So Ordinary, So Glamorous
- BuyStarman: David Bowie, the Definitive Biography by Paul Trynka
Sphere, 440 pp, £9.99, March 2012, ISBN 978 0 7515 4293 6
- The Man Who Sold the World: David Bowie and the 1970s by Peter Doggett
Bodley Head, 424 pp, £20.00, September 2011, ISBN 978 1 84792 144 4
The most recent Christmas issue of French Vogue, dedicated to ‘Noël en Musique’, had on its cover a photograph of Kate Moss done up as Ziggy Stardust. The picture is a monument to improbable staying power. It’s more than two decades since Moss was photographed by Corinne Day for the Face, those instantly iconic black and white images of a skinny 16-year-old on Camber Sands, wearing no make-up and very few clothes, grinning through her freckles and pointy teeth, all at once so English, so ordinary and so glamorous. And it’s four decades since David Bowie – wearing a lot of make-up and very few clothes, grinning through his pointy teeth, all at once so English, so ordinary and so glamorous – released The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. ‘Five years, that’s all we’ve got,’ he sang on the album’s opening number. Nobody in 1972, least of all Bowie himself, could have predicted where he would be in five years’ time, let alone forty. Yet Bowie’s towering and contradictory status, as both the most derivative and the most influential British pop musician after the Beatles, seems unassailable: Lady Gaga, Hot Chip and C Spencer Yeh owe as much to him now as the Sex Pistols, Kate Bush and Joy Division did in the late 1970s.
Because of the way Bowie ceaselessly reinvented himself, from his first gig, playing saxophone with the Kon-Rads at the Bromley Tech PTA school fête in June 1962, to his apparent retirement five or six years ago, through 27 studio albums, an estimated five thousand live shows, some of the best and a fair few of the worst songs of the last fifty years, the cliché is to call him a chameleon. Bowie got in with the description first, in ‘The Bewlay Brothers’, the wilfully opaque final song on Hunky Dory (1971): ‘He’s chameleon, comedian, Corinthian and caricature.’ But he was more like the very hungry caterpillar, munching his way through every musical influence he came across: much of Hunky Dory consists of pastiches of Bowie’s musical heroes of the 1960s – John Lennon, Syd Barrett, Anthony Newley, Bob Dylan, the Velvet Underground. Which would make Ziggy Stardust the beautiful butterfly that emerged from the chrysalis.
Paul Trynka begins his biography with a description of Bowie’s performance of ‘Starman’ on Top of the Pops on 5 July 1972. It was three years since ‘Space Oddity’ had made it into the top ten after being used by the BBC in its broadcast of the Apollo 11 moon landing; the intervening albums – David Bowie (later rereleased as Space Oddity), The Man Who Sold the World and Hunky Dory – had been launched to little impact, despite their considerable if patchy virtues, and Bowie was beginning to look suspiciously like a one-hit wonder. He was 25, married with a son, and had been in the business for nearly a decade, since before he failed all his O-levels except art because he was too busy playing his sax. Born plain old David Jones in Brixton in January 1947, he grew up in Bromley, and spent his first years of struggling would-be stardom in Beckenham. He’d been in half a dozen bands as a saxophonist, a singer and a mime artist; he’d styled himself as a Mod, a hippy and a Buddhist; he’d called himself Davie Jones, David Jay and David Bowie (after Richard Widmark’s portrayal of Jim Bowie in The Alamo, though he pronounces it the southern English way, the first syllable rhyming with ‘snow’ rather than ‘shoe’ or ‘cow’). Whatever it took. One of the things Trynka’s biography makes clear is Bowie’s utter determination to hit the big time. ‘I was ambitious in my head,’ his schoolfriend George Underwood told Trynka, ‘but not like he was.’
On that ‘sunny evening’ in July 1972, Trynka recalls:
His look is lascivious, amused. As an audience of excited teens and outraged parents struggle to take in the multicoloured quilted jumpsuit, the luxuriant carrot-top hairdo, spiky teeth and those sparkling, mascaraed come-to-bed eyes, he sings us through an arresting succession of images … Bowie lifts his slim, graceful hand to the side of his face and his platinum-haired bandmate Mick Ronson joins him at the microphone. Then, casually, coolly, Bowie places his arm around the guitarist’s neck, and pulls Ronson lovingly towards him … Up to this point, pop music had been mainly about belonging, about identification with your peers. This music … was a spectacle of not-belonging.
The spectacle worked so well thanks in part to its obvious amateurishness, its visible seams. Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars evidently were not from Mars: they didn’t look like aliens so much as a bunch of overgrown kids playing at dressing up – which was, in its way, even more alluring. We may be different, they seemed to be saying, but we’re also just like you. As well as the familiar ambiguities of gender and sexuality, in the best of the Ziggy songs Bowie channels both the extraterrestrial superstar and the crooked-toothed boy from Bromley: he is simultaneously star and fan, both Ground Control and Major Tom. It isn’t just about the words: you can hear it in his voice throughout the album, the way his accent veers between South London, the Home Counties and somewhere else entirely; the way the melody bobs along at a hummable level before suddenly shooting off out of range. As well as tongue-in-cheek performances of interplanetary glamour, they are outpourings of suburban yearning, describing the condition that they hold out the promise of escape from.
Trynka doesn’t often go into details about the music, which is perhaps just as well. In his discussion of ‘Starman’ he talks about its ‘opening minor chords’ when they’re nothing of the kind, and says that ‘the key changes from minor to major’ at the chorus. But there’s no key change, and it’s important that there isn’t: the effect Trynka’s hearing, the sense of ‘release’ and ‘climax’ he gets when the chorus kicks in, would be lost if there were. What happens is that for the first time, the melody hits the tonic; Bowie gets through 15 bars in F major without singing an F, and then on the word ‘starman’ he hits two of them, an octave apart. The octave leap is, as Trynka says, ‘an ancient Tin Pan Alley songwriter’s trick’, and the steal doesn’t stop there: the melody of the chorus is ‘lifted openly, outrageously’ from Judy Garland. Bowie privately called the song ‘Somewhere over the Rainbow’, and before long was singing Yip Harburg’s lyrics as well as Harold Arlen’s tune in live performances of ‘Starman’.
In creating Ziggy Stardust, Bowie was acknowledging that it was no longer possible, if it ever had been, to make ‘original’ or ‘authentic’ rock’n’roll, especially if you were a skinny white boy from Bromley. Since all pop music was imitation of one kind or another, and since there was little point in producing another collage of obvious pastiches, however accomplished, the only way forward after Hunky Dory was to invent a new idol, an amalgam of all his heroes (including Iggy Pop and the Legendary Stardust Cowboy, both of whom he’d first heard on a trip to America to promote The Man Who Sold the World in 1971), the ultimate fantasy rock god. Obviously he couldn’t himself be that impossible figure, but he could pretend to be him, act the part as it might be played on a music-hall stage, and in the process become something else, something more interesting and possibly even something new – synthetic not only in the sense of ‘inauthentic’ but in a dialectical sense, too. Ziggy Stardust is an archetype of the popstar that has yet, as the cover of French Vogue attests, to be superseded.
Ziggy is a combination of many people in another sense too: Bowie didn’t create the character all by himself. The costumes were made by Freddie Buretti (who, when arrested for importuning an undercover policeman, gave his profession as ‘seamstress’), based on prototypes cobbled together by Bowie’s wife, Angie, who also brought in Bowie’s mother’s hairdresser to do his hair. Even his mesmerising face was partly someone else’s work: much of the strange fascination is down to the asymmetry of his eyes, different colours since Underwood punched him in the face in a fight over a girl when they were 15, damaging his left eye so that the pupil is permanently dilated. As for the music, Ronson wasn’t only Bowie’s guitarist but was also largely responsible for the arrangements. And overseeing the whole enterprise alongside Bowie was his manager, Tony Defries, whose taste and talent for theatrical gestures rivalled Bowie’s own.
The metamorphosis couldn’t stop at Ziggy Stardust: butterflies, as Bowie realised but his friend and rival Marc Bolan didn’t, are ephemeral. Five years later, when Bowie made a guest appearance on Bolan’s TV show, Marc, the difference couldn’t have been more pronounced. At the end of the episode, Bolan – washed-up, drunk, mumbling about the ‘cats’ in the band, wearing heavy eyeliner and nail polish, still playing the same old glam, still stuck in 1972 – fell off the stage; he was killed in a car crash a week later. Bowie (cool, poised, prettier than ever), rather than shambling on as just another coked-out relic from the past, was setting the terms of the post-punk future in his so-called Berlin triptych: Low, ‘Heroes’, Lodger.
Bowie announced Ziggy’s demise on stage at the Hammersmith Odeon on 3 July 1973. There were compelling financial reasons for pulling the plug: a third US tour was scheduled, and while Defries had persuaded RCA to cover the heavy losses incurred by the previous two, this time they put their foot down. Before closing the set with ‘Rock’n’Roll Suicide’, Bowie said: ‘Not only is it the last show of the tour, but it’s the last show that we’ll ever do. Thank you!’ It came as a surprise not only to the audience but to half of the band too.
Ziggy had been through a few changes in the preceding year, some more cosmetic than others: more decadent costumes, more extravagant shows, and another album, Aladdin Sane, composed largely while the Spiders were touring America. (‘The Jean Genie’, a queer reworking of Muddy Waters’s ‘Mannish Boy’, was the product of a jam session on a Greyhound bus.) It was saved from being merely a disappointing sequel to Ziggy Stardust by a shake-up in personnel; above all, in the recruitment of Mike Garson on piano:
I played a blues solo and David said: ‘No, that’s not what I’m looking for.’ Then I played a little Latin solo. ‘No, that’s not what I’m looking for’ … Then he said to me: ‘Well you told me about playing on the avant-garde scene in New York. Why don’t you try something like that?’ I said: ‘Are you serious?’ He said: ‘Absolutely.’ That whole solo was one shot, one take – boom, that was it. But it came about because he got it out of me.
Throughout Starman, Trynka emphasises this ability of Bowie’s to coax performances out of other musicians. As Bowie himself put it in 2002, ‘To not be modest about it, you’ll find that with only a couple of exceptions, most of the musicians I’ve worked with have done their best work by far with me.’ One of the exceptions is Lou Reed, who did his best work by far in the Velvet Underground with John Cale, but his solo career would have been nothing without Bowie, who along with Ronson produced Reed’s Transformer in 1972.
Bowie’s producing of Transformer can be seen as a fan’s way of repaying a debt. That’s also one way to look at Pin Ups, the album the Spiders recorded at the Château d’Hérouville, near Paris, almost immediately after their final gig in Hammersmith, instead of going on their cancelled tour of the States. But unlike Transformer, Pin Ups was a dead end, a literal-minded rehashing of the idea behind Hunky Dory but worse, in that the songs weren’t novel variations on themes by 1960s musicians, but largely vacuous cover versions. Even the idea for a covers album was ripped off from Bryan Ferry.
Leaving Ziggy behind meant leaving the Spiders behind too: as the lyrics to ‘Ziggy Stardust’ put it, ‘when the kids had killed the man I had to break up the band.’ Bowie later played down the importance of his partnership with Ronson. In The Man Who Sold the World, Peter Doggett quotes from an interview with Melody Maker at the beginning of 1976 (though you can’t really trust anything Bowie said in that period): ‘I honestly can’t remember Mick that well these days,’ he said. ‘He’s just like any other band member that I had.’ Doggett also quotes from a possibly more reliable interview with Mojo in 1997, four years after Ronson’s death from liver cancer, in which Bowie gave a succinct explanation of why they had to part company: ‘I just gave up trying to get him to come out and see other bands or listen to interesting music. You’d mention anything new, and his pet phrase was: “Don’t need to.”’
According to the record sleeve, Bowie played most of the guitar on Diamond Dogs (1974) himself. But Alan Parker, whose contribution is acknowledged for only one song, ‘1984’, perhaps deserves more credit than that. Of the guitar part on ‘Rebel Rebel’, Parker told Trynka: ‘I can tell my own playing, and my own sound, and I know it’s me.’ Diamond Dogs, a very loose reinterpretation of Nineteen Eighty-Four, isn’t short of outrageous claims. The album’s bad-trip imagery, like the cut-up technique Bowie used to compose the lyrics, is borrowed from William Burroughs. The title song is introduced with a toe-curling yell of: ‘This ain’t rock’n’roll, this is genocide!’ But that’s soon forgotten in the gloriously overlong, overripe, decadent mess of anarchic guitars, squelching horns and exuberant percussion (‘Diamond Dogs’ would be nothing without its frenetic cowbell).
The Diamond Dogs tour of North America, too, was an overblown extravaganza, Bowie performing on a $400,000 stage set of giant model skyscrapers, bridges and cranes, dosed up on cocaine. One of the more unlikely members of his entourage was Alan Yentob, who joined him on the road for a while to make a documentary for the BBC. Riding through the desert in the back of a limo, Yentob asks Bowie about the way he’s ‘picked up on a lot of the idioms and themes of American music and American culture’. ‘There’s a fly floating around in my milk,’ Bowie replies. (He’s supposed to have been living on nothing but milk, red peppers, cigarettes and coke at the time.) ‘He’s a foreign body in it, you see, and he’s getting a lot of milk. That’s kind of how I felt. A foreign body and I couldn’t help but soak it up … Look, a wax museum. Imagine having a bleeding wax museum out in the middle of the desert. You’d think it’d melt, wouldn’t you.’ Bowie’s performance in Cracked Actor, especially the scenes in the back of the limo, led Nicolas Roeg to cast him as the star of The Man Who Fell to Earth the following year.
Among the music Bowie was soaking up on the Diamond Dogs tour was Philadelphia soul: he played a week of shows in the city in July 1974, which were recorded and released as David Live, and in August recorded the bulk of Young Americans there with a new line-up of musicians, including Carlos Alomar on guitar. When the tour resumed in the autumn, with many of the musicians from Philadelphia now on stage, Bowie ditched the elaborate set and changed his costume, performing in his girlfriend Ava Cherry’s father’s gouster suits from the 1940s. Lester Bangs slammed the Detroit show in his review in Creem as ‘a weird and utterly incongruous melange of glitter sentiment, negritudinal trappings, cocaine ecstasy and Vegas schmaltz’ – a view Bowie rapidly came round to. Interviewed by Cameron Crowe for Playboy in 1976, he dismissed Young Americans as ‘the definitive plastic soul record. It’s the squashed remains of ethnic music as it survives in the age of Muzak rock, written and sung by a white limey.’
Two tracks on Young Americans, however, its best and its worst, neither of which really belongs on the album, were recorded in New York in January 1975, when Bowie lured John Lennon into the studio for a few days. The less said about Bowie’s atrocious version of the Beatles’ ‘Across the Universe’ the better. But ‘Fame’, his first US number one, is something else, a loose improvisation session that turned into four minutes of stripped-down funk – no lush horn section or chorus of backing singers – so tight that James Brown lifted Alomar’s riff. Bowie was moving on from Young Americans even before he’d finished making it.
One reason for his restlessness, extreme even by his standards, had come in New York at the end of July, when he learned the real nature of his financial relationship with Defries. As Trynka writes, Bowie ‘believed he was a partner in MainMan’, the management company Defries had built around him. ‘In reality, he was an employee.’ He wanted out, but couldn’t extricate himself entirely: MainMan owned the masters of all the recordings he’d made to date, and Defries was entitled to hefty royalties, in perpetuity, on everything Bowie made until their contract expired in 1982. So he wasn’t free of Defries, but perversely the ongoing constraints of his contractual obligations to his ex-manager – at the crudest level, his wish not to make money for MainMan – gave him a new sense of artistic freedom, the recklessness that comes of believing you have nothing to lose.
In March 1975 Bowie took the train to LA (he was afraid of flying) to begin filming on The Man Who Fell to Earth. One of the first things he did was visit Iggy Pop, recently confined in UCLA’s neuropsychiatric institute. Many of the most lurid stories about Bowie date from his months in LA, lost in a blizzard of cocaine, sleeplessness, TV, paranoia and black magic, with a couple of other apparently burned out stars for company. ‘Sadly,’ Trynka writes with studied understatement, ‘no detailed memories of the household antics of Dennis Hopper, Iggy Pop and David Bowie survive, for each of the participants’ recollection of this period is patchy.’ It seems that Bowie probably did have an exorcism carried out on his house, but ‘other tales, including the one of David storing bodily fluids in his refrigerator, look to be myths.’ Bowie’s amnesia extends to the all-night recording sessions for Station to Station in November 1975. But other witnesses agree that however fractured his mind may have been most of the time, when he was working Bowie was a model of lucidity and control. The album was more or less created in the studio: nothing was written or composed or planned in advance.
And it half works, from the inventiveness and sweep of the ten-minute title track, through ‘Golden Years’ – a sleeker, more disco-friendly version of ‘Fame’ – to the deadpan hilarity of ‘TVC 15’, which drew on Iggy Pop’s account of hallucinating that the TV was swallowing his girlfriend. But the album is seriously let down by two of its six songs: the sappy ‘Word on a Wing’ and the execrable ‘Wild Is the Wind’, an embarrassing attempt to imitate Nina Simone. As its title suggests, Station to Station is a transitional album, notable for the consolidation of the rhythm section Bowie would work with for the next five years – Alomar on guitar, George Murray on bass, Dennis Davis on drums – and the new emphasis on production over composition in the song-making process.
Bowie’s new onstage persona, the Thin White Duke, a vampiric cross between Aleister Crowley and Prospero with fascist overtones, having toured America and continental Europe with a side trip to Moscow, returned triumphantly to London in May 1976. He was photographed at Victoria Station standing up in the back of a Mercedes limo, apparently giving a Nazi salute. Film footage later showed that he was only waving, but he could hardly claim he was being unfairly misrepresented. Since Hunky Dory his lyrics had been intermittently blemished by a dismal interest in Nazi occultism. And at a press conference in Stockholm the week before arriving in London, he’d said: ‘I believe Britain could benefit from a fascist leader.’ Never mind that a degenerate like Bowie would have been one of the first against the wall. When the Daily Express asked him about the remark, he replied: ‘If I said it – and I’ve a terrible feeling I did say something like it … I’m astounded anyone could believe it.’ Not everyone did, especially people who didn’t want to: according to Ian MacDonald, in a piece he wrote for Uncut in 1999, ‘those of us who were fans chose to read Bowie’s stance as ironic.’ Which it may have been up to a point, but he was hardly Charlie Chaplin, or even Mel Brooks. It was more the case, as MacDonald puts it, that ‘Bowie’s brand of fascism … was taken seriously by a certain hermetic compartment of his mind … The rest of him … was deeply uneasy about it.’
After the tour concluded in Paris later that May, Bowie retreated to the Château d’Hérouville, where he’d recorded Pin Ups, with Iggy Pop, to work on Iggy’s first solo album. They finished The Idiot in Germany, first Munich then Berlin, where Bowie divided his time between the recording studio, transvestite cabaret clubs, cafés and secondhand bookshops. He’d been off cocaine for a few months by that time: ‘I took that image off. I put it in a wardrobe in an LA hotel room and locked the door.’ In September 1976 they went back to Hérouville, where they were joined by, among others, Tony Visconti – who brought with him an Eventide Harmoniser, a new gadget that could change the pitch of a sound by altering its speed (‘It fucks with the fabric of time,’ he explained) – and, ten days later, Brian Eno, who according to MacDonald was ‘the first person Bowie worked with who could keep up with him’.
After two weeks’ recording in France, with many of the musicians having little idea what, if anything, they were working towards, Bowie, Iggy, Visconti and Eno returned to Berlin to complete Low. As well as Tom Waits and the Ramones, Bowie had been listening to such pioneering German bands as Neu!, Kraftwerk and Tangerine Dream, and their influence is apparent throughout the album. Listening to it now – when it sounds not only so very good, but also, thanks to its vast influence, so very normal, especially perhaps to someone born, as I was, the month after it came out – it’s hard to imagine what Low sounded like at the time, and just as hard to believe the reaction of the record company, who according to Visconti plaintively begged Bowie just to make Young Americans 2, or of Defries, who called it a ‘piece of crap’ and exempted it from Bowie’s contract with MainMan.
The first side consists of five short, unconventionally structured but exquisitely formed songs, bookended by two equally short instrumental numbers. The second side is almost entirely instrumental, and dominated by ‘Warszawa’, a long ambient soundscape built over 430 slow metronome clicks, which Eno put together on the days Bowie had to go into Paris for legal wrangles with Michael Lippman, the lawyer-manager he’d hired to disentangle himself from Defries, and had since fallen out with. His relationship with Angie, which had been essentially over for years, but kept on ice as long as they weren’t seeing each other, was heading for crisis too, since they were supposed to have moved back in with each other in a house on Lake Geneva.
Some of the lyrics on Low give an impression of blunt autobiography. All traces of quasi-mythological bluster have been erased, to be replaced by simple, fragmentary, quotidian, impressionistic, introspective, occasionally absurd lines: ‘Pale blinds drawn all day/nothing to do, nothing to say’ (‘Sound and Vision’); ‘I was going round and round/the hotel garage/must have been touching close to 94’ (‘Always Crashing in the Same Car’); ‘I’ve lived all over the world/ I’ve left every place’ (‘Be My Wife’). Simple though they may be, they repay more careful attention than some of his overanalysed, more wilfully ‘enigmatic’ earlier lyrics. Take, for example, the way the verb in those lines from ‘Be My Wife’ shifts from ‘lived’ to ‘left’, from an obvious word to an unexpected (but still very ordinary) one with the opposite but also the same meaning (leaving somewhere implies having been there first), a shift achieved with only the slightest phonetic variation, by darkening the vowel and unvoicing the final consonants.
In its tension between ‘optimism and anomie’, Trynka writes, ‘the music reflected exactly David’s mental condition’; ‘there’s no mask, no persona in Low,’ according to MacDonald, as if the authentic Bowie had revealed himself at last. But the concept of an authentic self, slippery at the best of times, has almost no purchase at all when it comes to Bowie. ‘I’m very happy with Ziggy, I think he was a very successful character and I think I played him very well, but I’m glad I’m me now,’ he says earnestly in Cracked Actor, before bursting out laughing: ‘My god I can trot ’em out.’ All the same, the temptation to put a straightforward biographical or psychological spin on Low is clearly strong: in his 2005 book about the album, Hugo Wilcken plays fast and loose with the psychiatric lexicon, not very helpfully describing both Bowie and his music as variously ‘schizophrenic’, ‘autistic’, ‘psychotic’, ‘solipsistic’ and just plain ‘mad’.
The problematic idea that Low is, in Wilcken’s words, ‘an autistic world of isolation and withdrawal’ (it’s far too accessible for that to be even half true), or, to put it in less pseudopsychiatric language, that it performs the simultaneous exposure and suppression of self, may begin to make some kind of sense if the notion of Bowie’s self is replaced by, or allowed to consist in, his voice. His voice has changed, grown, deepened, broadened over the years, but it’s still the only thing that gives a sense of continuity to Bowie’s work – the only way to tell, from merely listening to them, that records as different as Hunky Dory, Young Americans and Station to Station were made by the same person. Which is the reason, as Doggett says, that before Low a ‘David Bowie instrumental’ was an ‘unimaginable artefact’. And yet, though Low’s sound is defined by many things – the tricks Eno got up to with his synthesisers; the way Visconti and Davis fed the snare drum through the Eventide Harmoniser to make it, in MacDonald’s words, ‘the first drum-sound people outside the studio world actually noticed’ – above all it’s defined by Bowie’s voice, both when it’s there and when it isn’t, as it repeatedly disappears, reappears and disappears again over the course of the album. Even ‘Warszawa’, though mostly Eno’s work, builds up to and away from the eighty seconds of Bowie’s singing two-thirds of the way through: if singing is the right word for the heavily treated chanting of nonsense words, loosely based on the sound of a ‘Balkan boys’ choir’ that Bowie liked.
The process happens in miniature in ‘Sound and Vision’, Low’s surprise hit single, though it surely shouldn’t have been a surprise: despite its oddities, it’s a very catchy three-minute pop song. The famously odd thing about it is that it’s half intro: the main vocal doesn’t begin until nearly ninety seconds into the song, which has instead cycled through snatches of synthesiser, backing vocals and saxophone, as if trying out and rejecting each of them in turn as a suitable vehicle for the melody before settling, almost with a resigned sigh, on Bowie’s voice. For just over a minute, he intermittently sings about watching TV by himself (‘blue blue electric blue/that’s the colour of my room/where I will live … drifting into my solitude/over my head’), and then the song fades out almost as suddenly as it began, over a drum roll like distant, receding thunder.
Low’s immediate successor, ‘Heroes’, has a similar structure: rock songs on side one, ambient soundscapes on side two (plus ‘The Secret Life of Arabia’, the almost obligatory dud; Low is the only album Bowie ever made that doesn’t have at least one skippable track). Most of the first side of ‘Heroes’ has an icier edge to it than anything on Low. But everything else on the album fades beside the incandescent title track. ‘Heroes’ is probably Bowie’s most famous and most covered song. With the exception of Blondie’s magnificent live version from 1980, which works because it also draws directly on ‘Hero’ by Neu!, one of Bowie’s barely concealed sources, the covers are mostly execrable, and Bowie’s live renditions tend to be disappointing too. The song is essentially uncoverable because, stripped down to its elements (two and a half chords, corny bass line, drumbeat, vocal melody, two-note guitar solo, synthesiser drone), ‘Heroes’ is both plodding and flimsy: it consists almost entirely in the particularities of its performance and production, woven out of steadily thickening, richly textured, intricate layers of sound. It was recorded at Berlin’s Hansa Studio by the Wall in May 1977, in a cavernous room built to contain a symphony orchestra. You get a sense of what makes the song inimitable from a long and unashamedly nerdy interview that Visconti – who seems never to tire of talking about it – gave to Sound on Sound in October 2004:
Fripp had a technique in those days where he measured the distance between the guitar and the speaker where each note would feed back. For instance, an A would feed back maybe at about four feet from the speaker, whereas a G would feed back maybe three and a half feet from it. He had a strip that they would place on the floor, and when he was playing the note F sharp he would stand on the strip’s F sharp point and F sharp would feed back better. He really worked this out to a fine science, and we were playing this at a terrific level in the studio, too. It was very, very loud, and all the while he was playing these notes – that beautiful overhead line – Eno was turning the dials and creating a new envelope and just playing with the filter bank. We did three takes of that, and although one take would sound very patchy, three takes had all of these filter changes and feedback blending into that very smooth, haunting, overlaying melody which you hear.
And that’s just what they did with Robert Fripp’s lead guitar.
The third instalment in the Berlin triptych, Lodger, was in fact recorded in Switzerland in September 1978, though that wasn’t the reason it didn’t quite live up to the high expectations created for it by its predecessors. The energy had dissipated from Eno and Bowie’s working relationship, and despite various appealing attempts to galvanise it – making the band members swap instruments with each other, for example, or using Eno’s ‘oblique strategy’ cards, which instructed the musicians to ‘remember those silent moments’ or ‘think like a gardener’ – the collaboration had, for now, played itself out.
‘The blinkered overview of Bowie’s career,’ Trynka writes, ‘is that his last great album was Scary Monsters.’ Blinkered or not, it’s a view Trynka doesn’t entirely depart from, since 1980’s Scary Monsters … and Super Creeps is the last album that gets five stars (Trynka used to be the editor of Mojo) in the ‘selected discography’ at the back of Starman. And however generous or contrary you want to be about it, there’s no getting round the fact that Bowie’s music took a serious turn for the worse in the early 1980s, though you can argue about where precisely to draw the line. What Doggett calls Bowie’s ‘long’ 1970s came to a deliberate end with ‘Ashes to Ashes’ – just to add to the suspicious neatness of it all, his first UK number one since ‘Space Oddity’ 11 years earlier – which summoned the ghost of Major Tom and explicitly closed the lid on his career so far.
Though perhaps that’s only what it looks like with hindsight: as Trynka writes, ‘Ashes to Ashes’ ‘seemed to signal that Bowie would dominate the 1980s as convincingly as he had the 1970s.’ In a purely commercial sense, his domination of the first half of the 1980s was far more convincing than anything he’d achieved before, with three number-one albums and ten top-ten singles between 1980 and 1986. But only one of those albums (Scary Monsters) and three of those singles (‘Ashes to Ashes’, ‘Under Pressure’ and ‘Let’s Dance’) were any good. Any number of reasons can be – and have been – put forward, from the not very convincing (he’d stopped taking drugs) to the almost plausible (he’d bought into Thatcherism and was making too much money, was no longer in any sense an outsider) to the question-begging (he wasn’t working with the right people; his creativity was exhausted).
Scary Monsters was recorded in New York at the beginning of 1980, the last time Bowie, Visconti, Alomar, Murray and Davis would work together. They were a great band: the best band Bowie was ever in. But after their fifth album together he seemed ready to wait out the last couple of years of his contract with MainMan, and directed his energies elsewhere, notably towards acting and parenting. At the end of the year he played Joseph Merrick in The Elephant Man on Broadway. He was in New York when Lennon was shot, which both upset and terrified him. He spent the summer of 1981 in Switzerland with his new bodyguard and his son. Zowie, who was now ten, had spent most of the past eight years ‘under the devoted care’ of his nanny, Marion Skene: yet another example of Bowie’s formidable talents as a delegator. The Bowies’ divorce had been finalised in a Swiss court in February 1980. Angie didn’t do well out of the settlement, either financially or in terms of her access to their son, whom Bowie later sent to Gordonstoun. Zowie Bowie eventually changed his name to Duncan Jones and is now moderately famous in his own right as a film director (Moon, Source Code).
After The Elephant Man, Bowie starred in a BBC production of Brecht’s Baal, directed by Alan Clarke. In the meantime he’d collaborated on a couple of songs in Switzerland: the title song for the movie Cat People with Giorgio Moroder, and ‘Under Pressure’ with Queen, whom Bowie was happy to have take the royalties on the record, Trynka writes, rather than Defries. After filming on Baal was finished, Bowie suggested going to Berlin to record some of the songs from the play. The musicians assembled at Hansa in September 1981 included ‘a 75-year-old bandoneonist who’d played in the first productions of The Threepenny Opera’. Dominic Muldowney, who played the guitar and oversaw the arrangements, told Trynka that he plays Bowie’s version of ‘The Drowned Girl’ to ‘composers at the Royal Opera House on courses’. Baal is the reason Trynka thinks it’s wrong to see Scary Monsters as Bowie’s last great album.
The contract with MainMan expired in October 1982. Two months later he was in the studio with Nile Rodgers, recording Let’s Dance, and in January 1983 he signed a $17 million deal with EMI. The album was huge, more than repaying the label’s confidence in Bowie, even though the title track – with its sinister tango lurking beneath an exuberant disco-inflected surface – is the only song on it that’s any good, and better as a four-minute single than at nearly double that length on the album. Let’s Dance’s successors, Tonight (1984) and Never Let Me Down (1987), were even more forgettable, and sold almost as well. The downward spiral was only accelerated by such misguided exploits as recording ‘Dancing in the Streets’ with Mick Jagger for charity.
Tin Machine, Bowie’s attempt in 1988-91 to subsume himself in a hard rock band, is widely regarded – not least by Bowie himself – as the absolute lowpoint of his career. Trynka, more astutely, sees it as a ‘scorched earth policy to wipe out the memory’ of the 1980s, under the influence of bands like the Pixies, who had in turn been hugely influenced by the music Bowie made in the late 1970s. (This isn’t to suggest Tin Machine were anywhere near as good as the Pixies: they weren’t. Not anywhere near.) The ill-fated experiment over – it was far too late for Bowie to play at being just one member of a band – he hooked up again with Nile Rodgers and made Black Tie White Noise (1993).
It’s curious, and perhaps no more than curious, that the two most productive periods of Bowie’s career coincide with his two marriages, separated by the long trough of the 1980s. But getting married to the supermodel Iman Abdulmajid in 1992 definitely had at least one concrete consequence for his music: Brian Eno was invited to the wedding, and in 1994 Bowie went back to Berlin with Eno to make 1. Outside, much his most interesting album for 15 years.
Doggett nails the difference between the great work of the 1970s and Bowie’s return to some kind of form in the mid-1990s: ‘Albums such as 1. Outside and Earthling stand up alongside the peaks of Bowie’s 1970s catalogue as exercises in inventiveness and daring; what they lack is … any sense that they are shaping the culture around them or engaging in a dialogue with other artists.’ But both albums, like the two after them, Heathen (2002) and Reality (2003), on which Bowie was reunited with Visconti, take part in a profitable conversation with Bowie’s own earlier work. ‘Down in space,’ he sings on ‘Slip Away’, ‘it’s always 1982’ – the year his contract expired with MainMan, the year before Let’s Dance made him a multimillionaire global megastar, the year before he sold out. It makes you wonder about the music he might have gone on to make if he hadn’t fallen to earth. But perhaps that’s asking too much. ‘Down in space’ doesn’t sound like the kind of place that anyone who could escape from it would choose to be stranded in.