The Companion

Home ¦ Index ¦ FAQ ¦ Encyclopaedia ¦ Timeline ¦ Songs ¦ Gallery ¦ E-mail

Article Index

You're so wonderful, Gimme your Hands

by Ian Hoare - Let it Rock (October 1972)

People stared at the make-up on his face
Laughed at his long, black hair - his animal grace
. . . And lady stardust sang his songs

of darkness and dismay.

(Lady Stardust)

David Bowie's prodigious success comes at the wrong time. The dominant rock aesthetic is a form of urban folk art and Bowie, with his deliberately outrageous posturing, his total lack of onstage resemblance to your ordinary man-in-the-street has tended to drive people back to their root prejudices. There are those who are unable to get beyond the fact that he comes on like a regular superstar and are ready to relegate him to the reviled category of pop.

At the other extreme are those who welcome him for the very reason that the flash and the glamour are lacking in most contemporary rock. Their view is that musicians are tending to take themselves `too seriously' and to forget that the crassness and vulgarity of pop, its `secret' style, was at the heart of its power in giving a sense of identity to teenage rebels. And if that mass appeal can only be achieved through calculated exploitation, well, let's get back to the original shit anyway. After all, we need to use the media to create unifying myths, quasi-gods etc.; and all that really counts is that it's ballbusting boogie music, right kids?

Confused arguments on these lines have dogged rock for a good five years now, and they arise out of genuine problems that performers are continually running up against. Much of Bowie's strength comes from his awareness of this situation. His recent music often appears to be a conscious attempt to throw together some of the most diverse components of pop-rock connecting a thoroughly punky aggressiveness, urgency and non-seriousness with a view of the world that's simultaneously personal, apocalyptic and radical. The Rise and Fal1 of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars is a logical culmination of the commentary on rock culture that runs through his work.

So inviting - so enticing, to play the part

At the core of Bowie's approach is a dramatic mode of expression. He has in fact had experience in theatre. About four years ago, after his pure pop recordings for Deram had won him limited recognition for the Wrong Reasons, he chucked it all in to join the Lindsay Kemp Mime Troupe in London - writing, producing and performing. One result of this was a twenty minute play-with-music about the Chinese occupation of Tibet, which he has performed on more than one occasion at rock concerts.

This theatrical inclination is shown in his adoption of different 'personae' for different songs. In some cases the separation of the singer from the character speaking in the song is instantly obvious. Space Oddity, for example, is a dialogue between Major Tom and ground control, an audio mini-play. In the Ziggy LP this becomes a lot more complex and even confusing, with a constant switching around of `roles' from song to song and within individual songs.

Once its been established that some of the songs on an album are not to be taken as an attempt by the performer to communicate directly with the audience, then an atmosphere is created which admits the possibility that it is never Bowie himself speaking. The singer tends to disappear as a personality in his own right. We're left with the songs and the manner of their performance.

This method allows Bowie to plunge headlong into contradictions and confusions. He can give rein to a variety of conflicting attitudes, allowing each of them to run to its logical conclusion and exhibit all its force - without supplying any pat `answer' to the questions that arise. Instead, he plumps for a tense ironic interplay.

It's in this respect that Bowie's debt to the `sound movies' of the Velvet Under ground is most evident. It's worth recalling that he has featured Lou Reed compositions such as White Light/White Heat and Waiting for the Man in his act. Reed returned the compliment by making his first English appearance with Bowie at the Festival Hall in July; and now Bowie is producing Reed's second solo album.

The success of the playacting method depends on some pretty subtle vocal techniques. Bowie - like Reed - has developed a style full of precise, mocking inflexions and nuances. These mannerisms help to delineate the `character' in each case.

In Bowie's early work, of the Love You Till Tuesday era, he sings in a much more openly emotive manner than he does nowadays. There's an ironic flavour, but the tone is unusually infused with some tenderness, vulnerability and concern. This corresponds to the fairly simple viewpoint in the songs. Many of them are written and sung with Bowie in the role of poet narrator, saddened by what he sees to be the triviality and pointlessness of the lives of the protagonists. It's almost a moralistic quality. On the second album, David Bowie, there are three songs - Letter to Hermione, Janine and An Occasional Dream - of the frankly confessional type, where he's even more directly involved with the feelings expressed in the lyric.

As the sense of drama in his work becomes more pronounced - essentially from The Man Who Sold The World on wards - there's also an overall tendency for it to become harder-edged and more remote.

I wonder if he'll ever know
He's in the best-selling show?

(Life on Mars?)

In his latest incarnation, he takes on the form of an interplanetary bisexual tart. Bowie himself has spoken of the need for some "unabashed prostitution" in rock, and part of the effect of the rouge and mascara, the white satin pyjamas and the bright orange hair, is to symbolise that he's putting himself up for sale. We're reminded that we're paying for a commodity. In a sense, the closer an artist expresses art as an extension of himself, the closer he is to paralleling the situation of a prostitute. James Taylor, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Jerry Garcia, Paul Simon, Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, Cat Stevens and the rest are all tarts, from this angle, putting their souls on the market. Bowie's stance isn't that this fact necessarily degrades or invalidates whatever they're attempting to communicate: He simply helps draw attention to the social and economic boundaries that isolate audience and performer.

Another aspect of his stellar pose is that his image represents an inversion of conventional social values. Not only is he cold and artificial, he's also as queer as a clockwork orange, it seems: Bowie's appeal is not as a drag artist, where the audience rests comfortable in the firm knowledge that it's a man pretending to be a woman. He's been at pains to point out that he doesn't wear women's clothes, he wears men's gay clothes. His songs include references to his wife and kid and heterosexual relationships, but he doesn't exactly reflect many of the conventional notions of a dream lover.

But then again, it is a Little-Richard style gimmick, too. The audience can rest comfortable in the knowledge that he's only pretending, only joking; and there's always a big danger that the whole extravaganza will degenerate into a mere freak side show. As it is, the `unreality' of his stage presence serves him usefully as a mask, behind which he can slip into the various roles he's composed for himself.

I thought you died alone a long, long time ago
Oh no, not me, I never lost control
You're face to face with the Man Who Sold the World

Like all good sci-fi fantasy, the song The Man Who Sold The World presents us with an improbable situation which, on second thoughts, has a bearing on present-day reality. Its two characters meet in a situation where the world itself can be bought and sold.

The problems of rock as commerce and the effect of mass media on personal communication, which are playfully thrashed out on Ziggy and elsewhere, are part and parcel of this wider perspective in Bowie's writing. Just as the very first line on Ziggy is "Pushing through the market square", so his 1967 Deram LP is full of references to shopping and merchandise. But rather than adopt a crass `anti materialist' stance, Bowie recognises (in Sell Me a Coat, for instance) that, first, there are a lot of people about who need more stuff than they've got, purely because of its usefulness ("Sell me a coat 'cos I feel cold"); and secondly, that objects can be valuable simply because they look good ("Sell me a coat with buttons of silver").

On the David Bowie album, he deals with the difficulties of asserting humane and exciting values in the face of the manipulative, possessive dreariness and guilt-ridden misery which confront us. "My eye sockets empty/See nothing but pain", he sings, on one of the more direct (non-theatrical) tracks, Unwashed and Somewhat Slightly Dazed.

Later, in Life on Mars, Bowie uses the viewpoint of a disillusioned teen to convey a vision of a wasteland in which every creation of an alternative lifestyle is converted into a hip commodity and sold right back to you. ("Now the workers have struck for fame/'Cos Lennon's on sale again". The man who sold the world, if you recall, "never lost control".

So one starting-point for Ziggy is the market place, and one attitude it contains is the Stones: "what else can a poor boy do 'cept play in a rock 'n roll band." Ziggy himself becomes a star because he "could do with the money" and he's "so wiped out with things as they are".

Give us back our unity
Give us back our family.
(Song to Bob Dylan)

In his attitude to rock and stars Bowie reminds us on the one hand that it's all "just show business"; but he's equally well aware that it's more than just music. Song to Bob Dylan is soaked in this ambiguity. Bowie plays a `character' who more or less worships Dylan (there's a lot of it about). The first thing the lyric does is to make a distinction between Rock Star and Real Person: "Hey there Robert Zimmerman, I wrote a song for you/About a strange young man called Dylan". According to the singer, Zimmerman abandoned his responsibility to his audience by retreating from his mythical status into privacy to write about his intimate feelings. In a reference to Self Portrait (as well as the sleeve to Music from Big Pink) he says "your paintings are all your own". Before that, Zimmerman/Dylan very generously "gave his soul to every bedsit room/At least a picture on the wall". One crucial question that the lyric provokes is: can a successful artist working in mass media remain true to himself and socially involved without becoming a god?

Naturally, all this is very much in evidence on Ziggy Stardust. "So where were the spiders when the fly tried to break our balls?", Ziggy's apostles ask. And the messiah himself has dropped them right in it, refusing to show the way, leaving them with only the "beer light" to guide them.

Bowie's heavenly image is his way of recognising that rock without style and show-biz appeal loses a great deal of its potency. A shared affirmation of pure bloody outrageousness is probably as good a way as any of setting "all the young dudes" apart from straight society". Possibly it has something to do with recognising the value of fantasy. Imagine. You, too, can be a Homo Superior! Bowie on stage looks fantastic - no more, no less.

There's a perpetual awareness in Bowie's stuff, however, of the severe limitations of teenage revolt - `Look out you rock 'n rollers/Pretty soon you're gonna get a little older' from Changes is the most obvious example. Similarly in After a11, the singer wonders why nobody invites the adult world to `our secretive ball' as they're `just taller children'. The related idea of the child as superman, unspoilt by society, also occurs in his lyrics, but it's always qualified. On Hunky Dory Bowie several times changes his point of view from that of an adult addressing a kid to a kid addressing adults.

Ziggy played guitar
(Ziggy Stardust)

David Bowie is a musician, of sorts, but he's not particularly concerned with good music. He's more interested in forms that communicate with large numbers of people - that sell.

There's a creeping tendency among rock 'n rollers to take a near traditionalist view of the stuff as being an ethnic American city idiom. For British performers, especially, this kind of back-to-the-roots business is bound to be somewhat forced. The popular impact of rock 'n roll came through hit records in this country, and the musical origins of English rock lie in blasts from the past of every shape and colour. Bowie, following very much in the foot steps of the Beatles and most of the important British groups, absorbs styles and ideas from every conceivable direction.

He's attracted principally to techniques that have a direct, concentrated, ear catching impact. Spacey instrumental sections are rare, and the emphasis is on tight songs that owe something to the Beatles and something to uptown R&B the Morse-code bit on Starman, for in stance, is lifted straight off the Supremes 'You Keep Me Hanging On'. In particular, Phil Spector appears to have influenced him. As early as 1967 Bowie builds, Silly Boy Blue on a subdued version of the backing to Bob B. Soxx and the Blue Jeans' Zip-a-Dee Doo Dah, while When I Live My Dream contains a very similar figure, with a touch more Crystals/ Ronnettes tambourine-and-echo. He's also got a penchant, for recalling some of those Latinish Drifters and Ben E. King smashes, (Soul Love for instance).

Like Spector, Bowie treats the studio as a means of creating records-as-records rather than reproducing a live sound with the rough edges knocked off. Strangely, though, this doesn't mean that the records aren't closely related to what he performs live. In his stage act, he employs two large control boards, reminiscent of the Floyd's apparatus, which enable him to sound much the same as he does on his albums, incorporating phasing, echo and a wide range of other electronic effects. Bowie's `roots' are as Cockney as the Kinks. The tradition of music hall, pub song and pier-end entertainment have all contributed to his style. In the first album, the debt to `authentic' American rock 'n roll is minimal. In fact the sweet surface, the hint of sentimentality and the light, catchy la-la choruses are elements opposed to the spirit of mainstream rock. The way he sings is typically music hall. He sounds intermittently like Tommy Steele, Anthony Newley, Bernard Cribbins and Joe Brown - he bears a passing resemblance to Brown on stage these days.

Later on, the tough side of his early singing style is brought to the fore revealing a nasal, penetrating, even shrill quality reminiscent of the Move's vocals.

And I want to believe
In the madness that calls `Now'
(The Cygnet Committee)

On Hunky Dory, Bowie is concerned with the instant excitement of the hit single and flirts with Lennon-McCartney type tunefulness, Ziggy is something of a return to the stylistic mould of The Man Who Sold the World. The `immediacy' is narrowed down almost entirely to high energy killer rock. His band's basic sound is now a crude distillation of 60s Heaviness as pioneered by the Yardbirds, Cream and Hendrix, with blistering lead guitar licks by Mick Ronson shooting off from Who/ Move-type chunky chords. Bowie balances the mind-blasting effect against dense, complex, very thoughtful lyrics. Ziggy is partly about rock 'n roll madness, and so is very much related to the question `What's sanity?' that occurs everywhere in his records. In Quicksand, for instance, he vacillates between trying to get it together intellectually, which is destroying his ability to live spontaneously ("I'm sinking in the quicksand of my thought/And I ain't got the power any more") and a contrary urge to dissolve his ego entirely. ("Don't believe in yourself . . . knowledge comes with death's release").

Because Ziggy is about rock - the record (or the live performance) is constantly referring back to itself and the experience of listening to it. At the same time its images refer back to society and, of course, to the whole universe - the word "star" being the focal point around which all this revolves. The songs are pared down to a handful of central images which - like the figures in a myth - are as crude or as complex, as serious or as frivolous as we want to make them. The tunes are full of circular structures (records are round, you see) which on the one hand seem to pull together all the themes in his earlier work, and, on the other, to destroy the idea of `themes' altogether. Everything is One, yet life is so complicated, ducky.

The circle is completed by death - and the rebirth of "you're wonderful". It's eternal, infinite and 45 minutes long. But it can't be done without you. So the album ends with Bowie reaching out to his audience. "You're wonderful, gimme your hands" is the biggest showbiz cliché in the world: he wants applause, too, even if he is getting paid for it. But then again . . .

No, that's where I stop.

Bowie's next step must be to vanish up his own arse. It's interesting to note that the first record with his name on it to appear after Rock 'n Roll Suicide is Mott the Hoople's All the Young Dudes, which Bowie wrote, produced and arranged. See the trick? He's not there. It's Ian Hunter imitating him. And the song begins with its protagonist talking about a guy who committed suicide because he was "too old to stay alive" at the age of 25. Bowie is 25. I wouldn't be surprised if he didn't turn up for his next live gig and Mott the Hoople took his place. He could always make a comeback, of course, because he's into rebirth. But what if he actually killed himself?

Who cares? C'mon everybody.

---This page last modified: 13 Dec 2018---

Ziggy Stardust Scarf (1973)