That was weird. On Sunday afternoon I was in a cinema waiting for the start of Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight when an advertisement was shown for the new David Bowie album Blackstar. The ad included footage of the old boy himself, singing into a microphone – looking a bit thin and frail, it must be said, but then he always did look a bit thin and frail.
Almost exactly 24 hours later, I’m sitting in a pub in Edinburgh and a friend tells me that David Bowie has just died. What?!
I nearly find myself suspecting that Bowie hasn’t kicked the bucket at all. That this Bowie-is-dead stuff is really the latest piece of art / musical theatre that the famously enigmatic star has devised, only this time involving not just himself and his musical collaborators but the entire world media and the music-loving public. That it’s a more elaborate reworking of the Paul McCartney-is-dead urban legend that was spawned by supposed clues in the Revolution 9 track on the White Album (1968) and the cover of Abbey Road (1969). And in a few days’ time it’ll be announced that – surprise! – Bowie was only play-acting and he’s actually still alive. Well, his latest single is called Lazarus.
I think I was unlucky with Bowie because the period during which I got seriously into music – i.e. my teens – was the period during which he appeared most like a normal rock star. That’s to say for an initial few years he seemed both ubiquitous and brilliant; but then, like nearly every other rock star, his ideas seemed to dry up and he went into apparently terminal decline.
But how brilliant he was to begin with. When I was 13 or 14, he’d turn up on Top of the Pops singing ace songs like Boys Keep Swinging (1979) or Fashion (1980), which would be discussed at length by me and my mates the next day at school in Peebles, our hometown in Scotland. (I also remember how our local newspaper, the Peeblesshire News, would print a chart of the week’s best-selling singles at the town’s record shop under the headline On the Turntable. One week somebody in the Peeblesshire mistakenly transcribed Bowie’s Boys Keep Swinging as Boys Keep Swimming – a gaffe that was reprinted in prestigious British music-mag the New Musical Express for the nation’s amusement.)
1980 saw Bowie secure the number-one spot with his single Ashes to Ashes, which seemed a big event indeed. The day after the announcement that Ashes to Ashes had topped the chart, I recall one classmate saying with finger-wagging solemnly: “See they folk whae dinnae like the song? They’re just tae stupid tae understand it.” By the way, the image of Bowie made up as a white-faced pierrot in the video for Ashes to Ashes has for some reason haunted me ever since.
A year later, Bowie was back at number one, this time collaborating with Queen for the single Under Pressure. I didn’t rate Under Pressure highly at the time, though in the years since it’s grown on me. It’s just a pity that the song was demeaned when gormless hip-hopper Vanilla Ice incorporated its bassline into his wretched 1990 single Ice Ice Baby. (I remember being at a disco in the clubhouse of Peebles Rugby Club one night when the DJ put on Ice Ice Baby. The bassline started and everyone cheered and hurried onto the dance floor, thinking it was David Bowie and Queen. Then the lyrics started – “Yo! Let’s kick it! Ice, ice baby…” – and everyone threw up their hands in horror, shouted, “Och, shite! It’s Vanilla Ice!” and cleared off the dance floor again.)
In 1983 Bowie hooked up with musician and producer Nile Rodgers for his Let’s Dance album. Around then I heard serious long-term Bowie-philes grumble about the great man finally losing it and / or selling out. Nonetheless I liked that album’s singles, Let’s Dance, China Girl and Modern Love, because although they had typically flashy 1980s production values there still seemed enough of Bowie’s other-worldliness in them to make them special. Unfortunately, thereafter, Bowie did lose it. Subsequent albums like Tonight (1984) and Never Let Me Down (1987) were lacklustre, he arsed around doing duets with the likes of Mick Jagger and Tina Turner, and he seemed more interested in his acting career. (His heavy involvement in the cinematic train-wreck that was Julien Temple’s Absolute Beginners in 1986 did nothing for his street-cred either.) By the time he unveiled his dire Tin Machine project in 1989 I decided that things were well and truly over for Mr B.
People whose opinions I respect tell me that Bowie began to get good again from the mid-1990s onwards, with albums like Black Tie White Noise (1993) and Heathen (2002), but by then I was too busy listening to other bands, musicians and singers to pay him much attention.
It wasn’t until the noughties, when I started reading a lot about the types of music I liked – in books such as Lucifer Rising (2000) and Goth Chic (2002), both by rock journalist and author Gavin Baddaley – that I realised how important and influential Bowie had been. A score of musical genres during the 1980s and 1990s, including Goth, indie, synth, industrial and Britpop, were hugely in debt to him. That encouraged me to start listening to his back catalogue, to albums such as the soaring Hunky Dory (1971) and the apocalyptic Diamond Dogs (1974). (I remember having a schoolmate called Roger Small, who was one of those annoying folk who, no matter how hard you tried to be cool, always seemed to be ten times cooler than you were. I also recall him having the words Diamond Dogs scrawled in blue biro across the surface of the canvas satchel he used as a schoolbag. So now I understand why he was cooler than me.) And of course I’ve had the pleasure of listening to Bowie’s celebrated ‘Berlin’ trilogy of albums: Low (1977), Heroes (1977) and Lodger (1979).
(c) RCA Records
Bowie looms large among the influences and inspirations for many of my favourite bands: Joy Division, Bauhaus, Depeche Mode, the Cure, the Smiths, Nine Inch Nails, Suede, the Smashing Pumpkins, Pulp, Marilyn Manson, LCD Soundsystem and Arcade Fire. Indeed, if he hadn’t existed, half the bands I’m into wouldn’t have been half as good.
For that reason, I’m now going to head off and sink a few drinks to the old fellow’s memory. Cheers, David.