Last night on Spicks & Specks, Doc Neesun, lead singer of 70’s band the Angels, almost tearfully admitted he had been harassed offstage in the USA by Ray Davies. He was second billing on a US tour but started getting more calls for encores, more interaction. Neesun said Davies abruptly cancelled his place in the tour; he said ruefully that people like David Bowie had been much nicer to their second bill artists.
Later that night was shown an important doco on Bowie’s career, 5 Years. Like everyone of my age, Bowie shaped much of my earlier years. When Gay Liberation was in full flush, Bowie’s amorphous bisexuality was very attractive; I remember one particular party where we played Ziggy Stardust over and over; nothing else spoke quite so appropriately to us, although Alladin Sane had been released and we should been abreast of the new direction. I remember, sitting dressed as a hippy on a Sydney bus: waistcoat, bangles, long hair. A young man boarded the bus dressed in space age Ziggy outfit; a friend lacking tact said that his Ziggy drag had more credibility than mine, he was now where it was at.
The doco charted Bowie going from folk music on a 12 string guitar to a space-age surrealism. Rick Wakeman, Bowie’s keyboardist on Hunky Dorie outlined the idiosyncratic key changes that were Ziggy’s claim to innovation. Someone noted that Bowie like Shakespeare, like Picasso stole so much that he subsequently made his own. His Ziggy persona was part Lou Reed, part Iggy Pop. I passed by the local framer’s shop; in the window was Warhol’s pop version of Marilyn Monroe; I noted the same exaggerated eye-colouring for the Ziggy rock clip.
The doco maker very lucidly charted Bowie’s progress towards the soul sounds of Young Americans, a support singer advised him: head for NY, check out the Apollo nightclub. A unique reinterpretation of soul music resulted, syncopated rather than just harmonious.
A series of objective co-relatives emerged: Major Tom, Ziggy Stardust. Then, in an effort to change his modus operandi, and under the influence of the electronic music of Kraftwerk, Bowie collaborated with Brian Eno, Tom Visconti and later Robert Fripp. Visconti brought an electronic machine, the harmonizer, to the studio, which he described as “fucking with the fabric of time”. Bowie’s contemporary success was clearly well earned; he had a flawless knack of fingering the sharpest talent of the day.
Bowie seemed to anticipate the coming trend, time after time; the crew he filmed for the clip of Scary Monsters were from a London dance club which anticipated the 80’s Romantic thing. “We are the goon squad & we’re coming to town.” What made the hit Fashion remarkable was the influence of avant garde musos like Fripp who gave the music a non mainstream hauteur, like the visual dislocation of Warhol’s Factory.
Even when Scary Monsters seemed to indicate that Bowie was running dry or empty, he hooked up with Nile Rodgers; he told him: I need you to make hits for me. What resulted was the Serious Moonlight Tour and the mainstream hit Let’s Dance followed by Little China Girl. Rodgers said of Let’s Dance, that it was a genuinely, impressively mainstream hit; other musos like Jagger and McCartney had tried to achieve such success but failed. Dancing in the Street, the song that Jagger and Bowie shared, showed how both were able as artists to collaborate.
I finally managed to see Bowie live on stage at Moore Park in the Serious Moonlight tour; it was mid 80’s and I was with a group of like minded people, wearing a multi coloured club jacket; a down & dirty rocker studied us from a distance and yelled out “disco”; as if we needed to be reminded.
The doco managed so successfully to weave all the musical influences of the 70’s and 80’s; I am sure future efforts will be even more illuminating. What intrigues is that Bowie has had such trouble finding a voice for today; I gather he’s currently recording his next album. One wishes him only good luck.