Monday, January 08, 2007

Ziggy is Sixty

Of all the draw-droppingly unbelievable birthdays, surely David Bowie being 60 is the most astonishing? He remains one of the critical influences on my life. I probably first heard him when "Space Oddity" was unexpectedly reissued to become a number one in 1975. I remember getting "The very best of Bowie" (probably the worst of a whole range of compilations he's released over the years) when I was about 13 or 14, and that probably presaged the amazement of hearing (and seeing the video for) "Ashes to Ashes." Already past his prime - its parent album, "Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps)" is generally seen as the last great album of a run that goes back to his second "The Man Who Sold the World" a decade earlier - I was turned into a Bowie fan more by the prescience of RCA records to cheaply re-sell his back catalogue, at £2.99 each, so that every few weeks I'd add "Low", "Hunky Dory" or "Ziggy Stardust" to my collection. A good time to catch up with Bowie, if not that great a time to be a manic fan (oddities like "Alabama Song", his debatable movie career), I know I'd heard Bauhaus's note perfect version of "Ziggy Stardust" before I'd heard Bowie's. I've therefore got quite a skewed view of his back catalogue - I heard things in the wrong order, and some not till years later. Therefore I'm not a particular fan of "Young Americans" "Aladdin Sane" or "Lodger", since they seemed weak compared with "Station to Station", "Diamond Dogs" and "Low" respectively.

"Let's Dance", of course, was his biggest success - the title track following "Ashes to Ashes" and his Queen collaboration "Under Pressure" to number one - yet outside the singles I've probably not played it for a decade. After that, it was a Bowie that had, after being the ultimate outsider artist (albeit a massive selling one), embraced the mainstream. "Blue Jean", off "Tonight" was probably his last truly great single for a decade or so. Yet every album - even the "Tin Machine" ones - offered hope of a return to form. It's strange, how, in retrospect, the partial renaissance - perhaps since "Black Tie, White Noise" onwards - has made his eighties "blip" seem just that. The musician who'd experimented with electronics, plastic soul and artifice in the 70s was unable to survive the artifice, plastic soul and electronics of the 80s. Somewhere, sometime I've a massive essay unfinished on Bowie - why he means so much to so many, yet is still mistrusted by others. I've seen him twice - both in massive venues and in the last decade - and I'm not sure that I quite believed it was him. I prefer him as the alien he played in the masterful "The Man Who Fell to Earth." Yet, as rock stars go, he's never stopped being what rock stars should be... interesting. I realised, that with his recent heart problem, the gap since "Heathen" is one of the longest in his career. Bowie the businessman is always problematic -, Bowie bonds, endless, endless reissues and greatest hits, which have never quite tempted me to replace my RCA £2.99ers.

A great singer, but a poor interpreter (except where the songs are obscure - like his Pixies and Pop covers); and almost uninterpretable himself. Considering how great the songs often are, they generally defy anyone to do another version (I like the Bauhaus cover, Lulu's "The Man Who Sold the world" and Mott the Hoople's "All the Young Dudes" but that's about it - but have a look here!); and what is often forgotten in the torrent of "Best ofs" and the ubiquitous footage of "Changes" or "Starman", is how rich that back catalogue is. "Quicksand" from "Hunky Dory", "Five Years" from "Ziggy Stardust", "Be My Wife" from "Low" and "Teenage Wildlife" from "Scary Monsters" would all squeeze into my "best of." He's experimented with different bands; different styles; but its only music that aspires to be glamorous - and yes, alien - that has really worked for him. Faced with an r&b, folk or pop backing, his vocal mannerisms sit awkwardly. It is the driving, drama of his glam rock backing; or the glacial avant gardeism of Eno that suits him best. His supporting of those keystones of the alternative - the Velvets, Iggy in particular - would deserve praise whatever else he's done. I hope there's many more albums, however, bad, misconceived, odd or inspirational (on every record there's been a track or two that deserves the latter epithet, "Never Let Me Down" and "Tin Machine II" apart!). For me, he's not the bisexual icon that appealed to Jake Arnott or Anthony and the Johnsons, nor is he the global rock star of "Live Aid" and "Dancing in the Streets", or the elder statesman of "mature" Q awards and live webcasts. Rather, he's the avant garde-ner extraordinary, tending that garden even when at its most barren - making a strangely powerful alchemy of rock and roll, pop, experiment and theatre work time and again.

Happy Birthday, Ziggy.

1 comment:

Ms Baroque said...

Wow, thanks for this! I shall do an elegantly Dressed Bowie this Wednesday.

And, really - to be sixty - how bad can it be, if Bowie is sixty?