I wanted to write in greater personal detail about David Bowie and the depth of impact his music and words had on me during my formative teenage years – this occurring when I was between the ages of 12 and 15. I’d uploaded a blog post once I’d heard about his death, but I’ve found myself needing to revisit what was a magical mystical part of my musical / life initiation, as much for myself as anyone else, both by listening through the records I loved, and still love, whilst getting it all into words somehow. Once I started writing this I couldn’t contain it – it was bursting out of all sides. So please excuse me for the tangents I go off on and the jumping about – there’s no easy coherent way for me to express this. For a period following his 6th July 1972 ‘Starman’ performance on Top Of The Pops, until 1975, when I began to disengage, Bowie ruled ok in my world.
To accompany this piece, I’ve put together as 3 hour podcast featuring 40 tracks that I became intimate with during the 1972-1975 period – the first of which was the ‘Starman’ single in July 1972, the last being ‘Golden Years’ in November 1975, just weeks before I started working as a club DJ (‘Golden Years’ featured on the ‘First Impressions’ podcast that highlighted the records I was playing as I started out). There are, you’ll find, tracks also included from the period 1969-1971, but with the exception of ‘Space Oddity’, these were all first heard in retrospect, Bowie’s back catalogue picking up significant sales on the back of the success of ‘The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars’. I selected 40 tracks by Bowie (41 if you want to add the ‘Sweet Thing (Reprise)’ as separate), but also added 4 from Lou Reed’s ‘Transformer’ album, which Bowie and Mick Ronson produced directly after recording ‘Ziggy’, and Mott The Hoople’s huge hit from 1972, ‘All The Young Dudes’, written and produced by Bowie. Like his post-75 releases, his pre-‘69 output doesn’t feature here – as with the title of the final track in terms of release, this podcast, for me, truly represents Bowie’s golden years – the era in which he made the majority of his greatest recordings, whilst being at his most vital as a trailblazing artist.
At the age of fifteen David Bowie started playing the tenor saxophone in a modern jazz band. In 1964 he formed a group called David Jones And The Lower Third, but it was about this time when an American group called The Monkees were starting to make a name here, so to avoid confusion with a member of that group he changed his name to Bowie. But the name change did not do much to help David. His first recordings went unnoticed until he made a record in 1969 called ‘Space Oddity’. The record whizzed up the charts.
Bowie took up Buddhism – a subject that had intrigued him from an early age. It was at this time that Bowie became interested in mime and he started formulating ideas as to how music could be expressed by combining the two arts. His stage act today is indeed strengthened by his ability to project himself both as a musician and a mime artist – hiding behind his white expressionless make-up and elaborate stage clothes.
There was a long lay-off after ‘Space Oddity’, but he released ‘Changes’ as a single and ‘Hunky Dory’ as an album. After that Bowie released ‘Starman’, ‘John I’m Only Dancing’ and ‘Jean Genie’ as singles (all were great successes) and ‘The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars’ as an album. ‘Space Oddity’ and ‘The Man Who Sold The World’ were re-released as albums. All this happened in Bowie’s most successful year 1972.
So far this year he has released a single ‘Drive-In Saturday’ and an album ‘Aladdin Sane’, but Bowie must thank his single ‘Starman’, which helped re-establish himself as the great artist he is. In 1972 Bowie produced and wrote a record by Mott The Hoople called ‘All The Young Dudes’. 1973 looks like being an even better year than 1972 for Bowie and his group The Spiders From Mars.
The first David Bowie record I ever heard was ‘Space Oddity’, which was a top 5 hit in the UK in 1969, feeding into the zeitgeist of the Apollo 11 moon mission (the title a play on Stanley Kubrick’s seminal film of the previous year ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’). As such, the record was regarded as a novelty, and when Bowie’s subsequent singles flopped he was in serious danger of vanishing from the pop scene no sooner had he appeared. To my 9 year-old ears it was a strange exotic sounding record, with equally weird words leaving no resolution, or not the one expected, with the astronaut clearly adrift in the vastness of space, floating around his ‘tin can’. The ’60s, especially the post ‘67 period, threw out many a weird and wonderful record that, seemingly from some other stratosphere, broke into the pop chart and thus our daily lives. So, a distinctive out of leftfield track like ‘Space Oddity’ paradoxically wasn’t that unusual (a perfect example from around the time ‘Space Oddity’ was released, was ‘In The Year 2525’ by Zager & Evans, who would fulfill the true definition of one hit wonder on both sides of the Atlantic – their only hit being a #1). Besides, most people would have associated ‘Space Oddity’ with the name Major Tom rather than David Bowie.
To establish himself as an artist Bowie needed to follow-up, but it would end up taking him over 2 and a half years and 3 more albums before he finally had his 2nd hit single, ‘Starman’, which peaked at #10 – this was the record that would open up his Ziggy Stardust Pandora’s box of the brilliant and the bizarre. It was his Top Of The Pops performance of ‘Starman’ that would act as the catalyst for his subsequent UK superstardom.
Top Of The Pops had a massive audience back then, made up mainly of the youth, but also, in those days of limited TV choice (just 3 channels in the UK at the time) a cross-section of society. Whole families would watch together, teenagers and parents criticizing each other’s music taste in a weekly ritual. A generation gap had already opened up in the ’60s, and now, still not 5 years on from the legalization of homosexuality in the UK, here was a feminine looking man with his arm draped around another feminine looking man (lead guitarist and brother in arms Mick Ronson). What was the world coming to? This was the provocation of Bowie to the war generation, and even a fair proportion of ’50s rock & rollers and ’60s revelers to boot, for there was still an overriding atmosphere of homophobia across the general populace, even amongst some of those who were part of the supposedly open-minded hippie generation.
To say you were homosexual in those days would spell the kiss of death for your pop career, yet Bowie pulled a rabbit out of the hat, blurring the lines by declaring himself bisexual, whilst, via his Ziggy alto-ego, presenting himself as androgynous, perhaps even asexual – he was projecting a lot of stuff through this spellbinding persona he’d manifested. Whatever was going on, it was like nothing that had gone on before – Ziggy was most certainly at the cutting-edge, even as Bowie became the biggest chart artist in the UK during 1973. As with The Beatles before him, he’d managed get the balance right between writing great accessible music, which was at the same time ambitious and challenging – hooking the listener in, whilst stretching their horizons. He also had a shit hot band we came to know and love as The Spiders from Mars, or simply The Spiders.
I was 12 when ‘Starman’ came on TOTP, and like so many others, I saw Bowie look to camera for the line ‘I had to phone someone so I picked on you’, and point directly out of the tele at me! It was a call to arms – he’d brought us into his glammed up spaceworld in a very personal way via a technology viewed by millions. It was an incredible piece of magic theatre, but most vitally a great song with a positive message that really engaged me that evening, along with thousands of others. Like a modern day pied piper he was about to lead us a merry dance, with his call ‘let all the children boogie’.
This TV appearance has since gained legendary status in the fullest sense of the term. Writer Dylan Jones even dedicated an entire book to this cultural milestone in 2012 called ‘When Ziggy Played Guitar: David Bowie And The Four Minutes That Shook The World’.
At the age I was, things initially play out in the schoolyard the following day when people discus what had been on, who was good and who was crap. On a handful of occasions during this period there’d be a performer / track that would be dissected way beyond the good / crap norm (the first TOTP appearances of Roxy Music and Sparks were also pretty legendary), and following ‘Starman’ there was not only external but internal debate. We lived in a time when being a ‘queer’ or a ‘puff’ still wasn’t social accepted, despite the 1967 legislation – for a whole heap of people it would have been ‘did you see that puff on Top Of The Pops?’ To admit you liked the track yourself was immediately risky, for this could implicate you within the minds of certain people with bigoted opinions passed down from their parents’ generation – you could quite easily be labeled a queer by association.
But the music was undeniable, even to some of those with objections to the moral stance of the artist, and this, as a consequence, forced so many non-homosexuals with a love for Bowie’s music to break from the prejudice of their contemporaries, or their family, in order to reconcile this supposed anomaly within themselves. Bowie’s impact on gay culture was seismic, for here was a proud articulate icon bold enough to say he swung both ways, but he also made a major impression on so many straight people who would subsequently change their views on gay issues, taking a less judgemental stance and adopting more of a ‘live and let live’ viewpoint.
I got to know some older lads who’d also fallen under Ziggy’s spell. Some of these were people I’d previously avoided, lads who’d left school and had a reputation for being ‘hard knocks’. Quite a lot of hard lads seemed to gravitate towards Bowie that year – some were now sporting a single earing, having dyed their hair orange / red / sandy and swept it back in the Aladdin Sane carrottop style. I had a go at dying my own hair, not too successfully as witnessed in my school photo from 1973, when I was 13 and at the height of my Bowie obsession – I’m the one in the second row with the big knot in my tie and the roots coming through.
The height of my obsession was the summer of 73, by which point I was totally submerged in his music, wanting to own everything I could get my hands on. Bowie turned me into a collector of albums and I set about exploring not only his latest music, but what had come before – and what a journey of discovery this turned out to be, taking in ‘Aladdin Sane’ (1973), ‘The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars’ (1972), ‘Hunky Dory’ (1971)’, ‘The Man Who Sold The World’ (1970) and ‘Space Oddity’ (1969) in an aural feast. RCA Records had acquired the rights to ‘The Man Who Sold The World’ (originally on Mercury) and ‘Space Oddity’ (originally released as ‘David Bowie’ on Philips in the UK and ‘Man Of Words / Man Of Music’ in the US), and would make a killing when these albums spent an unprecedented combined amount of 182 weeks on the chart in a single year following the Ziggy breakthrough. From being a nearly man for so many years, David Bowie reigned supreme in the 1973 album charts, whilst continuing to score hit single after hit single following his ‘Starman’ breakthrough – ‘John I’m Only Dancing’ (peak of #12) and ‘The Jean Genie’ (#2) in 1972, followed in ’73 by ‘Drive In Saturday’ (#3), ‘Life On Mars’ (#3 – taken from ‘Hunky Dory’, released 2 years earlier), ‘The Laughing Gnome’ (#6 – a 1967 recording re-issued by Deram) and ‘Sorrow’ (#3 – a cover of the 1966 Merseys hit, which would appear on Bowie’s ‘Pin-Ups’, the follow-up to ‘Aladdin Sane’, issued towards the end of the year).
I didn’t stop with the RCA releases, but went back further into his earlier ’60s output, picking up 2 compilation albums that included most of his previous material. He’d released a self-titled album on the Deram label in 1967 (not to be confused with the original ‘Space Oddity’ LP in 1969, also called ‘David Bowie’), and most of the tracks on there were re-packaged on a budget-priced 1970 compilation released on the Decca label called ‘The World Of David Bowie’. No sooner had I picked this up than I came across a similar comp, this time a double album called ‘Images 1966-1967’, which included all ‘The World Of David Bowie’ tracks, plus 7 more – this was a US import on the London label, the first import LP I ever bought now I come to think about it.
These earlier recordings are most revealing, and very much about an artist fumbling around trying to find his style. Most are pretty forgettable, whilst some of the tracks are downright bizarre – who can tell what was going on in his head when he wrote ‘Please Mr Gravedigger’! Brixton born and Bromley raised, Bowie’s voice back then sounded like a chirpy Cockney mixture of early ’60s hitmaker Anthony Newley and British musical star Tommy Steele – the often quaint and quirky realm we’ve entered here is a world apart from ‘Ziggy Stardust’, and hardly what might be described as at the cusp of things, lapsing into downright corny at times, but nevertheless full of madcap ideas and lyrical invention.
There were some hidden gems amidst the mayhem. ‘The London Boys’ focused on his time as a Mod and the bittersweet feelings of belonging this gave him, whilst the extremely jolly ‘Love You Till Tuesday’ was a jaunty little number that later provided the title of a half hour film his manager of the time, Ken Pitt, financed in 1969, featuring a mish-mash of tracks including a prototype version of a new song, the freshly written ‘Space Oddity’, which would finally bring Bowie’s name to wider attention.
In the ‘Love You Till Tuesday’ film he utilizes mime, which he’d learnt under Lindsay Kemp (who would also teach Kate Bush in the ’70s), performing his songs largely against a clear white background, relying on the character of his delivery. Some of the tracks feature his girlfriend of the time, Hermione Farthingale, and his musician friend John ‘Hutch’ Hutchinson – the short-lived trio calling themselves Feathers. The film wouldn’t gain an official release until 15 years later, in 1984.
Around the late ’60s, Bowie was clearly influenced by American in England Scott Walker, who, having left the highly successful Walker Brothers following a string of mid-’60s hits, had embarked on a solo career, taking an unexpected route that alienated much of his Walker Brothers fan base, retreating from mainstream to cult, reinventing himself via a series of Jacques Brel inspired late ’60s albums – Brel’s ‘Jackie’ (English translation of ‘La Chanson De Jacky’) providing him with his most enduring single. Bowie would subsequently perform the Belgian’s songs ‘My Death’ (providing a particularly poignant moment at the final Ziggy Stardust concert on July 3rd 1973’, but first heard by me on the ‘Live Santa Monica ’72’ bootleg) and ‘Amsterdam’ (which would turn up on the flip side of ‘Sorrow’), both of which featured on Walker’s solo debut ‘Scott’ (1967). Brel’s lyrical breadth and flair for the theatrical wouldn’t be lost on Bowie.
Bowie’s word imagery is something that awed me as a 13 year old. Half the time I had no idea what he was on about, but the poetic flow of his words made symbolic, if not literal sense. The drama was always there in his songs, but it took him a long time to, on the one hand, hone his craft and embrace the explosive rock star dormant within him, and on the other, step into his destiny.
I’d subsequently realize that there was often a weighty sub-text to his lyrics, which I hadn’t understood when I originally heard them, with religious, philosophical and occult themes present. One of my favourite tracks from ‘Hunky Dory’ was and remains the beautifully haunting ‘Quicksand’, which closed side 1, with its now infamous opening lines ‘I’m closer to the Golden Dawn, immersed in Crowley’s uniform of imagery’. I’d come to learn that the Hermetic Order Of The Golden Dawn was an organization during the late 19th / early 20th century devoted to the study and practice of the occult, metaphysics and paranormal activity. Crowley was Aleister Crowley, once a member of the Golden Dawn, and later to gain a scandalous reputation as ‘the wickedest man in the world’. He is certainly viewed at the forefront of occult practice in the 20th century, coining the phrase ‘do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law’ and advocating sex magick as a central tenant of his religion, Thelema. These associations are now leading to lots of online comment as people pick apart Bowie’s words and his beliefs.
As Bowie sang ‘I’m sinking in the quicksand of my thoughts and I ain’t got the power anymore’, it felt, even back then when I was oblivious to what the song was referencing, like he was yielding to darker forces. With a career full of setbacks punctuated by the solitary success of ‘Space Oddity’, before an immediate slide back down the snake to failure status again, he must have felt desperate. Prior to ‘Starman’ he’d see no less that 15 out of his 16 single releases fail to make the chart at all (plus 2 further 1971 releases of tracks that would later turn up on ‘Ziggy Stadust’ – prototypes of ‘Moonage Daydream’ and ‘Hang On To Yourself’, under the alias Arnold Corns), whilst his first 4 albums all sunk without trace in his home country. It was rejection upon rejection. Further to this, his friend / rival, Marc Bolan, would steal a march on him, emerging as the new face of pop in the early ’70s. If there was ever a musician ready to make a Faustian pact, it was Bowie at this juncture.
Whilst ‘Starman’ was the big crystalizing moment from a UK perspective, you can actually date the upturn in Bowie’s fortunes to April 1972, 2 months prior to his TOTP arrival. This was when his previous single ‘Changes’ entered the US chart, reaching a respectable #66 (it would re-enter the US chart 2 years later, peaking at #41), whilst ‘Hunky Dory’ would scrape into the top 100 at #93. The seeds had been planted with a change of manager, with Tony DeFries key to Bowie’s subsequent success, not least in securing him the deal with RCA in the US that would prove to be so fruitful. He gave Bowie permission to act like a star before he actually was, with the artist and his entourage encouraged to decadently live it up on their first US tour in 1972 – to act like a star was to be a star, even though the records sales had still to kick in. This followed a promotional trip to New York in August 1971 that would bring Bowie into contact with Lou Reed and Iggy Pop, sowing seeds for future collaborations, as well as Andy Warhol and the menagerie of characters around him. MainMan, DeFries’s management company, made a shrewd move in hiring the cast of Warhol’s play ‘Pork’ to promote Bowie in the US. It was all beginning to gel.
So, on the surface it looked like Bowie was something of an overnight sensation following the release of ‘Ziggy Stardust’, rather than this being the culmination of a long 8 year process largely strewn with setbacks. It all seemed to come to him so naturally, but as I dug into his history I was to learn that this was a man who’d worked extremely hard at becoming a pop star. It’d been a herculean struggle to establish himself and it certainly hadn’t come easily / naturally – there were 5 years of constant disappointment, from his first single release ‘Liza Jane’ (as Davie Jones With The King Bees) in 1964, until the ‘Space Oddity’ breakthrough in 1969, and then a further 2 and a half years of purgatory to endure ahead of ‘Starman’.
There was a glimmer of light in the UK during this period however. Bowie was buoyed by one of his compositions, ‘Oh! You Pretty Things’, becoming a top 20 hit for Peter Noone in 1971, the former lead singer of Manchester pop band Herman’s Hermit’s, who’d been huge on both sides of the Atlantic during the ’60s. Bowie even played piano on this unlikely cover, appearing on Top Of The Pops to accompany Noone. (another mainstream singer, Lulu, would have a top 5 hit in 1974 with ‘The Man Who Sold The World’, Bowie and Mick Ronson producing).
‘Oh! You Pretty Things’ was the second David Bowie composition I heard, although I had no idea who its writer was at the time, it was just this strange song about homosapiens outgrowing their use, and preparing for homosuperiors, whatever they might be, and all sung by the guy from Herman’s Hermits, the safest of all the ‘British Invasion’ bands who’d staked their claim to American culture in the ’60s, and one of the most successful to boot with its cuddly lead singer Noone. This was definitely an anomaly, but we were used to mad ideas in the mainstream, so this great song first slipped into our consciousness via this unlikely channel. Coupled with the weird words was this beast of a chorus ‘oh! you pretty things, don’t you know you’re driving your mamas and poppas insane’ – it was double-hooky and a perfect counter-balance to the rather unsettling imagery of the verses, With Noone it was an odd but pleasant pop tune, but when I got to hear Bowie’s original on ‘Hunky Dory’, I knew I was listening to a masterpiece.
There was certainly a hidden language in Bowie’s tracks. For example, the follow up single to ‘Starman’, ‘John I’m Only Dancing’, completely unbeknown to most people who bought the record, concerned a gay relationship, whilst the next single, ‘The Jean Genie’, was a pun on the French novelist, playwright, poet, essayist, and political activist, Jean Genet. I was oblivious to this subtext, but loved the words whatever they meant.
One line in ‘The Jean Genie’ seemed to slip in a reference to his pop star friend, ‘so simple minded he can’t drive his Marc Bolan’, but it just sounded like that – in reality it was ‘can’t drive his module’, but lots of Bowie fans stuck with the former and still hear it that way now. In 1972 Bolan was the biggest pop idol in Britain, and between 1970-72 had a sensational run of hits – ‘Ride A White Swan’ (#2), ‘Hot Love’ (#1), ‘Get It On’ (#1), ‘Jeepster’ (#2), ‘Telegram Sam’ (#1), ‘Debora’ (re-issue, #7), ‘Metal Guru’ (#1), ‘Children Of The Revolution’ (#2). ‘Solid Gold Easy Action’ (#2) and ‘20th Century Boy’ (#3). Bolan had previously been Marc Feld, a Mod ‘face’ from Stamford Hill, London, before re-imagining himself as the flowing haired leader of folk rock group Tyrannosaurus Rex. He met Bowie in the late ’60s when they were both struggling to make a breakthrough. In 1970 Bolan had shortened the group’s name to T. Rex and embarked on an electric pop/rock odyssey that had taken him to the top of the charts – a move that undoubtedly influenced Bowie. Tyrannosaurus / T. Rex producer Tony Visconti would also take the production credit on all but one of the tracks on the album now known as ’Space Oddity’ – the exception, being the title track, which Visconti had dismissed as pure novelty and not something he wanted to work on, instead recommending Gus Dudgeon (who’d later go on to global acclaim via his work with Elton John). Visconti would also produce ‘The Man Who Sold The World’, as well as a number of Bowie’s later albums, right up to his final release ‘Blackstar’ (the production credits from ‘Hunky Dory’ through ‘Pin-Ups’ were shared by ex-Beatles engineer Ken Scott and Bowie).
I was a big T. Rex fan, and would pride myself on picking up copies of their new singles the moment they came into my local record shop of choice Ali Baba in Liscard market, slipping out from school to make sure I was in the shop to catch the delivery (Jean, the lady who ran Ali Baba, would find me a rare copy of Bowie’s ‘Memory Of A Free Festival Pts 1 and 2’ (1970), which had spectacularly flopped on release – selling it to me for normal price when she knew it had already acquired a value of significantly more).
Bolan had played guitar on Bowie’s follow up to ‘Space Oddity’, the original version of ‘The Prettiest Star’, which he’d written for his first wife Angie (later re-recorded for ‘Aladdin Sane’), but rather than build on his new found success, it sank without trace, selling less than 1000 copies on the back of a top 5 single! It was an unmitigated disaster, and it must have been agonizing for Bowie to watch Bolan completely outstrip him, T. Rex soon to become the biggest band in the land, whilst Bowie returned to his pre ‘Space Oddity’ obscurity.
All that would change though after Ziggy. In the ‘Starman’ TOTP performance he changed the line ‘rock and roll, lot of soul he said’ to ‘get it on, rock and roll he said’, whilst Bowie also referenced T. Rex in one of his great compositions of the period, ‘All The Young Dudes’, which proclaimed ‘man I need TV when I got T. Rex’. ‘All The Young Dudes’ was written for the band Mott The Hoople in 1972, revitalizing their career in reaching #3 on the chart following its release just over a month after ‘Starman’ was on Top Of the Pops, and a month before his follow-up ‘John I’m Only Dancing’ gave him 3 hits in 3 months – you wait ages for a bus and then they all come along at once! Bowie never released ‘All The Young Dudes’ himself until it appeared on his 1974 album ‘David Live’, captured on his US tour that year, but the wonderful Mott The Hoople original remains the definitive version.
Marc Bolan was undisputedly the leading British pop star of the time, and his elfin effeminacy certainly helped lay the ground for Ziggy, however, Bowie’s rise would parallel Bolan’s fall, and following ‘The Groover’, which reached #4 in June 1973, the T. Rex hits would gradually dry up. Bolan would die in a car accident in 1977, just as his career was on the upturn via his own TV show ‘Marc’, which ran for 6 weekly episodes before the accident. As fate would have it, the final episode concluded with an instrumental jam between T. Rex and Bowie, after Bowie had performed his then current single, ‘Heroes’ (‘Heroes’ incidentally, nowadays always at or around the top of greatest Bowie song lists, only reached #24 on release in the UK, whilst failing to chart at all in the US).
People now talk about it the being the era of Glam Rock, but Bowie wasn’t really seen as part of a movement – his music was unique, and his image had taken things to a whole other level. I would never have described him as Glam Rock; that was more the likes of T. Rex, The Sweet and Gary Glitter – the poppier side of things. Bowie defied pigeonholing, and apart from Roxy Music, with their strangeness of sound, glamour and sophistication, he had no peer throughout this time.
Bowie was the great champion of the outsider – another major example is his highlighting of mental health, which can be heard most directly in tracks like ‘All The Madmen’ (‘The Man Who Sold The World’) and ‘The Bewlay Brothers’, the haunting conclusion to ‘Hunky Dory’’, which is thought to refer to himself and his older half-brother, Terry, who suffered psychiatric problems, and would eventually take his own life. His words certainly resonated with me, offering new perspective, and even embracing the madness in preference to so called normality – ‘I’d rather stay here with all the madmen, than perish with the sad men roaming free, and I’d rather play here with all the madmen, for I’m quite content they’re all as sane as me’. Even the title ‘Aladdin Sane’ works on this theme, being a take on ‘a lad insane’.
Another album that slips perfectly into the Ziggy context is Lou Reed’s ‘Transformer’ (1973). Reed, who originally emerged as a member New York’s Velvet Undeground, a big influence on Bowie, himself died in 2013. Here’s part of the blog post I put up to mark his passing:
It’s Spring and I’m in school on a Tuesday lunch time. I have a transistor radio pressed close up to my ear and I’m listening to Johnny Walker, the BBC Radio 1 presenter, who, every Tuesday, announces the latest UK singles chart rundown, which I followed religiously back then. All of a sudden, despite the limitations of my tinny sound source, I hear that bass line for the first time and I’m instantly under its spell. Then came the song, which seemed to be some kind of sleazily surreal ‘through the looking glass’ saga, with Holly, Sugar Plum Fairy and Little Joe amongst a cast of curious characters. I had no idea what it all meant (neither did the BBC, or they would have banned it on the spot), but the word imagery mesmerized me. Holly, it transpired, was a very different type of tranny to the one held tightly to my ear.
I was already big into Bowie by this point, so I’d have read in Record Mirror or Disc that he and Mick Ronson had produced Lou Reed, although I hadn’t properly got my head around what production actually was. Now I’d been exposed to this unique aural treat, all that mattered was getting my hands on a copy straight away, so it was off to the record shop to pick one up without delay.
As it turns out, the flip side, ‘Perfect Day’, was also destined to become a classic, and is now the second best-known and loved Lou Reed track. Not the subtly tormented love song it appears to be on the surface, its subtext apparently an ode to heroin, which Reed had been accused of glorifying since his time with the Velvet Underground. What’s for sure is that it’s certainly one of the great 7” couplings, and more than convinced me to save my pennies for a copy of ‘Transformer’, the album from which this wondrous single had been taken.
Bowie’s long struggle to establish himself began to fully sink in when, having eagerly snapped up all the RCA albums and singles, I also bought a couple of cash-in re-issues of some of his ’60s recordings. One was particularly interesting to me, for it contained obscure stuff I’d never heard before, from 1966 when he had a short-lived deal with Pye Records and released his first singles as David Bowie (he’d previously recorded under his own name Jones, but changed it to Bowie to avoid confusion with the hit US TV group, The Monkees, whose lead singer shared the same name). This was Bowie the Mod, just ahead of the psychedelic revolution that was to change our cultural horizons so radically.
However, it’s the other record that takes a special place in Bowie folklore – from those crazy Deram sessions that had spawned the ‘Images’ compilation, the label succeeded in cashing in with one of the novelty tracks of the year, 6 years on from its original release. This was the infamous ‘The Laughing Gnome’, with Bowie, in full-on chirpy Cockney guise conversing with his own speeded up voice, which depicted the gnome. It must have been a right headfuck for casual Bowie observers who’d just been awed by his most recent single and one of his greatest compositions, the symphonic masterpiece ‘Life On Mars’, to be greeted with this ‘latest hit’. It really was a case of from the sublime to the ridiculous, and Bowie, the coolest cat in the cosmos, must have squirmed with embarrassment as he was subjected to this unwelcome blast from his not so illustrious past. The attempts at a cash-in paid dividends for Deram and ‘The Laughing Gnome’ made it all the way to #6. Suffice to say that, despite its popularity, this is a track you won’t find on a Bowie hits compilation.
‘Life On Mars’:
‘The Laughing Gnome’:
So there I was in the summer of 1973 devouring it all – the future classics and the curio. I was only 13 and there was nobody I knew of my age with the same level of obsession. Sure, there were others in my school who were into Bowie, but I’d embraced it all on a whole other sphere. Most of the kids I knew were more interested in other pop stars of the time, like Slade, Gary Glitter, Rod Stewart, Elton John and T. Rex, but even so, this interest was only surface. I’d buy the music papers – Sounds, NME, Melody Maker, Record Mirror & Disc – dependent on whether they had Bowie images / articles, and my bedroom became a shrine of cuttings. I remember going to a fancy dress party across the road from where I lived, at the Wallasey Powerboat and Ski Club, with my freshly dyed hair swept back, the Aladdin Sane lightning bolt across my face, and wearing something suitably fabulous I’d found in my mum’s wardrobe. I’d also taken to tagging my name with lightning bolts replacing the G’s.
I got friendly with some older lads, who would have been around 17/18, local hard cases with single earrings and orange hair who I’d connected with over Bowie. I’d realized that my knowledge and enthusiasm had garnered a level of respect from them that bypassed the significant age difference. They didn’t speak to me as a 13 year-old kid, but as a Bowie adoring equal. This came in really handy when I went to my final school, only to walk straight into trouble with a gang of lads in the years above who had singled me out and would surely have made my life a misery had I not had these friends in high places.
I more or less lived in New Brighton Baths during the summer months – it was heaven on earth on a sunny day, a huge outdoor swimming pool that held around 12,000 people at capacity (opened in 1934 it was grandly described as ‘the largest aquatic stadium the world’). On this particular day I was talking to one of my Bowie comrades, a lad who’d already left school about 4 years my senior, and someone, as they used to say, you wouldn’t want to get on the wrong side of. Just at this moment a group of lads from this school gang walked past, including the nastiest of the bunch – the one who would most happily instigate any bullying. Shit-stirrers we used to call them. Well, he spotted me, but then spotted who I was talking to and his face became a picture of confusion – without having to ask for protection, or even point out I had a problem, the problem evaporated in that instant, right in front of my eyes my adversaries nodded their respect to my carottopped friend, and I never had any problem from those lads throughout the rest of the time we shared a school. I was connected it seemed, and Bowie was very much the catalyst.
On June 10th 1973 Bowie had played one of his legendary Ziggy Stardust concert dates at Liverpool Empire. I was still only in middle school and just too young to be allowed to head across the Mersey on my own at night. I remember some of the older lads in the area went and came back with that changed look in their eyes. I’d noticed the same thing with regards to the controversial film ‘A Clockwork Orange’ a year or so previous, before director Stanley Kubrick withdrew it due to occurrences of copycat violence. It was like they’d seen something that they shouldn’t have, and as a result had acquired some sort of secret. The 2 actually linked together – during the Ziggy tour, before the band took to the stage the soundtrack to ‘A Clockwork Orange’ would be played, the droogs in the film (a four man gang in effect) having a big effect on Ziggy & The Spiders. The track ‘Suffragette City’ even contained the direct reference ‘hey droogie don’t crash here’. The references to ‘A Clockwork Orange’ returned at the end of his career – the track ‘Girl Loves Me’ on ‘Blackstar’ containing a number of words in Nadsat (the teenage language Manchester writer Anthony Burgess invented for ‘A Clockwork Orange’, which was published 9 years before Kubrick’s film adaptation in 1962).
At this time there was nothing to suggest that Ziggy wouldn’t be back on another tour in the not too distant, and there was no way in the world I was going to miss the Liverpool date next time. Then, on July 3rd, during the final tour date at London’s Hammersmith Odeon, he dropped the bombshell – Ziggy & The Spiders were no more, this would be their final appearance. I was absolutely gutted when I read the news in the music press. I cursed myself for not being able to make the June date in Liverpool and prayed that this decision to ‘break up the band’ (as prophesized in the lyrics of the song ‘Ziggy Stardust’) would be reversed. It never was, and I didn’t have any inclination to see Bowie live after this – it had to be with the classic Spiders line-up of Mick Ronson (guitar), Trevor Bolder (bass) and Woody Woodmansey (drums), or nothing at all. The Spiders From Mars were a key part of the picture – I wrote the following on marking the 40th anniversary of ‘Ziggy Stardust’:
It wasn’t just Bowie, but the whole Ziggy package, complete with the Spiders, that rocked my world. ‘Hunky Dory’, ‘Ziggy Stardust’ and ‘Aladdin Sane’ are life-defining records for me, which also happen to be the 3 LP’s that all 3 Spiders appear on. So, whilst acknowledging Ziggy’s 40th, I also want to celebrate one of the great rock bands – Bowie may have had the vision and the drive, but The Spiders From Mars, especially Ronson, were the facilitators of his wildest dreams.
I never did see Bowie live. I spat my Ziggy dummy, and with hindsight I can see that the decision to put a full stop to that phase of his career spelt the beginning of the end for my own affections, for it was never quite the same again for me. Don’t get me wrong, there was still a wealth of discover to come, starting off as 1973 drew to a close with ‘Pin-Ups’, the follow up to ‘Aladdin Sane’, giving him consecutive chart topping albums.
I’d never thought about this until I was writing this piece, but I believe that had I gone to see the Ziggy Stardust concert it’s more likely that I would have gravitated towards making music / playing in bands, as so many did as a consequence, rather than becoming a DJ, as I would, a couple of years on.
‘Pin-Ups’ was a stop-gap covers album featuring a selection of Bowie’s favourite tracks that he used to hear played or performed in London’s clubs during the 1964-67 period – all bar one (The Easybeats from Australia) originally recorded by British artists, including The Who, The Kinks, The Pretty Things, The Yardbirds and The Pink Floyd (he’d deliberately picked tracks that weren’t well known in the US). Two thirds of the Spiders were retained for the recording sessions, but Woody Woodmansey had been replaced by Aynsley Dunbar – Ronson and Bolder would follow Woodmansey out of the door by the time of the next studio album. It was also the end of the road for producer Ken Scott, who worked on all of the material that Bowie and all 3 Spiders together recorded.
It wouldn’t be until a decade later, in 1983, that the wonderful D. A. Pennebaker film of the Hammersmith farewell was made available to buy on VHS, with the soundtrack also released as an album. The film is certainly the next best thing to being there, catching the essence of this otherworldly artist at the height of his remarkable powers. In the meantime I contented myself with a bootleg double album cut from an FM broadcast of an October 1972 tour date in Santa Monica, California – owning this album, with the pig ‘trade mark of quality’ logo, was seen as the true mark of the Bowie aficionado. Playing along with the Spiders is American pianist Mike Garson, who began touring with the band that year, and would make a significant contribution to ‘Aladdin Sane’ and the 2 subsequent studio albums, outlasting the Spiders in the process (Garson, a practitioner of Scientology, would introduce Bolder and Woodmansey to the controversial belief system in 1973). ’Live Santa Monica 72’ finally gained an official release 26 years on via EMI / Virgin in 2008.
I remember being immediately uncomfortable with the demise of the Spiders – there was much debate in the music press on the subject. However, I was hugely re-assured that the Bowie rollercoater was still in full swing when I heard his follow-up to ‘Sorrow’, his ‘Pin-Ups’ single, released just ahead of my 14th birthday in February 1974. ‘Rebel Rebel’ has become one of his most enduring singles, this was the first Bowie hit, apart from ‘Space Oddity’ that Mick Ronson hadn’t played guitar on – to add insult to injury, Bowie himself plays the killer guitar riff that defines this classic. It seemed like business as usual, Spiders or no Spiders.
Absent from ‘Rebel Rebel’, the Spiders, about to drop into the pop abyss, were tucked away on the flipside with the magnificent ‘Queen Bitch’, a relic from ‘Hunky Dory’. Bowie was surrounding himself with American musicians for the next phase of his career. It was out with the old and in with the new as he set about reinventing himself.
I must make special mention of ‘Queen Bitch’, which was much loved on the weekend nights at Wigan Pier when I became resident there (1980-82). Specialist Bowie / Roxy nights had begun to make a big impression in the clubs during the late ’70s, the DJs playing records by what were a new wave of acts emerging, led by Bowie and the ultra-cool Roxy Music, and including German electronic pioneers Kraftwerk, and then new British acts like Ultravox and The Human League. This would eventually morph into the Futurist / New Romantic scene of the early ’80s (to whom Bowie was an icon). ‘Queen Bitch’ was a Roxy / Bowie special, which could be played on a regular night, along with numerous Bowie classics from the ’70s. Pips in Manchester held a legendary Bowie / Roxy night, as illustrated in this footage from 1977:
One further thought on the Spiders. Hull has been designated UK city of culture 2017 – both Ronson and Trevor Bolder were from Hull, with Woody Woodmansey from nearby Driffield. Surely now, following David Bowie’s death, the story of his greatest collaborators should come more to the fore. Ronson (in 1993 aged 43) and Bolder (in 2013 aged 62) are sadly no longer with us, like Bowie, both dying as a result of cancer. Mick Ronson was Bowie’s lieutenant and the perfect rock god foil for his Ziggy theatrics. Bowie may have continued to be a successful recording artist for another shapeshifting decade, but despite all the great musicians he subsequently worked with, the combination of Bowie, Ronson, Bolder and Woodmansey amounts to one of the great bands in its own right. Had Bowie never recorded another note following the final Hammersmith appearance, he would have still left a vast legacy – such is the measure of the artist during those eventful years, backed by his 3 electrifying droogs.
The new era began with ‘Diamond Dogs’, of which ‘Rebel Rebel’ was a precursor. My main recollection of listening to the album is off a portable cassette player in New Brighton baths, feeling like the coolest kid in town. With hindsight it was all a bit over the top, its apocalyptic Orwellian theme never hanging quite right, and his new ‘Halloween Jack’ character unconvincing – no wonder given Bowie’s increasing cocaine dependence, which would eventually take him to the brink. That said, I’d have sworn undying love for the album at the time – Bowie was still at the top of the tree, ‘Diamond Dogs’ making it a hat-trick of chart topping LP’s, whilst the album also provided his US top 10 breakthrough. My favourite tracks at the time were very much the ‘Sweet Thing’ / ‘Candidate’ combination, but apart from ‘Rebel Rebel’ it was clear that there wasn’t another killer single to be found on the album, RCA, hoping to turn a similar trick to what they’d done with ‘Life On Mars’ the previous year, releasing ‘Rock ‘N’ Roll Suicide’, the concluding track on ‘Ziggy Stardust’, as a single. The release was a relative failure – stalling at #22, with the indignity of being the first Bowie RCA single not to reach the UK Top 20 since ‘Changes’, the single that preceded ‘Starman’, which failed to chart following its release in early 1972.
Backtracking somewhat, RCA rush-released the album’s title track as the follow up to the ill-fated ‘Rock & Roll Suicide’, but it hardly fared any better, peaking just one place higher at #21. Even though his next single returned him to the top 10 (just), the fact it was a cover of Eddie Floyd’s ’60s Soul classic, ‘Knock On Wood’ only added to sense of discontinuity in his single releases. I don’t think a lot of people quite knew where they stood with Bowie at this point, the direction he was moving into unsure. ‘Knock On Wood’ heralded another stop gap album, ‘David Live’, recorded in July 1974 on the Philadelphia leg on the ‘Diamond Dogs’ US tour, and released 4 months later, reaching #2 on the UK chart.
I’d tried to go with the flow, but I was coming to realize that things just weren’t the same. Despite my initial enthusiasm, ‘Diamond Dogs’ just didn’t stand up to repeated plays for me in the same way as ‘Hunky Dory’, ‘Ziggy Stardust’ and ‘Aladdin Sane’ did, and felt somewhat hit and miss in comparison. Further to this, I had big issues with ‘David Live’, which just wasn’t cutting it for me in the way that the ‘Live Santa Monica ‘72’ bootleg had – the elephant in the room being The Spiders. The new band were all crack musicians, but the edge just wasn’t there. ‘Moonage Daydream’ was a point in question; once urgent and vital it now felt weary and labored – whilst Earl Slick was a fine guitarist, Mick Ronson’s solo was arguably his defining moment as Bowie’s right hand. Check out Ronson in his pomp here, during the final Ziggy performance at Hammersmith:
Mick Ronson would get a solo deal with RCA, going on to release 2 albums, the first of which, ‘Slaughter On Tenth Avenue’ (1974), reached #9 in the UK chart, with the 2nd, ‘Play Don’t Worry’, peaking at #29 a year later. He would then return to the periphery of the rock world, along with Bolder, who would join the band Uriah Heep, and Woodmansey, who formed his own band U-Boat. Ronson’s best-known recording would be ‘Only After Dark’ from his first album, later covered in 1980 by The Human League. Following his short solo career, Ronson became a long-time collaborator with Mott The Hoople’s former leader Ian Hunter (Woodmansey, the youngest member, is the only surviving member of Ziggy & The Spiders). He would also produce Morrisey’s ‘Your Arsenal’ album a year before his death in 1993. Here he is being interviewed about the Ziggy Stardust era in 1992 for the BBC documentary series ‘Dancing In The Street’:
‘Knock On Wood’ had provided the clue as to where Bowie was heading, and why this was the station I’d be getting off, for before Bowie, before even T. Rex, there was the music I first fell head over heels in love with when I was still in primary school. It was a type of music that had remained constant in my life throughout my Bowie obsession, always there to turn to when I needed a different perspective or mood. This was Soul, handed down by my brother and sister, and its subsequent offshoot, Funk. Black music was already a constant in my life, so when Bowie recorded ‘Young Americans’ at Sigma Sound in Philadelphia, taking his fans off into another new, this time soulful direction, it felt a bit anti-climatic on a personal level, for I was already into the Philly Sound, buying records by artists like The O’Jays, Harold Melvin & The Bluenotes, The Intruders, Billy Paul and MFSB. Yes, he was doing it in his own unique way, and some really good tracks came out of this period, not least the essential Funk jam ‘Fame’, his first US #1 (co-written with John Lennon and guitarist Carlos Alomar), but I didn’t want Bowie the soul boy, I was pining for Ziggy the space alien.
This is where the disconnect came for me, and whilst I’d still very much admire Bowie throughout the next decade, I was no longer up close, hanging on his every move. It was at the end of 1975 that my DJ career began, and during my first appearance I would have played ‘Golden Years’, which like ‘Fame’ would herald his 1976 album ‘Station To Station’. These singles provided something of a skewed view of the coming album, with his new material taking a more European leaning as he soaked up the influence of experimental German artists like Can, Neu! And Kraftwerk.
As I moved slowly towards my aspirations of becoming a black music specialist – for black music was club music – Bowie would soon be off over the horizon, out of sight in Berlin. Our worlds would subsequently align via the tracks I’d play in the clubs, until I finally achieved the goal I’d set, and concentrated solely on black music in the early ’80s. Before that Bowie would pop up every now and then with a single that that was big in the clubs, most notably ‘Sound And Vision’ (1977), ‘Ashes To Ashes’ and ‘Fashion’ (1980). He also had a UK top 20 hit in 1979 with his re-working of ‘John I’m Only Dancing’, a Sigma Sound recording from the ‘Young Americans’ session earlier in the decade. I wasn’t a fan of this alternative version and avoided playing it out, my Spiders loyalties again coming to the fore. Both of these releases, the 1972 original and ‘John I’m Only Dancing (Again)’ in 1979, reached #12 in the UK.
I’m not quite sure why this was the case, but having flirted with the lower regions of the US album chart – ‘Hunky Dory’ (#93) and ‘Ziggy Stardust’ (#75) – Bowie made his breakthrough in 1973 with a re-issue of ‘Space Oddity’ – the single reaching #15 and the album #16. 2 months later ‘Aladdin Sane’ entered the US album chart, peaking at #17, whilst ‘Pin-Ups’ would stall at #23. It wasn’t until 1974 that he scored his first top 10 albums, ‘Diamond Dogs’ (#5) and ‘David Live’ (#8). So although Bowie was making a strong impression in the US, he wasn’t the superstar he was at home – his first chart-topping album being his final one, ‘Blackstar’, achieving in death what he never quite did during his life. All in all Bowie scored just 6 top 10 singles in the US throughout his 44 year chart career (as opposed to 24, 4 times as many, in the UK).
To put this all in context you only have to look at the album chart presence of his fellow Brit, Elton John, during the 1972-1975 period I’m focusing on here, when he released no less than 7 consecutive US #1’s. Now Elton John really was an American superstar, whereas Bowie was more of an acquired taste as far as large swathes of the US public was concerned – loved by the freaks and the outsiders, but mistrusted by the mainstream. His sexuality would outrage many Americans, especially in the less cosmopolitan areas of the country, and these people wouldn’t have dreamed of buying the music of such a degenerate, as they’d have viewed him. It’s ironic now that many of these same people would be happily buying all those Elton John albums – when Elton John did finally come out, during a Rolling Stone interview in 1976, his sales plummeted and the long run of number 1’s, lasting over 3 years, abruptly stopped.
Even within the UK, where Bowie was a superstar, he somehow retained cult status throughout much of the ’70s and through the early ’80s – right up to the point he fully embraced the mainstream and made his most successful album in terms of pounds, shillings and pence, ‘Let’s Dance’ (1983). Whilst I write all this, there are no doubt many people who arrived at Bowie via ‘Let’s Dance’, and would view this as his greatest work, citing the title track, ‘China Girl’ and ‘Modern Love’, all MTV favourites, as Bowie classics, which I suppose they are in a different sense, but this was but a shadow of Bowie for me – the clean cut master craftsman for sure, but no longer that galactic creature that arrived through a crack in time. ‘Let’s Dance’ was the commercial peak for Bowie as a world star – whereas Ziggy was cult, myth and legend in comparison. That’s where we were back in ’72 / ’73, deep within the mythos.
It was pretty much downhill from there – Bowie continued to sell records to a loyal fan base that stayed with him throughout, with new fans acquired via a series of megatours, and would still pick up the odd #1 LP during the 3 decades following ‘Let’s Dance’, but despite morphing from one approach to the next he couldn’t find the magic he once seemed able to summon so effortlessly. The proof is in the pudding – following his death the vast majority of the top 40 Bowie tracks downloaded were from his first decade, and only a couple from the mid-’80s on, most notably his surprise 2013 hit single ‘Where Are We Now?’, which was his first top 10 hit since ‘Jump They Say’ 20 years before, serving to build the momentum for another chart topping album, ‘The Next Day’.
‘Where Are We Now?’ was an uncomfortable listen for me, it struck me as maudlin and bleakly nostalgic, an older man looking back over younger times, It felt like exactly what it has now become, an expression of an artist approaching the end. It was one of those songs that force you to face your own mortality, especially when accompanied by a very strange video, with Bowie’s head, along with a woman’s, the artist Jacqueline Humphries (the video directed by her husband, Tony Oursler), conjoined as ‘face in a hole’ puppets sitting on a pommel horse, with footage of Berlin in the ’70s, referencing Bowie’s time in the city during the late ’70s (as did the song lyrics), showing in black and white on a screen behind them, in a room filled with various memorabilia items. There was no joy to be found in the track or the video, it harbored some sort of resignation, but it really seemed to strike a chord with a great many people, and was his best received single in a generation. There was a further nostalgic touch in the video, where we leave the weird puppets and Berlin footage, cutting to Bowie stood alone in a room wearing a t-shirt that contains the words ‘Song Of Norway’, which takes us back to 1969 when his then girlfriend, and some would say the love of his life, Hermione Farthingale, ended the relationship, leaving to pursue her own career, appearing in a film of the same name (a musical about the life of Norwegian classical composer Edvard Grieg, which, following its release in 1970, was a commercial disaster). She inspired the songs ‘A Letter To Hermione’ and ‘An Occasional Dream’ on his next album, and he referenced her as ‘the girl with the mousey hair’ on ‘Life In Mars’.
It was directly after this that he made his ‘Space Oddity’ breakthrough, as well as meeting his future wife Angie Barnett, who he married in 1970 (they had a son, Zowie Bowie, in 1971 – he would later change his name to Duncan Jones, forging a career as a film director). Angie Bowie played a big part in evolving her husband’s image, and consequentially helping create the Ziggy persona – she egged him on to do stuff he might not have tried on his own, or had he still been in a relationship with Hermione. Angie was his muse, his ‘Space Oddity’ follow-up ‘The Prettiest Star’, was a song he wrote for her, and married life really brought out the daring in him as he attempted to scandalize British sensibilities by posing in a ‘man dress’ for the original cover for his 1970 album, ‘The Man Who Sold The World’ (when the album was re-issued, in 1973, it was accompanied by a less controversial sleeve image).
Another key member of the inner-circle, Freddie Burretti, who would play a central role in helping create the Ziggy image. Buretti also fronted the short-lived pre-Ziggy Arnold Corns project, which saw the release of 2 tracks that would subsequently become Bowie / Ziggy favourites, ‘Moonage Daydream’ and ‘Hang On To Yourself’ (although Burretti fronted the project, it was Bowie’s vocals on the records).
His wife would encourage Bowie’s gender-bending image – she herself was bisexual and had been expelled from Connecticut College For Women in the US for having an affair with another girl. She can be seen in a revealing backstage sequence during the film of final Ziggy Stardust tour date, engaged in a high camp exchange with her husband whilst he has his make-up applied. There relationship would end in acrimony, with many dismissing her opinions as the rants of a spurned and bitter ex-wife, but there’s no question that her part in the story is a crucial one – their years up close at Haddon House in Beckenham (’69 until just before everything took off in ’72), saw Bowie flower from nearly man / also ran to no less than one of the greatest stars of the Rock era, and certainly the most flamboyant. In this interview she talks about her involvement in his career following their meeting, pre-‘Space Oddity’ in 1969:
By way of irony, at the time David Bowie died, Angie, who hadn’t been heard of for years, was a housemate on the British Celebrity Big Brother TV show. The producers of the Channel 5 programme showing a distinct lack of sensitivity in deciding to film the diary room moment they informed her of her ex-husbands death, which served to turn his passing into something of a farce, which they went ahead and broadcasted regardless. Leaving the diary room somewhat stunned by this news, Angie told fellow housemate, Tiffany Pollard, that ‘David is dead’, asking her not to say anything to the others. At this point Pollard goes into hysterics, alerting the rest of the house. She then runs into the garden, saying she had to tell the others. The farce aspect was the result of the fact that another of the housemates, sleeping at the time, was also called David – David Guest. The whole sorry scenario only resolves after Guest was found alive in the bedroom, and with the pissed off housemates about to admonish the former Mrs Bowie for what they thought was some kind of sick joke, before she was able to clarify the situation, and people realized that she actually meant David Bowie:
Angie Bowie became increasingly marginalized, both as wife and muse, in the post-Ziggy period, once the focus had shifted to the USA. This period was perfectly captured by documentary maker Alan Yentob in ‘Cracked Actor’, part of the BBC’s Omnibus series aired in early 1975. This, to the best of my knowledge, is when parts of Pennebaker’s Hammersmith Odeon footage were first broadcast in the UK.
Finally seeing Ziggy on stage before my eyes, albeit on the TV, only served to hasten the disconnect that had become increasingly apparent, especially when juxtaposed against more recent footage from Bowie’s ‘Diamond Dogs’ shows, which never came to the UK, and seemed tame in comparison to the Ziggy footage. We were presented with a stick thin Bowie, indulging in decadent cocaine overload, trying to make sense of his ever-growing stardom (he’d recently scored his first US top 10 album with ‘Diamond Dogs’). On watching ‘Cracked Actor’ some years later he recalled;
“I was so blocked … so stoned … It’s quite a casualty case, isn’t it. I’m amazed I came out of that period, honest. When I see that now I cannot believe I survived it. I was so close to really throwing myself away physically, completely.”
‘Cracked Actor’ can be viewed in its entirety here:
To remind you that this was in the days before YouTube is something of an understatement – this was in the days before we even had video recorders, when what we saw on the TV we wouldn’t get to see again unless it was repeated at a later date. This was, of course, until home video players became affordable in the early ’80s – hence the much-welcomed VHS release of the hallowed Hammersmith Odeon finale in 1984 under the title of ‘Ziggy Stardust & The Spiders From Mars: The Motion Picture’.
Getting hold of this historic footage, and then being able to play it at your convenience, was like a window into a lost realm. By the time the full concert was made available on VHS I was 24 and it was over a decade on from those halcyon days of discovery. It was manna from heaven for me, enabling me to see and hear something I’d only previously read about, or heard people talk about, and for that it was a special gift from the past wrapped in a bow of warm nostalgia.
After my attention had waned in the mid-’70s, for a few years Bowie had felt like an old friend, but no longer my main inspiration. I still bought his LP’s, but found myself picking at them rather than engaging with his music in the same way I had previously. He’d connect with a whole new underground audience via his ‘Berlin trilogy’ of albums in the late ’70s, whilst concurrently losing his mainstream gains in the US, and then enter the ’80s with a return to the top of the UK album chart, his first #1 since ‘Diamond Dogs’, courtesy of ‘Scary Monsters And Super Creeps’; its lead track ‘Ashes To Ashes’ reviving the Major Tom character from ‘Space Oddity’ – this clever combination of reminiscence and futurism touching a nerve and taking the single to the top of the charts, laying the groundwork for the album’s successful release. Rewind to 1975, and slotted in between the singles from ‘Young Americans’ and its follow-up ‘Station To Station’, RCA decided to re-issue ‘Space Oddity’, 6 years on from its original release in ’69 when it reached #5 and gave Bowie his first hit. It had also given him his first top 20 album and single in the US when re-issued there in 1973, and now it finally delivered his first UK #1 single (a matter of months on from his first US #1, ‘Fame’, which had only reached a very disappointing #17 in the UK). Now a sequel to his first #1 had given him his second – Major Tom was certainly a lucky charm, with ‘Ashes To Ashes’ seemingly bringing things full-circle for Bowie.
There’d be a two and a half year gap between ‘Scary Monsters’ and his next album, the first under his new EMI contract, ‘Let’s Dance’, although Bowie and Queen would join forces along the way to top the charts with ‘Under Pressure’ in 1981, whilst he’d also have an unlikely top 3 Christmas hit via a duet of ‘Peace On Earth / Little Drummer Boy’ with legendary crooner Bing Crosby the following year (recorded in 1977, just prior to Crosby’s death, but not released until 5 years later – it was his final RCA single, Bowie not approving, but the label cashing in anyhow now he was off to pastures new). One of the great points of interest was Bowie’s new look – he looked great, as he generally did, but pretty regular for the times, all suntan and Hollywood smile – the only trace of the alien confined to the different colours of his eyes.
The new album, co-produced by Nile Rodgers, formerly of Chic, would place him squarely in the mainstream, being his most globally successful release of all, and although this obviously brought new fans on board, it also alienated him from many of his existing fan-base who felt he was somehow betraying his outsider legacy. This view was compounded when he recorded a duo with Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones as part of the Live Aid famine relief fundraising concerts in 1985, held in London and Philadelphia and broadcast worldwide. Jagger, once a hero to Bowie, had also allegedly been his lover (implied by Angie Bowie). The track, a cover of the Martha & The Vandellas Motown classic, ‘Dancing In the Street’, was accompanied by a video in which the 2 superstars pranced through London Docklands seemingly trying to out camp each other (it was sent up more recently in ‘Family Guy’ as ‘the gayest music video of all time’). It was all for a good cause and the mainstream loved it, with the record rocketing to #1 in the UK and top 10 US, but it was also regarded by many of those who’d followed him since Ziggy as all a bit cringeworthy – a couple of old rock stars hamming it up. The lasting impression was that Bowie was now viewed as becoming increasingly part of the establishment; no longer that anti-establishment figure who’d once shocked our sensibilities and shook things up – now the words mid-life crisis were being bandied about. His marriage to supermodel Iman played into this narrative – Bowie now appearing as the wholesome family man on the cover of Hello Magazine.
Throughout the final 30 years of his career Bowie would re-appear every now and then to release a new album or embark on a tour. There’d always be some sort of media fanfare about Bowie’s new direction / image, but it was very much a case of style over substance now. The critics hauled over the coals of his decline, and Bowie was ridiculed for wanting to get back to basics by forming a band Tin Machine, who would release 2 albums, which, whilst commercially successful, were widely derided. Although his albums, released every few years, continued to reach the top 10 in the UK, his final #1 of the 20th century would be ‘Black Tie White Noise’ in 1993.
He look a decade long break from releasing music after his LP ‘Reality’ in 2003, a heart attack the following year stopping him in his tracks. Then, in 2013, an unexpected album release, ‘The Next Day’, saw him top the chart once more after a gap of 20 years. Bowie was now being talked about as a serious artist again, rather than simply a changeling on his latest musical whim – absence had definitely made the heart grow fonder.
And so it comes to his swansong, ‘Blackstar’, which has proved to be his final great artistic statement – his impending death inspiring him to a work of true depth and gravity.
A week after his passing I headed over to Liverpool with family and some friends for a special Bowie tribute edition of Fresh Garbage, which is streamed live every Sunday evening from The Buyers Club – the master of records being one of the city’s great musical mages, Bernie Connor. Bernie links back to the fabled Liverpool club Eric’s, and before that, back to Bowie. In fact, most of the crew of people who grew a scene out of Eric’s in the late ’70s / early ’80s, had been absorbed in Ziggy and followed Bowie though the ’70s, eventually stumbling across similar outsiders who shared their musical passions and introduced them to new ones, culminating in a scene that subsequently produced bands like Echo & The Bunnymen, The Teardrop Explodes, Frankie Goes To Hollywood and Dead Or Alive.
If anyone in Liverpool was going to pay proper tribute to Bowie it was Bernie. Around the time I first got to know him, in the mid-’90s, he told me his new baby’s name was Buddy, I naturally presumed this was ‘from the line in ‘Drive-In Saturday?’ (‘his name was always Buddy’), and Bernie told me I was the first person to make this connection, most others thinking it referred to Buddy Holly. My own son is called Ché, and although it wasn’t specifically because of this song (although it may have had a subliminal influence), the name also pops up on the same album (‘Aladdin Sane’) in ‘Panic In Detroit’ (‘he looked a lot like Ché Guevara’). Both Buddy and Ché were there that night and met for the first time. Both are also in bands, and discussed the possibility of gigging together in the future. This generational re-cycling seemed a fitting conclusion to a night of musical memories where a busy room sang their hearts out to Bowie classics and his spirit was saluted in true style. You can hear what Bernie played on Mixcloud:
When I started writing this I hadn’t thought about a conclusion as such – I just went with the flow, but before I knew it the narrative was sprawling out into all sorts of different directions. Just as I began to address one thing, adding further paragraphs, something else popped out that needed some sort of explanation. To be honest, the whole thing has gotten a bit out of control, demanding, as is clear if you’ve gotten this far, more than a quick 5 minutes to read – I hadn’t set out for it to be like this, but I don’t know what I expected; it was always going to sprawl out of control, for there’s so much of me tied up in there.
Whilst writing this I was interviewed by Manchester’s Viva magazine, who asked me a few questions about Bowie’s passing. It was part of my reply to the question ‘did Bowie influence you in any way?’ that got me thinking about the themes of what I’ve been writing in this (seemingly) never ending blog piece. I told them that ‘between 1972-1975 he was very much part of my identity’.
I feel that, in writing this, I’m somehow untangling that ‘identity’, which I’d assumed throughout this time. Whilst serving to help me understand Bowie better, at the bottom line it’s probably more some kind of cathartic process for myself – I just hope it has relevance to others, and perhaps gives a taste of back then when he appeared as if from Sirius B or wherever. I’d never considered myself an outsider in any way – you only know your own life, which I regarded as normal, whatever that may be. As I’ve said previously, there were other kids of my age who liked Bowie, but I was going at it from a whole different intensity – I suppose the answers I’m looking for, if it is a question I’m asking, are wrapped up in that intensity.
It would become clear later down the line that I’d never properly separated Bowie and Ziggy, having been left in limbo by the shock of his decision to ‘break up the band’ before I’d been able to pay my own personal homage. Not seeing them live left its scars – I can only imagine the overwhelming almost religious ecstasy of being there. You see it in the faces in the audience at the Hammersmith show, not least the girl singing along to ‘Moonage Daydream’. I have no doubt that had I been there I’d have crystalized in a different way – I might even have ended up at Eric’s later in the decade, rather than being a DJ playing Soul, Funk and Disco on the other side of the River Mersey. Perhaps it’s those unfulfilled possibilities that bubbled away at the back of my mind.
I think I blamed Bowie for taking away access to this part of my newly acquired identity, and whilst everybody lauded him on his chameleon-like changes of image, he was moving ever further away from the unearthly artist that had inspired me – the more time moved on the more it felt like a dressing up game, whereas Ziggy was real (or at least a wondrous illusion). This is how I suppose my young mind processed it, putting him on a pedestal, then being let-down when he no longer satisfies your requirements, not taking into account that amidst all this was a human being who’d been overwhelmed by the trappings of his hard–fought success – a young musical god worshipped by adoring fans who would gladly indulge his every whim. The unreality of the world he, and those around him, had created led to chronic cocaine abuse and dark places. There was a price to pay for this type of stardom, and the actor, which was what David Bowie always professed to be, found himself trapped within his own concept – the divide between reality and fantasy no longer clear.
Bowie created a character so convincing that he even convinced himself. Ziggy was never killed off in Hammersmith, but absorbed into Bowie, even back into David Jones – kept under cover and out of sight, but despite all attempts to off-load him, remaining a constant presence throughout Bowie’s life. We knew this back in 1973 – you couldn’t just expect us to view this all as some kind of cosmic space age theatrical illusion, and now we could all applaud and go back home. There was far too much invested.
And now, all these years on, Bowie has gone, but not without managing to summon all the magic in his power to leave us with his final testament – the album ‘Blackstar’ and the accompanying videos for the singles, ‘Lazarus’ and the epic 10 minute title track. That he’s managed to make a deeply profound artistic statement out of his death is now a remarkable aspect of his legacy. Fully utilizing the communications technology that evolved within his lifetime, which shapes the new world into which we’re moving, he announced himself as an artist of the 21st century as well as the 20th, ‘Blackstar’ a parting shot of great poignancy and dignity.
Look up here, I’m in heaven
I’ve got scars that can’t be seen
I’ve got drama, can’t be stolen
Everybody knows me now
Something happened on the day he died
Spirit rose a metre and stepped aside
Somebody else took his place and bravely cried
(I’m a blackstar, I’m a blackstar)
What it all means is open to conjecture, but the most weighty questions are most certainly posed – questions of the soul, and what becomes of us after we’ve been relieved of our physical body. This is a puzzle that artists of all types have sought to unravel since time, but nobody has used their own mortality in the medium of popular music to outline these ideas, and has had a worldwide web to distribute them.
As he forecast in the ‘Lazarus’ lyrics, ‘everybody knows me now’ – Bowie’s name is back on the lips of popular culture, relevant to a new generation who’ve been drawn in during the past month, and are devouring his music online as we speak whilst reading up on this unique artist who clearly affected so many. Leaving behind more questions than answers, much debate as to what Bowie might have meant in his final work has ensued on the internet, with articles like this one from conspiracy website Vigilant Citizen, ‘The Occult Universe Of David Bowie And the Meaning Of Blackstar’, offering their take on things:
When I heard the news of Bowie’s death I hadn’t expected I’d become so absorbed with him again, as I certainly have been throughout this past month – and not just the hero of my youth, who I needed to re-visit, but, perhaps more importantly, the older man nearing the end of his life who recorded this concluding album that’s made such a marked impression, and now sits neatly in my CD rack alongside ‘Ziggy Stardust’, ‘Hunky Dory’ and the others as a David Bowie album that touches not only my heart, but my essence.
I’ve never checked word count on a blog post previously, but I did with this – over 13,000. It’s crazy! This is twice as long as anything I’ve previously written on the blog, and I’m not shy of writing a long piece if that level of explanation and detail is necessary. This has been something else though, and I’m quite amazed if you’re reading these words – I’d imagine most people will look at the sheer size of the piece and give it a wide berth. But, as I’ve said, I figure that this was something I needed to do for myself as much as anything – I just didn’t realize it would become so involved and time-consuming. You open these things up, you need to see them through.
Living To Music – ‘Ziggy Stardust’:
Living To Music – ‘Hunky Dory’:
Ziggy At 40:
David Bowie RIP:
David Bowie Wikipedia: