David Bowie – a personal appreciation

David Bowie didn’t turn me on to music. He came too late for that and for most of my contemporaries but his impact was no less. The first Bowie song I heard was the Peter Noon and Herman’s Hermits cover of “Oh You Pretty Things” – I didn’t know who wrote it, they made it sound so naff, nobody cared.

But THAT moment – 6 July 1972. Everyone watched Top of the Pops that Thursday night. Much tutting from parents who watched that programme disapprovingly – but, hey, they still watched – you had to – everyone did (there was nowt else on).

That moment – it has brought tears to my eyes long since

 

The next day everyone talked about Bowie and Ronson (who deserves much of the credit for the success of Ziggy). Nothing else – mostly about their sexuality (were they, weren’t they?) and how they looked but not just that – if the music had been bubblegum it wouldn’t have sustained the kind of reaction it did. That was on the Friday. The first person with a ‘Bowie’ hairstyle (a girl – I can see her in my head, all black blazer and blazing hair, but can’t remember her name) appeared on the following Monday. The sixties hadn’t done much for Newcastle – it was still a grey place – with Bowie in ’72 the sixties had finally arrived. The big difference between Bowie and most of the other artists around at the time – and he hadn’t invented ‘glam rock’ by any means, was that girls AND boys wanted to look like him, dress like him, BE him – and for the first time any of us could imagine, sexuality was irrelevant.

Starman didn’t shoot to the top of the charts – it made No 10 but hung around for weeks – in those days you had to sell a lot of singles to make No 1. In the year that followed, however, his four released albums – Ziggy, Hunky Dory, The Man Who Sold the World and Space Oddity all went into the album charts and stayed there. He was the biggest thing there was and his influence opened up another world that had before that been only the province of the ultra-cool and, actually, slightly nerdy kids with older brothers and sisters deep into their music. The Velvet Underground in particular and, not long afterwards, Lou Reed’s breakthrough as a solo artist and a very ‘other’ creature From Detroit called Iggy Pop stepped into the light because of Bowie. His production and gifting of the title track ‘All the Young Dudes’ to the struggling Midlands band Mott the Hoople lifted them from obscurity to deserved success. Bowie’s role as a producer was key to bringing people he admired through into our consciousness. His influence was everywhere and went way beyond his own recordings.

I didn’t buy all the albums straight away, other than Hunky Dory, but I still knew every track from the others because they were everywhere. Then after his release of Aladin Sane (messy in places – but it couldn’t fail, could it) he did that thing nobody had expected, by killing off The Spyders (putting the rhythm section on the dole) live at Hammersmith. Not just a musical genius but a masterful manipulator of the media. We all heard stories of that gig – how many were true who knows. The drummer in my band, Chris, was there – he says it was pretty wild and confirms that the sound was dreadful!

Bowie did some pretty silly things under the influence of every substance you could take and a few you really shouldn’t. Making 69 was something of a minor miracle. But even when he was wrong the music continued to capture the Zeitgeist. When punk scorched the earth of pop music Bowie was in nobody’s sights because nobody could ever have said ‘boring old fart’ and got away with it. Despite the subject matter of some of the material, his importance to the generation that produced punk was too great. He made it possible as the mentor to the Godfathers of punk. And back to that hairstyle – not only was it imitated in various ways by all sorts of lesser artists (Bay City Rollers anyone?) but it became the basis on much of the most memorable punk styling.

Ten albums and ten year after Ziggy, ‘Let’s Dance’ was the end for some, but people easily forget. It was Bowie with the Zeitgeist again – the post-Falklands Zeitgeist wasn’t his fault. Let’s Dance was mainstream, but it was really, really good mainstream. Those stuffy critics (more afterwards than at the time) who talked of it as sub-standard miss the point; you just try writing one song as irritatingly catchy as any track on Let’s Dance!

Around that time a family I knew went off to the wedding of a friend’s son who was some north London arty film type with their teenage children. David Bowie was one of the guests – they said he was very sociable, very good at putting the obviously awestruck teens at their ease. It was around that time he was no longer ‘a threat’. Bowie, always edgy, a little dangerous and a lot ‘other’ – not something your parents approved of. After Let’s Dance he was never that again, but his influence and the liberating trends in society that he in many ways embodied and helped accelerate were by then, despite the malign presence of the Evil Margaret, unstoppable. In his last years he produced two fine works, unexpected and moving and, I think, again important – if you haven’t heard Blackstar go out and be distrubed.

David Bowie was THE huge presence in the lives of my generation – the ones who were too old for the Beatles and the Stones and were only just young enough (thankfully) for punk. He opened out minds – as we grow old we should follow his example and keep them open. Thank you David.

Lists

Here are my 10s. Not the ten best, not the ten of a devotee, just my tens. Tens because Bowie is too important for just one – so it is ten singles and ten album tracks:

10 Singles

Life on Mars

Starman

The Gene Genie

Drive in Saturday

Rock and Roll Suicide

Rebel Rebel

Sound and Vision

Fame

Heroes

Ashes to Ashes

10 Album Tracks

Oh You Pretty Things

Quicksand

Moonage Daydream

Ziggy Stardust

Panic in Detroit

Sweet Thing

Station to Station *

Wild is the Wind

A New Career in a New Town (and the rest of Side 2 of Low)

Cat People

* Yes, I know it was a single – but 10 minutes of it?

 

He did some fine covers too. My favorite is Let’s Spend the Night Together but I’m also fond of Working Class Hero with Tin Machine