Like many around the world, David Bowie’s death on 10 January left me feeling a sense of overwhelming grief and loss. There are a lot of things that could be said about the reaction to Bowie’s death, at age 69, and Jean Burgess’s piece in Medium captures nicely the way in which news of Bowie’s death triggered a huge collective response through social media, that was matched by collective gatherings around the world, at streets in Brixton, bars and clubs that decided to stay oepn all night and play Bowie, and flash mob programming at events such as the Sydney Festival .
The genre of discussing how David Bowie changed your life has now been well and truly played out, inviting parody when it becomes and occasion for journalists and others to essentially talk about themselves via the muse that is David Bowie. Will Self’s obituary in the New Statesman is a good example of the genre, where the expectation of writing 1000 words about Bowie becomes a call to write 1000 words about himself (NB: this now appears to be behind a paywall).
So rather than do that, I will list a Bowie top ten songs. All but two accompanied by fantastic music videos – Bowie got the significance of the music video as part of the whole package of being a musician, artist and entertainer well in advance of almost all of his peers:
In doing a list like this, you are always struck by what you have missed. The list could include all of the songs that basically made Bowie rich and famous: Space Oddity, Ziggy Stardust, Starman, The Jean Genie, Rebel Bebel, Golden Years and, later, Let’s Dance (nearly put that one in), Modern Love and Under Pressure. There are also the less well know gems like The Man Who Sold the World, Be My Wife and Look Back in Anger, and those songs that are completely kick-arse live, like the epic version of Station to Station on the 1978 tour. The latter is a good example of what Bowie did so well. The song is inspired by Kraftwerk, just as the Young Americans album adopted back American Philly soul, but rather that simply being copying, it becomes something else, something that has Bowie’s unique musical signature.
There has been much uncovering of David Bowie material from the online cultural vaults over the last week. These range from his Japanese sake commercial from 1980 to TV appearances on everything from The Dinah Shore Show to the Kenny Everett Video Show (KE line: “I fought for men like you … I didn’t get one”!).
This one from the Australian TV program Countdown from 1978 is one to note, featuring the inimitable interviewing style of Ian “Molly” Meldrum, some great lines (“Fame is about management”), and something we do not see enough of in TV interviews – men sitting around on a tennis court smoking and chatting!
There are various pieces around on Bowie as stylistic innovator. This includes his recognition o how the Internet would change music, and indeed all entertainment, by making content ubiquitous – and hence hard to make money from – and making live performance more important. Bowie was thus an innovator in media economics long before most of his peers, just as he recognised the centrality of video to music in the 1970s. He also had very interesting observations on art and artists, considering himself to be very much an artist, but also being very much aware of how the art world differed form that of rock music:
D.B. … the art world always widens its parameters to elevate something from low art to high art.
M.K. That’s an obvious difference between the art world and the rock-music world.
D.B. The difference is that one has a brain [laughs].
“Spinal Tap” really wasn’t off the mark. There’s a high degree of fame-seeking in rock, and I think that gets in the way of some great potential.
M.K. Art’s not altogether different in that sense, is it?
D.B. Yeah, it’s true. I guess the same can also be said about some visual artists. But success in art seems to be a lot more about knowing and buttering up a few people. If a visual artist is articulate about his work, he can tell collectors what to think about what they’re buying. People won’t sit still to hear a rock musician say why someone should spend 15 bucks on his album. You can’t get away with much in rock without somebody saying “You got to be kidding me.” You’re not talking about 20 people; you are talking in hundreds of thousands, if you’re lucky, and so a consensus forms about the music. As a rock musician you can live with your audience, no matter what the critics say. Let me tell you, many times I’ve had to. The ups and downs can be pretty terrifying [laughs].
The final words on David Bowie can be left to Bret MacKenzie and Jermaine Clement AKA the New Zealand based comedy band Flight of the Conchords. Recounting just what Bowie nerds the two of them were, he talks about their plans to record a Bowie song:
In 1999 Bret McKenzie and I were sitting with our guitars in our dingy flat in Wellington trying to learn David Bowie songs. They were catchy, which usually translates to being easy to play. Not David Bowie. He’d taken Paul McCartney’s style of making an epic medley song and made it more subtle, parts seamlessly changing without you even realising it. You’d just feel the change like a change in your own mood.
He’d taken rock’n’roll and added parts of black soul music which somehow he’d made white without making it uncool. We couldn’t play these songs. They were too tricky to learn, too many parts – all those tricky chords, all those tempo changes, the changes in vocal range, sometimes a deep masculine growl, sometimes a high falsetto of some third alien gender.
We sat around defeated by our hero’s chord book but admiring him more. He’d made pop songs into mini operas but without showing off about it.
The result was the fabulous Bowie’s in Space.
In the same episode, Bret is visited by three ghosts of Bowie: the Alladin Sane Bowie, the Ashes to Ashes Bowie, and the Labyrinth Bowie. In a great mix of parody and homage, Clement explains how “Bret, a slim man, would be visited by Bowie, a hero to slim men everywhere”, dispensing invaluable career advice to “wear an eye patch” and “be outrageous”.