It’s the time of the year when the world falls into two camps: those who like to dress up in fright wigs, cake their face in plaster of Paris and smudge some tomato sauce around their dad’s old ripped shirt to wander the street for sweets from strangers…and those who think it’s all a load of nonsense.
I’m firmly in the second camp. I hated Hallowe’en as a child and I hate it just as much as a parent. Our kids are older now and they wouldn’t be seen dead (no pun intended) in a skeleton costume or a zombie outfit, yet we still persevere with entertaining doorsteppers and (euch!) ‘trick or treaters’ – like Hallowe’en itself, an Americanism too far- because, as my selfless wife points out, our kids benefited from the neighbours when they were younger, whether those neighbours had young children or not. Fair enough, I suppose.
Someone who loved dressing up, who made a whole 40+ year career of it, was David Bowie. After he died, everyone I know went on some sort of back catalogue pilgrimage, reappraising the seemingly ‘weak’ records and finding previously disgarded or misunderstood gems within their grooves. One such album was Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps). One step on from his holy ‘Berlin’ trilogy, Scary Monsters… found the magpie-ish Bowie stepping into the ’80s and embracing the nascent New Romantic scene, taking the most interesting parts and presenting them as his own. Everything on the record, from the clown costume on the front cover to the synthetic squall and squeal of Robert Fripps’s wandering guitar parts deals in artifice and pretence.
David Bowie – Scary Monsters
Interestingly, the title track got its name from the blurb on a Corn Flakes advert. ‘Scary Monsters and Super Heroes‘ were the novelty toys of the time and the singer, forever switched on, adapted it for his own needs. It’s a beauty, Bowie in full-on Anthony Newley, his cockernee vocalisms cutting through the racket of the band, hellbent on bashing out their own take on post-punk and sounding not a million miles away from some of those more straightforward Joy Division records. The drums, repetitive, clattering and full of interesting fills, sound like they could’ve been played by Stephen Morris himself. And the pedal-stomping Fripp is all over the track like a free-riffing rash; outrageous and discordant, the grit in the groove. Violent, aggressive, and straight-up avant garde rock, I doubt the track would’ve been half as colourful or interesting without him.
You can compare it to this 1996 bootleg version, recorded in Atlanta.
David Bowie – Scary Monsters (acoustic)
Stripped back and acoustic, it’s presented in a no-frills blues arrangement, Bowie introducing it with very tall tales of his time spent with Johnny Cash, a subtle nod to Rick Rubin perhaps, to get in touch and make Bowie his next unplugged vanity project. Mere speculation, of course. And something we’ll never know.
That Bowie fella was a clever droog. In death he created one of his greatest pieces of art. The songs that make up Blackstar contained an outpouring of coded references to the pancreatic cancer that he would succumb to two days after its release. The benefit of such short hindsight allowed even the blindest of Bowie lyric decoders to join the dots and see the bigger picture. Only a small handful of folk knew, but Dave was terminally ill when he wrote and recorded his 25th album and scattered across the tracks were the clues that became so obvious in the days that followed. You know that already though.
“Look at me, I’m in heaven. I’ve got scars that can’t be healed.”
“Something happened on the day he died.”
“Why too dark to speak the words?”
“IfI’ll never see the English evergreens I’m running to, it’s nothing to me.”
“I’ve got nothing left to lose…I’m so high it makes my brain whirl.”
“Hope I’ll be free.”
“I know something is very wrong.”
“I can’t give everything away.”
He maybe didn’t give everything away, but he gave a huge part of himself. The font used to display the tracklisting on the back? A relatively obscure one called Terminal, funnily enough. Even the sleeve itself is a perfect artefact. Bereft of it’s contents and held to the light, it reveals a galaxy of stars that shines with all the wonder of the cosmos. A certain, intentional metaphor for Bowie’s omnipresence, it’s his final gift to us all.
Blackstar wasn’t the easiest of albums to digest at the first sitting. Much of it is skewed and, unsurprisingly, doom-laden, carried by skittering drums and the sort of skronking jazz that’s only recently found itself on the margins of the mainstream thanks to the occasional rotation of acts such as The Comet Is Coming and Polar Bear on BBC 6 Music. Be it glam or electronica or new romanticism or even speed garage, Bowie was forever at the front of the queue whenever a new musical direction was being charted, in both senses of the word.
There are stellar moments, of course, some of which take half a dozen or more plays before they’ve worked their way into your head, by which point you’re revelling in one of Bowie’s most complex, most complete albums. Blackstar may not’ve been for everyone – my local independent seller was scathing of it upon release, but for those that get it… wow! There are truly brilliant moments on Blackstar, as euphoric as Absolute Beginners, as arty as anything from Low and as essential as the rest of the high rollers that immediately spring to mind when you’re asked for your favourite Bowie albums.
This week’s highlights: the song-within-the-song moment midway through the title track…the crashing guitars that colour the none-more-Bowie vocal on Lazarus….the jerky paranoia of Sue (Or In A Season Of Crime)…..the straightforward piano and electric guitar ballad of Dollar Days, an album highlight that sounds most like the Bowie of old, whatever that means. It features a great sax line too, played, I imagine (I hope) by Bowie himself. Meandering, mournful and slowly unfolding, it’s the stately sound of Bowie facing death with stiff upper-lipped dignity. In a back catalogue of fantastic highs, Dollar Days is right up there as one of his very best.
David Bowie – Dollar Days
Best of all though, arguably, is Girl Loves Me, a song smartly written in a mish-mash of two made-up languages, Polari and Nadsat.
Polari was the coded language (more decoding!) used by gay men in the 50s and 60s as a way of finding like-minded companions. With conversation based around combinations of slang and interpolated foreign words, gay men had the perfect means to hide in plain sight. Polari even made it onto the BBC when, unknown to the bosses, it was used extensively on Round The Horne.
In more recent times, Morrissey went through a short phase of adopting Polari. Piccadilly Palare, for example;
The Piccadilly Palare Was just silly slang Between me and the boys in my gang “So bona to vada, oh you Your lovely eek and Your lovely riah”
His Bona Drag compilation album too. Translated from Polari, it means ‘good clothes‘. Anyway, I digress.
Alongside his adoption of Polari, Bowie borrows heavily from Nadsat, the half-Russian, half-English language that Anthony Burgess used in A Clockwork Orange. The Russian word for ‘good‘, for example, is ‘khrosho‘, pronounced ko-ro-sho. In keeping with the book’s theme of wanton, casual violence, Burgess cleverly twisted this into ‘horrorshow‘, so whenever a character in the book refers to something as ‘real horrorshow‘, they’re expounding on how great it is. It took me a while to work this out when I first read it, as of course, four pilled-up and violent teenagers giving an old guy a kicking really is a proper horrorshow. I’d no idea for many pages that they considered a ‘horrorshow’ to be a good thing. Jeez.
As a result of it’s lyrical styling, Girl Loves Me sounds weird, wonky and other-worldly. It’s real horrorshow, in fact.
David Bowie – Girl Loves Me
Cheena so sound, so titty up this Malchick, say Party up moodge, ninety vellocet round on Tuesday Real bad dizzy snatch making all the homies mad, Thursday Popo blind to the polly in the hole by Friday
Where the fuck did Monday go? I’m go to this Giggenbach show I’m sailin’ in the chestnut tree Who the fuck’s gonna mess with me?
Girl loves me
Despite the fantastic imagery that the lyrics throw up, the refrain of “Where the fuck did Monday go?” sticks out a mile for me. When I watched my dad pass away through cancer, he’d lie in a morphine-induced sleep for days at a time. When lucid, he had no idea what day of the week or time of year, or indeed, what year it was. For us carers, minutes turned to hours which turned to days which turned to weeks. Where the fuck did Monday go indeed. It’s the perfect line. Of all the death-related ones on Blackstar, it’s the one that resonates most with me.
Bowie has been gone four years now. He’ll live on forever though.
Six Of The Best is a semi-regular feature that pokes, prods and persuades your favourite bands, bards and barometers of hip opinion to tell us six of the best tracks they’ve ever heard. The tracks could be mainstream million-sellers or they could be obfuscatingly obscure, it doesn’t matter. The only criteria set is that, aye, they must be Six of the Best. Think of it like a mini, groovier version of Desert Island Discs…
Richard Jobson is best-known as the vocalist and focal point of Skids. Between 1977 and 1982, Skids’ flame burned briefly but brightly over 4 abums – including two in one year (beat that, young pretenders!) and a handful of well-loved singles that are as instantly recognisable as Jobson’s lantern jaw and idiosyncratic stage moves. Working For The Yankee Dollar, Masquerade and Into The Valley put the band firmly in the anthemic post-punk bracket, paving the way for yer U2s and Alarms and Manic Street Preachers and the likes.
“We never really got the credit we fully deserved,” remarks Richard. “With each release we evolved, changed and stuck our heads above the parapet. We weren’t cartoonish like the Damned or overly political like The Clash. Our peers over in the west of Scotland were Velvet Underground copyists, art-school cool, but we did our own thing. We never thought of what it was we should be doing. We just did. Skids were never cool, really. I wrote abstract lyrics. Our records came in abstract sleeves. (Debut album) ‘Scared To Dance’ was considered subversive, which is nonsense. ‘Days In Europa’, released in the same year (1979) was actually remixed and reissued with a new sleeve a few months later – years before your Deluxe Versions and remastered reissues were even thought of. We were incredibly hard-working and incredibly self-assured.”
In 1982, founding member William Simpson left Skids, shortly followed by Stuart Adamson, who’d take Skids’ blueprint and use it to great success with Big Country. And that, by and large was seemingly the end of Skids.
Jobson then joined forces with guitar great John McGeoch in the short-lived super group of sorts Armoury Show (half Skids, half Magazine, one album then over and out) before leaving music behind to focus on, amongst other things, modelling, poetry, television presenting and film making. You might’ve seen his 16 Years Of Alcohol, a terrifically intense film with a killer soundtrack. You might even have seen the video for Arab Strap’s Speed-Date. Richard produced that too.
“I see my art as everything I do. Whether it’s music or film or writing, it’s all me. I don’t like being pigeonholed.”
A decade or so ago Skids reunited to play in tribute to Stuart Adamson. Sporadic shows followed; a T In The Park appearance here, a hometown gig there, before, “following a proper dust-down” at the tail end of last year, Skids returned with a brand new album. Burning Cities briefly outsold Noel Gallagher before settling comfortably inside the Top 30. On the back of the album, a rejuvenated Jobson and co hit the road and played dozens of shows the length and breadth of the UK. Reviews were generally ecstatic, focusing on the youthfulness of Jobson and his band’s ability to turn the clock back to those heady days when Skids first meant something to people. As the band found out, they clearly still hold a special place in the hearts of people for whom music is everything.
Somewhere along the way, Jobson found the time to write. Echoing the productivity of those early Skids’ days, he’s recently published not one but two books; his autobiography Into The Valley and The Speed Of Life, a story told through the eyes of two aliens who travel to Earth and discover the songs of David Bowie.
“I wanted to write a book about what it’s like to be a fan. What does fandom mean? Essentially, it’s a love affair with the music and the people who make it. You end up having this life-long, long-distance friendship with the person who inspires you. It’s a holistic thing being a fan. The fashion, the music, the lifestyle are all wrapped up in the one package. We all have our own heroes.
All the artists I admire, Lou and Iggy for example, were my poets. Tom Verlaine and Patti Smith! They wrote lyrics like mini movies. Their songs were metallic, urban, real. David Bowie inspired me to be better, more creative, to read literature, to watch particular movies. He told me not to be afraid of failure. Never be a coward! He taught me never to rest on my laurels, to keep trying to evolve. You’ll see that in my music, my films.
David Bowie instilled in me a work ethic that, sadly, is missing in most bands today. This instantaneous Instagram generation who seek fame over everything else, it’s idiotic. The real work gets in the way of becoming famous. We don’t have any more Bowies coming through. It’s all fake. All of it.”
Which seems as good a time as any to ask Richard to consider his 6 favourite Bowie tracks.
It’s better to be asked cold about these kinda things and not have the time to think about it. This way you’ll get the real answer and not the one I think people will want me to say. Although I dare say if you asked me tomorrow I might pick a totally different six. For now, straight off of my head I’ll say Sound & Vision.
David Bowie – Sound & Vision
It reminds me of where I live. It’s the sound of Bowie reinventing himself, from near-suicidal drug addiction in L.A. to a man reborn in Berlin. It’s such an inspiring song. Who doesn’t love it?!?
David Bowie – Where Are We Now
There’s some really great stuff in Bowie’s later New York period. The albums from this time really need to be given more attention. They’re almost lost in this vast back catalogue of greatness, but they’re all great in their own right. The Next Day might well be one of his very best. From it, Where Are We Now makes me cry every time I hear it. Until then I hadn’t cried that much since I first listened to Leonard Cohen.
David Bowie – Station To Station
Station To Station was the first Bowie album that really made me sit up and listen. There’s a whole new depth of richness on this album that Bowie hadn’t gone for before. The songwriting is fantastic. The opening track, with its train noises and slow, steady, mechanical plod is a brilliant opener.
David Bowie – Quicksand
That run of albums, from Ziggy through Aladdin Sane to Diamond Dogs is brilliant. And growing up with each of them was a very fortuitous thing. How lucky I was to be of the age to appreciate Bowie first-hand! Hunky Dory though is a perfect album. And Quicksand is a perfect track.
David Bowie – The Jean Genie
I like the pop Bowie. Let’s not forget that as well as being a ‘serious’ artist, he wrote these incredible pop songs. The Jean Genie just reminds me so much of having fun as a wee guy, dancing around the living room as it played.
David Bowie – Speed Of Life
I love this track to bits. I enjoy listening to ambient music while I read. Brian Eno, of course, All the German bands. The whole of the second side of Low as you know is ambient, instrumental music. The opener is inspired. It’s the new sound of Bowie, a glimpse into what the other side of the record holds in store, yet it still captures the essence of pop. These cowards today, afraid of trying anything new really should take a leaf from Bowie’s book.
Richard Jobson will play a couple of special east coast/west coast shows in Edinburgh and Irvine to promote The Speed Of Life. He’ll be accompanied by former Goodbye Mr MacKenzie frontman Martin Metcalfe who’ll play “natural sounds and drones……cool, dramatic music” whilst Richard reads extracts from his book. Unbelievably, there are still a handful of tickets left for both shows. You should probably go to at least one of them.
Walk On The Wild Side is perhaps Lou Reed‘s best-known song.
Lou Reed – Walk On The Wild Side
Its languid vocal and lazy shuffle conjurs up images of stifling summer New York heat; sticky tarmac on pavements (or should that be sidewalks?), teenage girls singing with carefree abandon on street corners, a loose-limbed groove that never outstays its welcome. Listen closely though and you’ll hear a tale of the New York underbelly, the New York that was off the beaten track yet a daily experience if you were part of the Warhol ‘Factory’ set; Hustlers hustling. Drugs and dealers. Pimps and prostitutes. Females who were shemales. This is girls who are boys who like boys to be girls long before it was a Britpop soundbite. Not for nothing was its parent album called ‘Transformer‘.
Here’s an early version, with very different lyrics and Lou pointing out the girls’ parts….
The released version is a radically re-written homage to the Factory set; the scenesters and teensters who orbited around Andy Warhol’s Manhattan Studio. There were actually 3 Factories, but that’s another story for another day.
Holly who shaved her legs was Holly Woodlawn, a transgender actress who ran away from home in Florida at the age of 15 and by the act of shaving her legs on the way literally changed from man to woman.
Candy was Candy Darling, also a transgender actress. The subject of the Velvets’ Candy Says, she grew up in Long Island – the island – and was known to perform favours in the back room of Max’s Kansas City, the hipper than hip venue/hangout that was central to the scene. That’s Candy (above) with Andy. It’s her face who’s on the cover of Sheila Take A Bow, The Smiths’ 14th single. But you knew that already.
Little Joe was Joe Dallesandro, Warhol actor best known for his role in Flesh, where he played a teenage hustler. Coincidentally, that’s Joe on the cover of The Smiths’ debut album. But you knew that already too.
The Sugar Plum Fairy was another Flesh reference, this time to the name of a drug-dealing character in the film.
Jackie was Jackie Curtis. To say the least, an interesting person, she performed bizarre cabaret dressed sometimes as a woman and sometimes in drag. With overdone glitter, big lipstick, heavily kholed eyes, brightly dyed hair and ripped stockings, Jackie’s combination of trash and glamour was considered the catalyst for the glam rock movement. Certainly, she wouldn’t have looked out of place in the New York Dolls. At one time, Curtis was mooted to play James Dean in a biopic of Dean’s life. This never came to fruition, hence the thought she was James Dean for a day line. So now you know.
Perhaps not surprisingly, such a parade of characters and subject matter fell foul of the US censors. On the released single, they removed the references to the colored girls and giving head and the record peaked inside the Top 20. In the UK, the lyrics remained as Lou had intended and Walk On The Wild Side peaked at number 10. Make of that what you will.
Walk On The Wild Side was put together by Lou alongside co-producers David Bowie and Mick Ronson.
Walk On The Wild Side – hissy outtake with David Bowie on backing vocals
It’s said that Bowie plays guitar on WOTWS, although no credits exist to back this up. Considering at this point in time (August ’72) Bowie was spreading himself between Ziggy tours, Mott The Hoople handouts and Lou Reed production duties, given his propensity to eschew all form of food for music-related activity, it’s not unlikely to suggest he did play on it. It was quite an era for Bowie when you stop to think about it.
One person who definitely did play on WOTWS was seasoned sessioneer Herbie Flowers. Later to find fame in 70s instrumental prog/jazz group Sky, the fly Flowers played two bass lines on the song, thus ensuring himself twice the fee. He played that great defining slinky rubber band bassline and double tracked it with a more traditional Fender bass part, doubling his fee from the industry standard $17 to a more eye-watering $34. Quite how he must feel these days, now that the record is a radio standard and that his part is instantly recognisable, not to mention that the bassline was liberally sampled to form the hook on A Tribe Called Quest’s Can I Kick It? is anyone’s guess, but I bet he wishes he’d gambled on taking the royalties instead of the session fee.
It’s well-documented that David Bowie was something of a non-stop workaholic. That long golden run he went on, from Hunky Dory in 1971 to Lodger in ’79 – 10 amazing albums in 9 short years, all killer and no filler (’74’s Diamond Dogs might faintly be described as the runt of the litter, though it yielded Rebel Rebel as well as the album’s title track, so scratch that, naysayers) remains unparallelled, unlikely to ever be equalled, let alone beaten.
What’s all the more remarkable is that while he was on this winning streak, David was sustaining himself on little more than milk, red peppers and the finest Class As that came his way. Not only that, but when he wasn’t changing musical direction and band members and haircut and trousers every nine months, or sticking out the odd non-album track to keep the fans happy between releases (betweenreleases! d’ye hear that, Radiohead?!?), he was still finding the time to help out other artists.
An on-the-brink-of-break-up Mott The Hoople famously kickstarted their attack on the charts with their version of Bowie’s All the Young Dudes. Last time I checked, Mott were still playing the odd Hall Of Fame gig here and there, thanks in no small way to yer man Dave.
A not-quite-post-Velvet Underground but fed up Lou Reed went spinning into orbit on the back of Satellite Of Love and its parent album, Transformer. Satellite… had been written, much like Bowie’s Space Oddity, on the back of the public’s fascination with space. Reed had high hopes for the song, reckoning it was perfect hit single material. Satellite… was considered, then disregarded for inclusion on the Velvets’ Loaded album, so when Bowie entered his orbit showing an interest in his music, Lou was keen for his song to be taken seriously second time around. Both the single and album were produced and enhanced by Bowie, his uncredited vocals on Satellite… worth the price of admission alone.
Iggy Pop, careering out of control on a spiral of illicit substances and ever-decreasing sales (Stooges were hardly big-hitters to begin with) found himself on the receiving end of a post-Ziggy kiss of life when Bowie, fresh from minting his second stone-cold classic in as many years, helped produce, or rather re-produce, Raw Power, Stooges’ third album.
Iggy himself had taken the producer’s chair, creating a chaotic mess of almost unsalvageable pre-punk rock. Of the 24 individual tracks available to him at the mixing desk, he chose to put the entire album onto just three – the band on one, the vocals on another and James Williamson’s lead guitar on the third. When Columbia heard it, they refused to release it until it was cleaned up somewhat and made more presentable.
Cue Bowie. The man with the golden touch. Using all manner of up-to-the-minute recording technology, he twisted and turned Iggy’s 3 track raw Raw Power into something slightly more commercial and releasable. Perhaps not the radio-friendly unit-shifter that Columbia had in mind. Not that many folk bought it anyway, but those that did – cliche klaxon alert!!! – ended up forming bands of their own. But you knew that already. Listen to the album and you’ll hear the embryonic howls of The Jesus And Mary Chain, Sonic Youth, Nirvana and a million other six string stranglers. The teenage Johnny Marr was fixated by the feral guitar playing on it. His bequiffed foil was in love with Search & Destroy‘s glorious abandon and poetic lyrics; streetwalkin’ cheetahs, handfuls of napalm ‘n all.
“I’m the world’s forgotten boy,” drawls the Ig at one point, poetry indeed to the ears of the bedroom bard of Salford’s Kings Road. No Stooges, no Smiths. No Iggy Pop, no indie pop. Imagine that.
Iggy & The Stooges – Search & Destroy
In the mid-90s, ahead of a Stooges reissue campaign, Iggy himself was given the opportunity to remix Bowie’s remix – are you still following? – and used his time to unravel all of Bowie’s work, replacing every guttural grunt and primordial proclamation that had been wiped from the first release. He turned the faders up, up and away into the red until the guitars became ear-splitting, spitting shards of broken glass from both speakers.
Iggy & The Stooges – Shake Appeal
For much of the record, it’s a painful sonic assault on the ears, even during the two ‘ballads’, one on each side, where the guitars somehow still manage to creep into dog-bothering levels of pain.
Shake Appeal, above, surfs above the racket like the noisiest garage band in the world having their first go at a Motown track, all Jagger-pouting handclaps and barking yelps, Iggy’s skinny backside (what waist size was he? 24″? A chunky 26?) bending and jerking like a pipe cleaner in time to the fuzz bass, the Four Tops if they were fighters, not lovers. It’s a sloppy, angry, petulant, white riot of a record. Quite fantastic, of course. Beautiful music wrapped in a beautiful sleeve. What’s not to like?
One week into a Bowieless world. Sadly, it takes the shock of an artist suddenly passing before their true worth is wholly appreciated. Words, paragraphs, articles, whole publications have been written in the past 7 days, waxing lyrical about every facet of his ridiculously rich back catalogue. Everyone’s tripping over themselves to declare the lost genius of Reality or ‘Hours…’ or even, unbelievably, 1. Outside. All have their moments, but calm down a wee bit at the back there, eh?
I’m not alone in this re-evaluation and appraisal. Last week’s commute to work was soundtracked exclusively by Bowie. Hunky Dory. Ziggy. Aladdin Sane. Station To Station. The big hitters. I was even asked to be a guest on a local radio station, introduced as ‘a knowledgeable local music blogger’ and encouraged to give my tuppence worth on what David Bowie meant to me – great songs, of course. Great, great albums, varied and deep with a superb hit-to-miss ratio. Even the less acclaimed material, like Loving The Alien (from Tonight) and Everyone Says ‘Hi’ (Heathen) would make it into the lower reaches of my Top 50 Bowie tracks (for years I’ve had a 40 Bits o’ Bowie playlist on my iPod, but if I were to expand it, those two tracks would be in there.)
He was also king of the catchprase-as-hookline, from Absolute Beginners‘ ‘Bomp Bomp Bah-Ooh‘, ‘Fa-fa-fa-fa-Fashion‘s beep beep‘ and Suffragette City‘s ‘Aaah, Wham Bam Thank You Ma,am!‘ right up to to Ziggy‘s ‘Woah Yeah!‘ in the outro. He had a real good way with them. You could probably think of half a dozen more in the next 20 seconds. But anyway, I digress. Where was I? Oh aye…
Reappraisal. Along with the albums listed above, I developed a new-found love of Low. Until now I always found it a bit hit ‘n miss. The highs – Sound And Vision, Be My Wife, offset by the (cough) lows of Weeping Wall and Subterraneans. They’re not really lows as such, but they’re more difficult to get into. Instrumental, for a start. Less immediate. More arty. Glacial and cold. Sometimes with Bowie you’ve just got to work at it before the true beauty emerges. That second side, all elegiac and funereal started to make much more sense last week. But it was a track on side 1 that became my ‘must play everyday’ last week.
David Bowie – Breaking Glass
Breaking Glass, the 2nd track in, was that song. Like much of the album, it‘s a cold and stark affair, with a cheesegrater-thin heavily processed guitar giving way to Bowie’s robotic funk; cracking steam powered drums, synth sweeps and rubber band bass offset by marching Teutonic vocals, half spoken, half sung, double-tracked for maximum effect. It’s soul music, Jim, but not as we know it. In a too-quick fadeout, it’s over and done with in under two minutes, managing to capture the spirit of 70s Berlin AND invent Franz Ferdinand at the same time. Which, for me, is the real reach of the artist. Loved universally by musicians from every possible genre, they all get something from him.
Bowie on Soul Train. Bowie with Lennon. Bowie with Bing Crosby. Cross dressing and crossing borders. And the outpouring of tributes since last Monday? That brilliant video of the DJ mixing and scratching Let’s Dance into a black hole…..Madonna and Springsteen both doing Rebel Rebel in concert…..David McAlmont vamping it up with a super soaraway Starman…..Elton doing Space Oddity…..Glasgow’s Broadcast venue packed on Saturday night for a heartfelt tribute from all manner of scuzzy no-mark indie bands. Bowie touched them all. Can you name any others for whom there is a universal love and respect? I can’t.
Here‘s the aforementioned Franz Ferdinand tackling another of Low‘s highs, with a little backing vocal assistance from Girls Aloud. Really.
Cancer. Is there anyone, anywhere, who so far remains unaffected by its evil shadow? My wife’s family has been blighted by it. My father’s life changed for the worse 2 years ago because of it. And just last week, a friend I hadn’t seen since leaving school in 1987 got in touch. His father was ill through cancer, he was home from Australia and wanted to meet up to catch up. The filthy, under-the-radar stink of it is everywhere.
And now David Bowie. He was supposed to live forever, was he not? An ever-changing, omni-present lightning rod to the future, forever young and forever valid. Those wee ‘Six of the Best’ features I occasionally run? It’s no surprise when you find out that Bowie turns up in them more than any other artist. Maybe that says more about the contributors, I don’t know, but Bowie holds the record for most appearances. How great must it have been to have grown up in the 70s with a new Bowie LP and haircut to look forward to every year? He meant so much to so many. There’ll never be another like him. A true original, a true great. Hot tramp, I love you so.
I Wish You Would by The Yardbirds is a nagging, insistent blast of garage blues from 1964.
The Yardbirds – I Wish You Would
It was their debut single, lifted hook, line and sinker from Billy Boy Arnold‘s 1955 track of the same name and re-sold as the hot new thing. It’s the sort of track that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Nuggets or Pebbles compilation.
When David Bowie heard it and/or saw The Yardbirds at the Ricky Tick or Marquee or whatever venue was most hip and most happening that week, something stuck with him. In 1973, pre-dating Lenny Kaye’s Nuggets theme by a good few years, he put together Pin Ups, a fine fine album of parochial r’n’ b stompers from his formative years; The Kinks, The Who, The Pretty Things…. all corners of the Brit beat group movement were covered, including The Yardbird’s Chelsea-booted stomper.
David Bowie – I Wish You Would
In typical Bowie fashion, his version sounds less like the original and more like a wired, paranoid blues from outer space.
Just a few short months on from the Ziggy album and tour, The Spiders From Mars band are all over it like a glam-slamming racket, Mick Ronson’s Gold Top set to boogie before wigging out in a brief Eastern ragga towards the end. I used to think it was the definitive version until I heard this…
Rod Stewart – I Wish You Would
He’s an easy target, is Rod. He’s certainly had his knockers (arf) but believe me, this is terrific from start to finish! Mock Rod at your peril.
Rod’s version is a full-on mic swinging, hip swiveling, spandex clad romp. It‘s proof that, despite the nickname he was always more rocker than mod. It recalls a prime-time loose ‘n lairy Faces. Listen to him bark out the commands in that voice that’s equal parts sandpaper and sawdust; “First verse!” “Second verse!” “Bridge!” “Sow-low!” You can picture him, strutting across some Mid-Western balloon-filled stage or other, chest puffed, leaning back into the mic the way he does.
Rod’s voice is superb, all mock cockney and nary a hint of the Scots blood that he’s so proud of. He carries the track from start to finish, his band doing the best bar-room blues that can be coaxed out of them. “And away we go!Whatever happens happens! Let’s just do it!” he instructs, his band hanging on in there right until the end, dive-bombing bass runs, runaway harmonica solo, 3-note riff and all. It’s crackin’!
What’s all the more amazing is that Rod’s take on I Wish You Would is from a long-forgotten studio session sometime in the mid 80s, when he really had no right at all to be recording stuff as thrillingly essential as this. See when he was jumping about in his videos wearing a pink tracksuit and a yellow sun visor on his head? He coulda been filing the charts with dumb rock ‘n roll like this instead. What a wasted opportunity.
It’s 1987 in San Francisco. Or maybe L.A. Bono, atop a building, perhaps a hotel, it doesn’t really matter, his arms outstretched in messianic fashion, has just informed the crowd of unwitting gatherers below that “Rock ‘n roll stops the traffic!” If I was on my morning commute, I’d be mightily pissed off at this uncalled-for inconvenience. The traffic is indeed stopped. Lights change from red to green and back again, but the procession of buses, cabs and sedans is gridlocked. A huge crowd swells, folk in suits and ties, briefcase-carrying urban professionals, crane their necks and squint in the morning sunshine at the spectacle above them. “OK Hedge, play the blues!”
The Hedge, so-named because of that thick thatch of collar-baiting pony-tailed hair, thinning rapidly on top but hidden underneath a carefully perched cowboy hat rattles off one of his trademark ticka-ticka-ticka-ticka guitar riffs, and the most unbluesy guitar solo ever echoes out across California. “All you need is three chords and the truth!” spouts Bono, who by this time is halfway up a water tower and totally unaware of the long arm of the mirror-shaded law lurking behind Larry Mullen Jnr’s drum kit. It’s U2’s Saville Row moment, just one more example of them (literally) elevating themselves into rock’s lofty position as premier league players. The nitwits that they had just become.
I don’t know about the truth, but all you need is indeed just three chords. You don’t need me to tell you that. The foundations of rock ‘n roll were formed on such base ideals. Silly old Bono dressed the fact up in grandiose, wankery fashion. Punk bible, Sniffin’ Glue said it best;
Many a band was formed with the guitarist having an arsenal of two chords, with that tricky third still in production.
King of the Swingers
Eddie Cochran was there at rock ‘n roll’s birth. If Ike Turner was pushing and grunting for all he was worth, Eddie was there at the end of the bed, holding the towels and hot water. Or more likely, he was fighting off Little Richard for mirror space as he greased his hair into that spectacular D.A. of his.
Eddie only knew three chords. “There are three steps to heaven,” he sang.
Step 1, you play a C. Step 2, you play that tricky F. Step 3, you play a G. And that sure sounds like heaven to me.
Eddie Cochran – Three Steps To Heaven
Actually, Eddie knew far more than just three chords. A quick listen to a couple of his records will tell you that. But he was an economical guitar player, never frilly, never flashy. He played what his songs demanded. A minor chord here perhaps, a 7th there, all rhythmically skirling toe-tappers. And his songs sound more honest, more soulful than the entire output of Bono and his rooftop singers.
When David Bowie ditched the theatrics, the miming and the long, long hair on the road to Ziggy‘s straight-ahead guitar boogie, the spirit of Eddie Cochran loomed large.
David Bowie – Queen Bitch
Queen Bitch from Hunky Dory is Three Steps To Heaven in a funky jump suit with added sneer and a good dollop of Les Paul courtesy of Mick Ronson. Listen carefully. The moaning and groaning you hear in the background is the sound of Ziggy being conceived.
“We’ve played some right toilets in our time…”
New (wave) kids on the block Broncho know a thing or two about the simplicity of the three chord song. Their own What sounds like a glammed-up mix of Queen Bitch and Lou Reed’s Vicious, as sung by Marc Bolan. And there ain’t nothin’ wrong with that;
Broncho – What
Taken from their Just Enough Hip To Be A Woman LP, it’s an album that escaped my attention earlier last year, but one that could do with further investigation.
That there’s David Bowie, doing the wonky pogo and captured on Kodachrome for what would become the cover of 1979’s Lodger LP. A hit-or-miss LP by Bowie’s standards, it’s notable for being produced and augmented by Eno and for featuring a couple of tracks that used the exact same chord structure, sequence and setting as one another.
The opener, Fantastic Voyage was a mid-paced meandering crooner, exactly the sort of Bowie track that leaves you cold on first listen but after, oooh, 20 years or so reveals itself to be a stone cold Bowie belter. What took me so long?!?
David Bowie – Fantastic Voyage;
Encouraged by Eno’s Oblique Strategy cards to ‘Use Unqualified Musicians‘, Bowie made the assembled band swap to unfamiliar territory (although rumour has it that the bass was overdubbed because bass-playing drummer Dennis Davis was rubbish) , cranked things up to twice the original speed and created a metallic squall of post-punk brilliance. Forever on the edge of unravelling at the seams, Boys Keep Swinging is carried along with a nod and a wink and a raised and plucked eyebrow or two to the more flamboyant side of life.
David Bowie – Boys Keep Swinging;
“When you’re a boy, other boys check you out,” intones Bowie, all put-on machismo and high camp. That he dressed himself up as a trio of drag-queened tarts in the video only served to hammer the point home – Bowie liked boys who liked boys to be girls who liked girls to be boys….
Boys Keep Swinging is right up there amongst my very favourite Bowie tracks. Worth a listen if only for Adrain Belew’s Pere Ubu do the Isley Brothers guitar meltdown at the end, it sits head and shoulders above anything else the mainstream was releasing at the time.
A couple of chancers who liked Bowie’s new single were The Associates. Short of record deal but long on ambition and ideas, they somewhat illegally recorded their own version of Boys Keep Swinging a mere 6 weeks after Bowie’s had been released, and put it out on the tiny Double Hip record label.
Not surprisingly, the record’s existence brought them to the attention of eagle-eared music industry insiders but amazingly, on the back of it, The Associates landed themselves a record deal with Fiction Records. Would that ever happen nowadays? I doubt it.
The Associates – Boys Keep Swinging;
Billy MacKenzie of the band would a few years later be the titular subject of The Smiths’ William, It Was Really Nothing. Friends with Morrissey, the pair of them spent many an afternoon in the early 80s skirting around one another’s affections. But you knew that already.
Side project of The Cardigan’s Nina Persson, A Camp‘s version is fairly faithful to the original.
A Camp – Boys Keep Swinging;
Nothing ground shattering, but what a shallow excuse to stick a picture of a beautiful Swedish lassie on these pages.
Perhaps more interesting is the story of Blur and ‘their‘ track M.O.R.
Written a la Bowie and Eno with the exact same chord progression as Fantastic Voyage/Boys Keep Swinging, it originally escaped the notice of anyone who deals in these matters. Subsequent releases however credit the track to Blur/Bowie/Eno. Have a listen.
Blur – M.O.R.;
You can sing Boys Keep Swinging over the top of it, aye? And Coxon freely embraced the guitar freak out at the end with great gusto. Good, innit?
And any excuse to post Blur’s own tribute to 1979. Blurred Lines, anyone…?