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Story of Pop Part 1 (1973)

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Bowie: The disturbing new King of Rock?

By the time that David Bowie took his final bow from the whole touring scene at London's Hammersmith Odeon in July 1973, he had probably become the best-loved and most-hate performer in the rock world.  His admirers called him a prophet, a demi-god, a superman; while, in common with many another artists who seemed to be breaking new ground, he had been the subject of frenzied attacks from all directions.   His detractors branded him a fraud, a hoaxer, a pretentious charlatan and worse, but Bowie himself shrugged it all off with the elan of a true star.  "There have been some fairly petty things said," he murmured.

So what was all the fuss about?  Why would one of America's most important daily papers call David Bowie "the most intellectually brilliant man currently using the medium of the long-playing record" while a British music paper would sneer about "another nail in the coffin in which the whole Bowie mystique will soon be laid to rest"? - it wasn't Bowie's theatrical stage act was it? Maybe it had something to do with his much published bisexuality.  Or, if not that, could it be that the intense crystal-gazing of some of his lyrics proved rather too much for them to stomach?

The cause of all this comment was born in Brixton in 1947, the son of the public relations man of a children's home.  He dropped out of art school to work in an advertising agency while playing in various groups like The Conrads, David Jones and the Lower Third and others.  When the Monkees began to terrorise the planet in 1967, David Hayward Jones became David Bowie and the Buzz.  Photographs taken around then show him looking curiously similar to the Bowie of the 70s.

Lauren Bacall

Bowie had made an album for Deram and a couple of singles for Pye, but it wasn't until late 1969 that he emerged with his first big hit.  This was "Space Oddity", which appeared on the Mercury label in the wake of 2001 and the first moonshot.  This tragic-comic tale of the spaceman who was unable to get back connected instantly in the public mind, and was followed by an album called "David Bowie" (later to be re-issued as "Space Oddity") and a single called "The Prettiest Star", the latter featuring Marc Bolan playing lead guitar.

Neither album nor single was successful and Bowie seemed to have joined the long list of one-hit wonders.  He retired from the music business for a year and a half, and ran an Arts Laboratory in Beckenham in partnership with a lady called Mary Finnegan. Eventually the apathy of the local community caused Bowie to abandon the project. "People were simply coming to be entertained" he recalled   "and the essence of an Arts Lab is participation."

Meanwhile, his record company were less than overjoyed by his semi-retirement and demanded another album.  What they got was the classic "The Man Who Sold The World", a strange and foreboding album which took a few years to achieve the appreciation it deserved.  On the cover, Bowie reclined languidly on a chaise-lounge, enticedly clad in a long flowing dress and looking exactly like Lauren Bacall - this at a time when stubble and denims were the order of the day.  Clearly, something more was afoot than simply another has-been folkie trying to make a comeback.

If the cover was startling, the album was infinitely more so.  The music was the heaviest of heavy rock - taut claustrophobic and menacing.  The songs were harrowing exercises in paranoia; complex essays on themes of alienation and madness.   Bowie's imagery was literate, economical, witty and immensely sophisticated, and doubly outstanding at a time when the stoned burblings of the Acid Age had only just slipped into memory.  The album was produced by Tony Visconti, who also played bass on it.  The other musicians were both former members of a Hulls blues band called The Rats; guitarist Mick Ronson and drummer Mick "Woody" Woodmansey.

Hunky Dory

The Man Who Sold The World shook up a lot of American critics, and the album sold a healthy 50,000 copies in the States; but Britain didn't seem ready for it, and it just rolled over and died.  A year was to pass before Bowie recorded his next album, and in that year a number of important changes took place.  He parted company with Tony Visconti and formed a partnership with Ken Scott, who had engineered his last two albums.  Even more important, he teamed with Tony De Fries, a young lawyer to whom he'd taken his tangled financial affairs, and who became his new manager.  De Fries immediately negotiated a new recording contract with RCA, and thus equipped with a new producer, a new manager and a new company, Bowie went back to the studios to record "Hunky Dory".

"Hunky Dory" was lighter in texture than The Man Who Sold The World", but, if anything, heavier in terms of content.  In fact, Bowie wasn't softening up at all.  Even "Oh You Pretty Things|, which had been taken the charts by no less a personage than Peter Noone himself, was about the need for the present human race to realise its own infinite possibilities and "make way for the Homo Superior"

Among the more straightforward songs on the album was "Kooks"; a sweet little tune dedicated to Bowie's son Zowie and his wife Angie.  "Song To Bob Dylan" expertly pestiched its subject; while "Queen Bitch" was Bowie's tribute to the Velvet Underground.  Finally, there was "The Bewley Brothers", undoubtedly Bowie's strangest song,  and one that Bowieologists are still trying to unravel - Bowie himself is politely unhelpful when asked to elucidate.

After the release of "Hunky Dory", Bowie took one tremendously important step.  He cut his long blond hair into a feathery Mod cut reminiscent of the mid 60s, dyed it fluorescent orange, and in the company of Ronson, Woodmansey and bassist Trevor Bolder (who had played on "Hunky Dory") began to play concerts.   Also he gave an interview to one of Britains leading rock weeklies, admitting that he was bisexual.  And that really put the cat amongst the pigeons.  Britains first openly gay rock star!  Who could resist such a divine spectacle?  It was a stroke of pure genius.  Bowie was made.

Bowie and his band wore tight quilted jumpsuits that looked as if they'd been left over from a gay version of Star Trek.  Ronson peroxided his hair blond, Trevor Bolder dyed his six-inch long sideboards silver, and Woodmansey adopted a blond version of Bowie's own hairstyle.  They looked like gay vandals from some horrific future (not for nothing had Bowie seen A Clockwork Orange several times), and the instant they first stepped on stage, every other group in Britain looked completely out of date.   This was clearly a totally different kettle of piranha from the inept floundering of mere sensation seekers - these guys meant business.


Of course the whole thing was something of a hoax.  The band were as straight as could be, and despite the publicity Bowie's preferred company was that of his wife and child - hence "kooks".  Paradoxically but perhaps predictably, his alleged gayness and his marriage only served to increase his following of both girls and boys, who faithfully reproduced his hairstyles, and makeup as part of a familiar pattern of teen adulation that has long been part of the rock n roll experience all along.

But the qualities which made Bowie artistically viable for somewhat older listeners who weren't really into dressing up, were the same ones that had won him a faithful cult audience long before Ziggymania.  Basically, Bowie's greatest strength lay in his songs.  No-one seemed to be writing songs for the 70s which cut so deep into the feelings that many had recognised in themselves, but had failed to analyse.   His band too was amazing - as tough a power trio as anyone had heard, but tight, controlled, and willing to channel all their formidable skills into the power blasts of those songs.  The album that put it all together in the summer of 1972, was titled "The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders From Mars".

It was probably Bowie's finest and most complete performance on record.   While its two predecessors had included individual songs that surpassed the Ziggy material, this album really made it as a whole.  Its setting was five years before the end of the world, and its theme was the life of the rock and roll star.   Remember, Bowie was not yet a big star at the time that the "Ziggy" songs were written, and so he was able to look at the situation with a certain amount of detachment.  The albums opening number "Five Years" lets down the backdrop, and the remaining songs on the first side (with the exception of Ron Davies composition "It Ai;t Easy", a left over from the Hunky Dory sessions) examine various aspects of the situation.  But its the second side of Ziggy that shows Bowie really getting his hands into the meat.

Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders From Mars are the archetype rock n roll band, and the songs chart their career from the first time Ziggy gets up to sing in a small club, right through to his superstardom when leeches and hangers-on bug him non-stop, intergroup jealousies develop, and the final apocalyptic moment arrives when "the kids had killed the man I had to break up the band".  As an kind of alternative ending, there's "Rock n Roll Suicide", when the forgotten idol roams the streets forlorn and nobody wants to know him anymore.  That 18-minute song cycle stands as a veritable tour-de-force, a total brain bruise, and it made David Bowie almost a big a star as Ziggy himself.  Tony DeFries leapt in fast and made sure everybody realised it; no interviews and no pictures except by Bowie's authorized photographer.   The press, as well they might struck back the only way they could - by mounting an all-out campaign against Bowie's records and performances.

Regular Superstar

But the lives shows just got more and more extravagant.  Costumes changes, elaborate lighting, the complete works.  At one concert at the Rainbow in London, Bowie was even joined by a team of dancers led by the great mime Lindsay Kemp, one of his early mentors.  At this same concert a lot of industry people got very uptight because the support group, Roxy Music, were not allowed to rehearse in the hall, and their record company were not permitted to set up advertising stands in the foyer, or to give away posters and badges to the audience.  Again, with only a few exceptions, the critics jumped on Bowie with both feet.

Following a moderately successful American Tour, Bowie went into the studios to record his next album "Aladdin Sane" comprising songs written on tour and reflecting his impression of  "Gods Own Country." The main innovation on this album was the piano work of veteran New York jazzman Mike Garson, but the band had never played better, and the album contained some stunning moments.  To the critics though, and to many of Bowie's followers, this album appeared something of an anticlimax compared to past glories.  It was viscously put down, but nevertheless became Bowie's biggest seller so far, and the focus of a stage act with which he made a stormy and controversial tour of Britain.  It began in chaos at the packed 18,000-seater Earls Court Stadium in London, where poor acoustics and minimal visibility ruined the proceedings for vast numbers of the audience.  At subsequent performances, however, Bowie delivered shows of such total virtuosity that few, if any, of his fans were disappointed and the rock press at last found some sympathy, and even praise, for the man whose big gig in London had been a flop.

But the stresses and strains of that last tour were enough to convince Bowie that further "live" performances were out of the question.  So, in July 1973, after a gig featuring Jeff Beck, Bowie at last renounced the stage for the recording studio and movie lot.

So much for history then.  In the final analysis, why is David Bowie so deeply disturbing?  Why did so many people feel threatened by his very existence?  Reasons  are manifold.  Firstly, some folks found him "cold" and "contrived".  On the face of it, there's some substance for this charge: but Bowie never claimed to be a spontaneous boogier.  The creative processes that go into producing work like Bowie's are far more complex and precise than those of his contemporaries, and this very complexity renders any impression of spontaneity laughable.  Also every aspect of Bowie's operation has equal importance.  The clothes, performances, the records, the composing - they are all part of the total experiment in living that Bowie carries on every moment of his life.

Bowie's particular vision of the world and the life-styles that go with it, mean that his influence goes far beyond a bunch of songs and a stage act.  From now on, it seems as though Bowie will be "leading from the back", as his career opens up and he is beginning to concentrate on work in the studio and various film projects.  But to backtrack.  On the eve of his big teenage breakthrough, Bowie sang in "Star" from the Ziggy album

I could do with the money,
I'm so whacked out with things as they are,
I'd send my photograph to my honey,
And I'd come on like a regular superstar.

and ended with this line:

I could make it all worthwhile as a rock and roll star.

As in all good fairy stories, the charm worked.  He did just like he said he would.  It leaves you wondering if "Rock n Roll Suicide" the song he finished his last live" gig with - had perhaps been written for that very occasion.

---This page last modified: 28 Dec 2018---

Ziggy Stardust Scarf (1973)