick Cavett, Bowie declared that ‘I’m a storyteller, I’m a storywriter and I decided that I wanted to enact a lot of the material that I was writing’, and perhaps this central storytelling impulse is why I feel the way I do, because presumably it is this impulse which provided the spark for much of his best work. To pick an example of his craft at random, think of ‘Repetition’ off Lodger, a masterly example of the storyteller’s art, concerning domestic abuse (and set to the backdrop of the most ideally queasy funk you can possibly imagine):

‘Well Johnny is a man / And he’s bigger than her / I guess the bruises won’t show / If she wears long sleeves’, Bowie sings, before adding the stony-faced, indescribably melancholic chorus of ‘And he could have married Anne with the blue silk blouse / He could have married Anne with the blue silk blouse…’.

And it’s the lyrics of course, that particularly grab the attention on his newly released, last will and testament, Blackstar. That ‘Look up here man, I’m in heaven’, posthumously taking on the quality of the most extraordinary lyric. That title, at first seeming a little Bowie-by-numbers, is of course now revealed as being imbued with multi-layered poetic meaning (how could I have presumed that it would be composed of anything else?) The Starman eaten up by cancer, but also black of course, in the sense of being the black sheep, in the sense of being the outsider. In the sense of someone, as Bowie puts it, being ‘born the wrong way round’. In this sense it is one final rallying call for the ‘pretty things’ – and a plea too, of course, for someone to take his place ‘and bravely cry, ‘I’m a Blackstar’.

‘Turn and face the strange,’ he once sang. Well, David Bowie was as good as his word until the very end. He has not so much turned and faced and raged against the dying of the light as consumed it. And like the artist alchemist that he has always been, he has somehow managed to create something profound and important out of it. One final, lyrically rich, musically innovative and visually complex example of the storyteller’s art at which he so excelled.

Artwork by Dean Lewis

Click HERE for the next part in our Bowie Tribute, The Thin White Years: 1975-85

Take a look at the official David Bowie website to find out more about him!