Friday, January 15, 2016


Back in the day (1972) we were working on an underground newspaper called Frendz  and a young guy came in keen to write about music and I commissioned him to do some reviews. We published the early work of Nick Kent. Here is his take on Bowie: 'The Wild Mutation As A Rock 'N' Roll Star. He would have been 20 when he wrote it. Bowie was 25. It gives a good feel for how Bowie was seen and judged at the time when the music was fresh and new.

'Saturday night was starnight down at the Rainbow Theatre in Finsbury Park - and how! I mean, my dear, you just wouldn't believe all those big names - all those somebody people - to be seen mixing in the confines of the various bars dotted throughout the main hall. God knows, any self-respecting groupie would gladly have given up the offer of a life-size Alice Cooper doll ( complete with rubber masks and detachable sequinned dildo), a £750 cheque to spend exclusively at Biba and a night out with Steve Took in order to just be able to stand amid all the glam and glitter as the big boys and their respective entourages did carouse to the sound of breaking cocktail shakers and violent wretching.
 'Why isn't that Rod Stewart, looking even more like a jackdaw on morphine than ever, standing with Elton John - or should I say Reg Dwight. My, and how Roger Daltrey is getting fat over there in the corner. And who is that strange neurotic looking fellow all dressed in black wearing shades stumbling around? Oh I see - he used to play with a group called the Velvet Underground - and he's a good friend of David's. Ah well, that explains it. Saints forbid, but it's Michael Philip Jagger positively bursting with health and after that gruelling American tour - sometimes I worry about Mick, but can you blame me? They say that everyone from Iggy Pop to Donny Osmond (really!) is to be found somewhere in the building, and all because of... but wait I hear the opening chords - the show is about to begin.
'Once inside, one is confronted by an awesomely designed stage split into a series of squares and platforms, all connected with ladders. Three strange rococo-like figures take their places on the upper platform while Beethoven's 9th, better known as the theme to 'Clockwork Orange' blares forth at manic volume. The drummer, looking rather like the Mr Adonis of Bournemouth takes his place behind the kit and sits dormant in silent anticipation. Then the bass-player, a dead ringer for T.S. Eliot's ape-necked Sweeney in superstar drag and ice-blue mutton chop whiskers appears. The guitarist with gaunt sharp features and blonde rinse follows. Just then, Beethoven is phased out and an invisible piano fingers some pensive chords, as out from the shadows walks forth an oh-so slender breathtakingly beautiful  figure endowed with ethereal grace as if he had appeared from a  Nietzschean wet dream. He struts gracefully to the microphone and his voice cuts through the fantasy-like atmosphere.
'People stared at the make-up on his face' - each syllable wired together to form a metallic chain. Closet queens wept openly, mature women achieved mellow orgasm on the spot while red-blooded men gritted their teeth and looked to their hormones. But it was alright, the band was altogether doing all it should as the rock n' roll Zarathustra sang his song of darkness and disgrace.
 'Everyone who attended the Rainbow on that weekend came because they knew that David Bowie was the one. Whether they'd read all the hype in the Melody Maker and wanted to see what it was all about or had seen him on 'Top of the Pops' or had simply become captivated by the 'Ziggy Stardust' album, Bowie was most definitely the spotlight kid and the audience were there either to wallow in his splendour or snigger at his campness. And can you blame them? For, while Alice Cooper is clumsily playing with whips and crooning anthems to the pre-pubes, and Marc Bolan is prissily preening himself before an adoring audience of sticky seats, Mr Bowie is working in some exceptionally provocative and different dimensions of superstar outrage.
'Why, when all the other AC-DC boys were being very cautious about letting anything slip, Mr Bowie just went ahead and stated that he was a 'practicing bi-sexual' in anything from Beat Instrumental to the Melody Maker. In the Melody Maker, for goshsakes! Now that's real sass for you and it immediately put him in a separate bracket to all the purple mascara feint hearts.
'But what really marks out Bowie from all the rest is his brilliance as a writer-composer and it is in this area that even now when he's hogging the limelight, he is criminally ignored. From the incisiveness of his first hit single 'Space Oddity'· through to the numerous levels of approach and interpretation one can take when listening to the 'Ziggy Stardust' album,  Bowie demands the attention worthy of a Dylan or a Lou Reed, simply because he is now well and truly in that class as a song writer.
'Take 'Space Oddity' for example. A surface listening renders it sounding little more than 'superior commercial material', but then the lyrics start breaking through. Bowie takes the abstract concept of space-travel and rationalises it into something both slightly ludicrous and yet totally comprehensible:
'This is Ground Control to Major Tom/You've really made the grade/And the papers want to know whose shirts you wear' and that middle break: 'For here am I floating in a tin can/Far above the world/Planet earth is blue/ And there's nothing I can do'.
'Bowie conjures up a whole gamut of emotions, blending humour with tragedy and an ultimate feeling of awesomeness registered through the actual arrangement. And the beauty of the work is its compactness and unmistakable commercial appeal; David Bowie is one of the few masters of the popular-song-as-potent-art-form just as Randy Newman and Dylan have always been.
'After 'Space Oddity' Bowie was unable to consolidate his success. The time was unsuitable and he also seemed uncertain as to just what image he needed to take up. He toured as a folk-musician doing a well-meaning selection of Jacques Brel, Biff Rose and self-composed work to little effect. He then disappeared leaving a rather ineffectual single 'Prettiest Star' as his presumed epitaph.
'Some time after all this there appeared 'The Man Who Sold The World'. It would be fair to say that this album wasn't released, it escaped, and its sole raison d'etre as far as the media could see was the outrageous cover which showed Bowie reclining on a sofa in full drag looking the spitting image of a young Lauren Bacall with a pack of cards laying spread out on the floor before him. This was perhaps the first case of Bowie  over-emphasising image at the expense of his  own artistry because while the cover  was talked about, the music was largely ignored. All of which is criminal, for here is one of the true-blue-precious-few solid gold masterpieces from the era of the 1960's. An album, the intensity of which placed it in almost the same class as 'Astral Weeks' and 'Highway 61 Revisited'.
'The parallels with the aforementioned works are worth investigating further for all three works deal with despair in different and highly striking ways. While, for example, Dylan eyes it all with cool detachment, Bowie is far more impassioned and tortured in his sufferings. Literary parallels are obvious: Dylan works in a Burroughs-like vein while Bowie views his pain in the light of Nietzsche philosophy. Where Dylan and Bowie meet head-on is in their undeniably shared vision of insanity gleaned from Bowie's 'All The Madmen' and Dylan's 'Desolation Row'.
 Bowie's performance is particularly masterful from the first lines: 'Day after Day/ They send my friends away/To mansions cold and grey/To the far side of town/Where the thin men stalk the streets /While the saints lay underground' to the chorus: 'For I'd rather stay here with all the madmen/Than wander with the sadmen blowin' free' to the very lazy sinister refrain: 'Zane, Zane, Zane/Ou est le chien'.
'The Width Of The Circle' is the key work in 'The Man Who Sold The World'. It's a long, tortured piece performed by a particularly deranged power trio backing up Bowie's anguished razor-sharp vocals. The lyrics flash on a blazing series of perverse images - homosexuality, sadomasochism, black magic, performed from a Dante's inferno of heaviness. Lines break out: 'He showed me the leather belt round his hips' to 'The snake and I, a venom high'. The song builds from a series of bizarre puns to glimpses of all manners of perversion.
 'After All' takes despair with a feeling of quiet resignation: 'Forget all I've said, please bear me no ill' sings Bowie while the arrangement pulls together a selection of Sergeant Pepper electronics to great effect (the album is worth purchasing if only for its unique blending of early Cream with Sergeant Pepper-period hocus pocus).
The last track 'The Supermen' is ironic. Throughout the album Bowie is both participator and observer in a circus of madness, a superman in the land of perversity. 'The Supermen' are portrayed thus: 'When all the world was very young/Mountain magic, heaven hum/The Supermen would walk in file/Guardians of a loveless isle' Despair has the last laugh again, it seems.
'Hunky Dory' the following album is again an intriguing work, partly owing to its internal schizophrenia in composition matter - certain songs deal with Bowie's idealised Zarathustra loner stance yet there is 'Kooks', a piece of autobiography: 'Will you stay in a loner's story' sings Bowie to his young son, Zowie. There is remarkable diversity of mood and content from Biff Rose's super-camp 'Fill Your Heart' to Bowie's Lou Reed inspired 'Queen Bitch' (camp on camp?), from musical portraits of Andy Warhol and laments to early Bob Dylan. 
 The three songs that stand out and demand the attention though are further definitions of the theme perpetuated throughout 'The Man Who Sold The World'. 'Quicksand' is again tortured with  glimpses of impotence and stifling  creativity. Images abound once more: 'I'm the twisted glint in Garbo's eyes/ Living proof of Churchill's lies'. arriving at the statement: 'And I ain't got the power anymore'. Bowie is the homo sapiens with the potential of a superman 'drowning in the quicksand of his thoughts.'
On 'Changes' and particularly 'Oh You Pretty Things' his concept of the 'homo superior' opens up to embrace the idea of a whole new race: 'And these children that you spit on/As they try to change their world/ Are immune to your consultations/They're well aware of what they're going through' he sings in 'Changes', returning to the personal statement as a chorus. 'Time may change me but I can't trace time.'
 'These children' are us, the new generation or whatever and the theme is stated in much more forceful and sinister terms on 'Oh You Pretty Things': 'Look out my window and what do I see/ A crack in the sky/And a hand reaching out to me/ All the nightmares came today/ And it looks as though they're here to
 The song portrays the children turning  against their homo sapien elders: 'Homo Sapiens have outgrown their use/ All the strangers came today/And it looks as though they're here to stay' and then that ludicrous chorus: 'Oh you pretty things!/ Don't you know you're driving your mammas and pappas insane'.
  Bowie's juxtaposition of lyrics about a  new breed of Hitler youth set against  a campish pop tune is nothing short of a flash of genius. And to make things perfect, Peter Noone, alias Herman of  the Hermits, covered the tune with the result that thousands of plebescites dashed to their local record dive to purchase this cute package of Nietzche jive. Such delicious irony!
 By the time 'Hunky Dory' was released, Bowie had finished another album. He'd also hit upon the perfect image to project and this record was going to be the constructing base for its immediate introductory assault on the audience. He had cut his hair short into a mutation of the ducktail and was wearing some interesting variations of the jump-suit while the band was also looking very striking in all manner of gold lame and what-have-you. Yes, just as the chevy was at the levee (but the levee was dry as the song goes), along came Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars making their entry upon a dying planet in fine fashion.
'A series of live shows were presented, Bowie pulling a prima donna number on all those he didn't feel to be suitable for his image, ended by his manager Tony DeFries.
 At Imperial College he triumphed after having a rough start. (His entry brought, shall we say, ribald remarks from certain sections of the audience until he cut them dead with a couple of consciously bogus camp moves and a 'hair by Smile, boots by Anello and Davide' routine) while in a couple of the provinces he got booed. Those gigs were just a taster for the big stuff which would all happen just as soon as the album was unleashed.
"Ziggy Stardust" is both the most commercial and the strangest album Bowie had released so far. Every track with the exception of the apocalyptic "Five Years" and "Rock'n Roll Suicide" could be released as a single and stand a strong chance for commercial success without any difficulty whatsoever. But the album is far more than just a piece of consciously commercial image-hype - the levels of comprehension are subtly mined throughout the album, building together ·to form not so much a story more a series of concise statements about Bowie's chosen subject - superstardom.
'The album's opening track "Five Years" sets the scene - Bowie takes the concept of the Apocalypse to describe a state of panic and paralysis. Here is the ideal landscape for Bowie's thoughts to take shape in. The track acts as an initiation into what will occur on the second side and stands in isolation - nothing more frightening than a movie which is exactly what it is.
On Side 2 Bowie starts to work on his infatuation with the concept of the superstar. From "Star" where he plays the young man caught up in his fantasy - "l could fall asleep at night as a rock'n roll star" - "l'd send my photograph to my honey/and I'd come on like a regular superstar" to the spectator watching Lady Stardust - "the boy in the ice-blue jeans" with long black hair, make-up and animal grace performing. "Ooh how I sighed when they asked if I knew his name" then to the member of the Spiders re-telling the story of Ziggy - "so webitched about the band and should we crush his sweet hands" and the masterful final couplet - "like a leper messiah, when the kids had killed the man/I had to break up the band." And finally Bowie becomes the rock'n roll suicide caught between his image and his personality - "Give me your hands, you're not alone" sings one to the other, as the band chant a dead-pan "Wonderful" to heighten the effect
 'Between these cameos, Bowie proves that he's a rock'n roller par excellence. "Starman" is a masterful piece of hazy cosmic jive complete with direct quote from the Supremes songbook and pure commercial appeal, while "Suffragette City" is a Velvet Underground styled rocker. It's on tracks like "Hang on to Yourself" and "Moonage Daydream" that one gets the impression he's trying too hard to prove himself capable. In the same way, "Suffragette City", while it has everything going for it, comes off as a piece of synthetic and therefore deplorable rock'n roll. Perhaps Bowie is going into the whole superstar concept too deeply; he undeniably believes himself to be one, and to both live and verbalise one's fantasies can have strange results. To that extent, 'Ziggy"is the weakest of Bowie's three albums.
'In the same way he appears to be over-extending himself in his stage act. On an average night he comes on like a consciously bisexual Elvis Presley, but Bowie is thin and pretty, strutting gracefully around the stage while a real rock star acts naturally and plays it straight from the groin. At the Rainbow gig, Bowie blew it by trying to mix his brand of rock music with the rather precocious art of mime. This was, to say the least, an awkward marriage, however attractive it may have appeared to the eye. A real rock'n roll show is a self-contained event and demands no compromise with any other art form. Here the criticisms that Bowie is all style, that his shows look good but that's all, become all too relevant.
'You don't need me to tell you just how big David Bowie is becoming. The music rags are calling him the thinking man's Marc Bolan while manager Tony DeFries claims the sky is the limit - "A new James Dean or a Marlon Brando" or whatever. Bowie is being touted as a gay Elvis Presley - charismatic, irresistible,  precocious and all things hypeable. One can only hope Bowie does not let this image get out of control. The signs are certainly there. Like the man himself says, you'd better hang onto yourself.'

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