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The Return Of The Thin White Duke

For the last few weeks I've been utterly immersed in a fairly exlusive relationship with David Bowie. He doesn't know anything about it,unless he makes a habit of checking out people's play counts on last.fm. It's just me and his back catalogue. This relationship is mostly played out in trains. On headphones, music fed from iTunes or Spotify. Complete albums at a time, played through in the correct running order, naturally.  As I listen my eyes are glued to an electronic book. A book about David Bowie and the same songs I'm almost obsessively listening to.

It began with the book, or perhaps I mean to say it awoke. A few weeks  ago, listening to Word Podcast 188, I heard about Peter Doggett's latest book. Commissioned as a sequel, or at least inspired by Ian MacDonald's influential song by song Beatles chronology: Revolution In The Head. I thought the idea was sound, if any classic rock canon could bear the load of similar scrutiny, it was probably Bowie. I noted the book on my 'to read' list, and the next time I found myself without an ongoing book, whilst waiting to depart St. Pancras International, having recently ended one book, I  bought the Kindle edition, via "Whispernet". I do most of my book reading on trains. I thought it would probably make an interesting read, despite knowing that I didn't really enjoy listening to Bowie's music.

It wasn't always that way. At some level I would still identify myself as a Bowie fan; albeit a heavily lapsed one.  We go way back together. His commercial peak as a pop star ( Let's Dance ) neatly coincides with the start of my interest in the pop charts. He still seemed a current, voguish music figure. The promo video was a new central focus of pop culture, and Bowie was of course one of the craftiest, most-prepared of the video pioneers.

Access to archive media was rare then, and fashion was forward-looking; any consciously retro styles were focused on the '50s.  I remember a classmate at boarding school, with the archetypal 'older brother with record collection' filling me in on the standard mythology. The multiple identities, snatches of song titles and character names and iconography all seemed unimaginable and distant. Fascinated by the scraps, I used my sense of wonder to fill in the gaps.

I remember the first time I saw a photo of Ziggy Stardust, years later.  It was in a newspaper colour supplement. There was a stock photo collage piece on 'The Many Faces of David Bowie'; probably already a cliche even then. Like anyone, I was knocked out just by the look of it. It was preposterous; somehow ridiculous and cool. A vision from the future, even 15 years out of date.

Bowie still pops up throughout the rest of the decade. He's still a face. Movie and soundtrack work. Labyrinth. Absolute Beginners. When the Wind Blows. I watch all of these at home on a VCR.

I pretend to study for 'A' levels, at the local sixth form college. A grim time for chart music, the fag end of the Stock Aitken Waterman years, just running up against the first twinklings of rave culture. There's a jukebox, with actual seven inch singles in. Most of them are by Rick Astley, or Sonia, or Michael Bolton. There's a 'Golden Oldies' section with maybe a dozen  records  over on the far right side. 'Ziggy Stardust' is one of them. I play it once or twice a day for weeks. After this, a little piece of me is always slightly disappointed each time I play an electric guitar and it doesn't sound very much like Ronson.

Tin Machine are next along, the sheer contrariness of this scheme just delights me; although I never get to hear much of the music, there's a near media embargo on it. As I move through the 90s, with a gradually solidfying income, I fill out my CD collection with all the back catalogue. It gets solidly played until I've commited the bulk of it to heart.

I'm amused by the negative attitude to 'Drum and Bass Bowie' from the inkies, most of these still in thrall to the last few coughs of Britpop. I like the singles more than most others from that year.

Then it's spoiled. Glastonbury 2000 kills it. Against my better judgement, I trek down to the pyramid stage to watch Bowie's headline set. Stadium Rock is not my thing. I stand in the mud for a while, and I try to watch on the giant TV screens on the other side of the crowded field. It's too slick, too caberet, I'm completely disengaged and intensely disappointed. I leave them to it after half a dozen songs. Something feels quite broken. After that, I find it hard to listen to the old records in a more than academic way.

Nonetheless, now I'm reading the book, I put a playlist together that covers all the albums it discusses. I'm mostly reading on the train, and this means I'm mostly listening as I read. It's a peculiarly immersive way to listen to records. I tried it once before, with Scott Tennent's book about Slint's Spiderland. I read that on the Northern Line, with the album on rotation. Eventually it almost felt like I'd been present at those recording sessions.

It leaks into your ears, ambiently informing your reading. Occasionally mid-passage about the invention or arrangement of a song co-incides with the track playing everything pulls into focus across multiple senses. Berlin-period Bowie plays particularly well with rail transport, with it's stations and trains and mechanical sounds. Listening to Heroes, waiting platformside in the raw concrete trenches of Stratford International.

The book itself is a solid read. Bowie remains an unsurprisingly opaque presence, and some of the speculative interpretation on lyrics and motivation feels like a stretch. The musical analysis likewise falls falls a little short of the template established by 'Revolution In The Head', occasionally quite gratingly clunky (a 'sustained fourth' chord?). Luckily the framing works just as well. Imposing a narrative upon the chronological order of recordings creates an appreciation of it as one body of work. Considered so forensically, it's an astonishing thing. Much as with the previous book, what stands out just as markedly as the quality of the songs and recordings, is the rate of progress, and the rate of change. Here's a rough calendar of the recording dates of the albums covered within 'The Man Who Sold The World'.

I still find this list astonishing. Just five years separate the psych-folk/music-hall of Hunky Dory and the ambient alienation and hyper-stylised funk of Low. A further four years between that and the proto-industrial-cum-New Romantic Pop of Scary Monsters. It's a lot of terrain to cover in a decade, banging out over an album a year interspersed with global touring. For the sake of convenience, I have left out the live album releases.

A couple of other interesting points leapt out at me after reading. I realised my instinctive dating of 'Scary Monsters' is mistakenly late. 'Ashes to Ashes' has been so convincingly retconned as a New Romantic cornerstone, I have been unconsciously sticking it in the middle somewhere around '82-'83 amidst Culture Club and Duran and the Spandaus, and 'Come on Eileen'. The actual recording date puts it barely out of the 1970s, which means that dense, sound bricolage of such modern sounds was hand-stitched in the most analogue ways. Tony Visconti deserves even more of my respect.

The second thing I never before realised, was that the 'Art Bowie' period – the less overtly commercial works spanning from 'Station to Station' to 'Scary Monsters' does rather neatly line up with a management dispute. As I understand it, these records were produced under a settlement that meant a significant portion of royalties were due to a now estranged management organisation. Once this lapsed, he abruptly switched to the ultra-commercial, lucrative career arc prefaced by 'Let's Dance'. Which is of course, where we came in.

A final, unexpected triumph. As a side effect of the book and this entombment in the music. The joy came back. In sounding all the material out new depths, informed by fresh context, and with rested ears refreshed, I've rediscovered my original appreciation for this sequence of records. Pity my poor family.

The only fault I can find with this technique of marrying immersive listening with a scholarly reading is that it is intrinsically retrospective, and perhaps simply nostalgic, and reductive. It obviously requires you find an artist or a work that's had enough time to embed itself in it's surrounding culture, and can never be forward looking.

Best album from the set? I change my mind constantly, but think I most often settle upon 'Low'. There isn't a bad one, although I'll never consider 'Pin Ups' to be essential, and I think I might always find 'Lodger' a little underwhelming. Who's next for the treatment? I'm not sure. I notice there's a book about the rise and fall of Spacemen 3.

This entry was posted on Tuesday, April 17, 2012 at 20:50 in history, music.
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