Sunday, June 2, 2013

Bowie, buggery, plastic soul, ones-off and the rest - this blog takes a trip down memory lane (not that I, you know...)

The other night I had an idea for an entry – about David Bowie – and in order to post a few songs on this blog, I prepared several videos (which can be posted on YouTube, then linked to this blog). The trouble is that at the time – last Friday night leading into yesterday morning - I cracked open a bottle of wine while I was working, drank rather a lot of it and then got sidetracked into the Julie London version of Cry Me A River which I subsequently posted with a few words to try to make the whole thing a little less incomprehensible. So I’ve now completely forgotten what I wanted to say. It was going to be a little more than ‘Bowie’s fab man, the biz!’ (mainly because I don’t think he’s necessarily always fab and there’s quite a bit of his music which doesn’t do a lot for me. On the other hand, there’s quite a bit I do like) but what point I was hoping to make I really cannot recall. But what the hell.

I have to admit that Bowie is a one-off who has always ploughed his own furrow – which I always admire in anyone - and who gives the impression that he regards himself as the sole arbiter of the worth of his songs. I first came across him when his fourth album, Hunky Dory, was all the rage in

1971 while I was at college in Dundee, Scotland. But it was more than just the music which caught our attention: just 14 years after gays were no longer thrown in jail for shagging, Bowie – who is apparently not gay and never was – made a point of coming on as the wildest swinger in town. There was just no one like him and no act like his. Forget Marc Bolan, who always struck me as more of a clever opportunist than in any way original.

Like him or loathe him Bowie was utterly different to anything which had gone before. These days, and for many years now, getting dragged up, wearing make-up, coming on gay and the rest of that schtick is just another, increasingly more than hackneyed, weapon in the music industry armoury, especially since MTV made the music vid centre stage. But Bowie was something else: he was a first. Anyone hearing about Led Zeppelin these days might be equally unaware of just how much of a first they were. The same was true of, musically, of Wagner and Stravinsky. Before Led Zeppelin released their first album (‘LP’), we had not heard anything like the music they were producing. Afterwards, of course, everyone ripped off every trick Jimmy Page came up with (although, it has to be said, I’ve still never heard anyone play his kind of music quite like he does. Listen to Since I’ve Been Loving You, for example).

There is not a single weak track on Bowie’s Hunky Dory, though ironically one aspect of it I like – it’s artificiality – is an aspect of many of his songs I don’t much like, for example Wild Is The Wind. But then Bowie has always trodden a fine line, though even when he doesn’t pull it off, as he didn’t with Tin Machine, you can’t but applaud him for not resting on his laurels and developing a fine pair of clay feet.

A few years later, I was working as a reporter in South Wales and a young girl working on a local weekly sold me Young Americans. This young lass and her husband (people did still get married at 23 in those days) were

I’ve not gone for an old – to my mind pretty hackneyed – piccy of Bowie, but prefer this one, as his two children and wife will know him

both folkies and lived the complete knitting with youghurt lifestyle. It seemed she had bought Bowie’s Young Americans thinking it was a folk album, though it took just a few seconds of the first track for her to realise she had got something very wrong, although quite how she could have made the mistake in the first place is pretty odd. So I bought it from her. Bowie refers to Young Americans as ‘plastic soul’ and that’s a pretty good description.

The track I am posting here, Right, is one of my favourites and which I am convinced, for no very good reason, is about buggery, though that’s not why I like it (nothing queer about me, old bean, though the reference

to Julie London in the post before this one might have made one or two of you pause for just a moment). It’s just a gut feeling and I think so every time I hear it. Maybe it's just a simple description of various music biz practices, sexual and financial.

I must admit here that I was once an enthusiastic whacky-baccy smoker and Win, another track posted here, is one hell of a track to get high to. Even now, in my non-whacky-baccy days, it makes me feel like I am high, high, high up in some luxurious Manhattan apartment looking across

New York at night. Don’t know why, it just does. The guitar is just gorgeous, though that sound is these days very non-U.

After all that praise, I have to admit that a lot of Bowie’s later work leaves me cold. Early on in his career, with songs such as Life On Mars and Space Oddity, he showed such a melodic gift. That seems to have gone by the board in later years. Obviously, given his continued popularity, a great many still like the later music. I happen not to.

Bowie once said that Life On Mars was based on the chord sequence of Sinatra’s My Way, but the other day I found out there’s more to it. It seems a French singer brought out a song called Comme d'habitude which had the same melody as My Way and Bowie’s publisher wanted to release an English version and asked Bowie to write some English lyrics. He did, but admits they were awful. His publisher thought so, too, and rejected Bowie’s lyrics and instead asked a certain Paul Anka to write some lyrics. He did, these were accepted, and made a great deal of money from them. That, at least, is Bowie’s version. I’ve just looked up My Way on Wikipedia and Anka gives a completely different account. So who knows which is true. Christ, nothing’s simple, is it.

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