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by Dave Laing and Simon Frith - Let it Rock (June 1973)
What you think of Bowie depends on your idea of rock-and-roll. It's no good criticising him for falling short in what he's trying to do, because he's right there.
The point is - is Ziggy Stardust Like A Rolling Stone, does he belong in Heartbreak Hotel or in Strawberry Fields, does he Let It Rock?
One thing all great rock music has in common is that it stands outside the dominant ethos of traditional pop: the ethos of showbiz. Now showbiz isn't just a matter of where you play, what kind of outfit you wear and length of your hair. It involves a whole philosophy of what music (or films, plays, novels) is for, how it relates to the rest of our lives. It's not simply that showbiz is part of leisure, something to take us away from who and where we are. It also reinforces the stereotyped (conservative) images of ourselves and others that come at us from all of the media most of the time.
The Engelbert ballad of impossible romantic love ends up by making it easier for the housewife to bear the drudgery of her existence.
OK, Bowie isn't Humperdinck. At times he has the poetic power of Dylan, the demonic presence of Jagger. But he has compromised with showbiz, with the whole manipulative process of image and stardom. Of course, any rock musicians who achieves any kind of success can't help but get involved to some extent in that process. The way music is organized - as an duty - it's the only way he or she can reach large numbers of people. But with the best of them, there's always something there behind the image and the stardom. Often, it's nothing as simple as a message, it comes through in a tone of voice, a turn of phrase.
And, however imperceptibly, it makes a difference to how we go about our daily lives.
But take away Bowie's image, and there's nothing left. The image itself is dense with weird and wonderful things - myths of inner and outer space, intimations of bizarre sexuality - but somehow they never lead anywhere except down the hole in the center of the record. It's partly because he's too knowing. He knows everything that has been said and every lick that made a top ten hit, but ends up communicating nothing.
His weakness for puns is crucial here: he uses the lines Danny La Rue not John Lennon or John Donne. Clever, not witty.
And this is the sense in which Bowie is truly decadent, not his make-up or hip camping. His stuff reminds me increasingly of The Beatles just before they spilt - the aimless doodlings of Abbey Road, when they had nothing to say and everything to say it with. One alternative to Bowie is the subsequent work of two of the Beatles: Lennon and Harrison. For the last few years they've been trying to reconcile and unite their lives and beliefs with their music. Maybe they haven't succeeded, maybe they each have a long way to go. But David Bowie, he hasn't anywhere to go. Still, if he falters, there's always Gary Glitter.
Arguing about pop stars is mostly a loony thing to do. So many of the judgements involved are subjective that the inarticulacy of a Juke Box Jury is entirely right - I like the backing and so what? David Bowie is pretty and witty but he'll have to convince you, not me. The only words worth flinging about have a much more general concern - not with Bowie's aesthetic appeal but with his purpose and effect. So, Bowie bashing (roll up! roll up!) isn't much different from Bolan bashing and other past delights. It's the back page of Melody Maker and the selling-out argument.
Bowie has sold his talent for fame and fortune and a white fur rug; a once creative artist is now slipping on Woolworth's glitter; shameless, Bowie has become a showbiz star.
I know who Bowie's sold out to; I don't understand what he's sold out from. Where is this authentic rock tradition, pose-less and glam-our-free? Elvis? The Beatles? No way. Dylan wasn't a bootlace maker pulling himself up. They're all pop stars, big business livery-chauf-eured. Rock is not some pure order, under constant threat of worldly corruption; it operates from the heart of the beast itself and its achievement is the result of its context. Rock is entertainment that suggests - by its energy, self-consciousness, cultural references - something more. The Bowie question is not whether he's sold out, but whether the music he makes from his pop star stance is more than good fun, whether it illuminates its situation.
Bowie constructs his music around an image rather than a sound or a style and it's this that disturbs rock pursuits. I mean, what a cheek, deciding to be a star before he'd even got a fan. But it isn't a con trick. Ziggy Stardust is the loving creation of a genuine rock addict and the purpose of the Bowie show isn't to give pop a falsely glamorous glow but to point up the reality of the continuing star-audience relationship. Since 1967 and peace and love, rock has been faking a community, as if Jimmy Page, by being scruffy, became a man of the people. But smoking dope together in a field doesn't turn an audience into society, and it's this pretence that Bowie rips apart.
I'd welcome Bowie to rock if only because his live act (down to the flaunted bisexuality) makes explicit aspects of pop usually ignored. But it's equally fascinating to follow his attempts to create a musical style to support the theatrics. His aim is to combine a tone of voice (world-weary, narcissistic), an instrumental urgency (Mick Ronson's aggressive and melodic riffs) and a lyrical mythology (science fiction plus New York depravity). It doesn't always work, but when it does the result is a gripping rock statement. Cold and calculated, maybe, but a scarily complete vision of life in the rock culture - sensual, selfish, endless. Heartbreak Hotel has become a Drive-in Saturday (Seattle-Phoenix) and Dave Laing's regret is a waste of emotion.
---This page last modified: 28 Dec 2018---