May 2009

Some Bowie for the weekend

OK, so the weekend is half done, but it’s a bank holiday over here, so I have an excuse. Anyhoo, I’m still going to post this for your delight and delectation. It’s a Bowie video. A 1997 live performance of ‘The Man Who Sold The World’, reworked radically in a drum-n-bass meets discordant guitar stylee.

The Man Who Sold The World. Live, 1997.

I was listening to some Bowie earlier today. I had him on random play, and at one point African Night Flight found itself shuffled up next to We Prick You. The former is the gloriously weird second track from 1979’s Lodger (it’s one of his best vocal performances, which — given that it’s Bowie we’re talking about — is really saying something). The latter from 1995’s 1.Outside.

It was seamless. And I thought to myself how incredibly fortunate it is that Bowie, against all the odds, got a second wind. As a glance at this Last.fm page will show, I listen to far more of David Bowie’s music than anyone else’s. Even if you add on David Byrne’s solo stuff, Talking Heads are quite a distant second. And while Last.fm only lists the stuff I play here on my PC, I’d wager that my mp3 player has an even bigger Bowie-bias.

Sadly though, by the time I discovered Bowie (the mid-80s) he appeared to have passed his peak. Having single-handedly invented half of the sounds being made during the 1980s, he decided to take a mountain of cocaine and rest on his not inconsiderable laurels. The man fell to earth. The singles were still great (Let’s Dance, Loving The Alien, China Girl, This Is Not America, and so on). He hadn’t lost his touch for writing a great song. And that voice… well, so long as he still had that, everyone desperately wanted him to keep making great records. All of which made the sad mediocrity of the albums so much more difficult to take.

And there the story should have ended. Nic Roeg got it right.

Except he didn’t, did he? Bowie should have got fat and complacent. But instead he got creative again. And started doing unexpected things. And despite having spent the eighties lambasting him for his predictability, the music press hated him for it. How dare he not be written-off when they said he was. First came Tin Machine and The Buddha of Suburbia soundtrack. Both of which deserve some serious reappraisal, incidentally. Then Black Tie, White Noise which is no Lodger, but it is an album by someone who gives a shit again. What the hell was he up to?

None of these, though, could prepare anyone for what happened next. He only called up his old mate Eno, and went and made an album that’s just as good as anything he did in the 70s. OK… not just as good, but a truly worthy heir. Which, technically, shouldn’t have been possible. When 1.Outside came out, I felt like he’d realised that there was a whole bunch of us who’d simply been too young first time round. Listen to that album with open ears. Play it loud, give it your full attention and it opens out into something dark and thrilling and genuinely wonderful. It’s not quite Low, but it sits comfortably beside it… wrapping itself around that same corner of your soul that’s never been the same since Warszawa.

Seriously, if — like most people who appreciate genuinely good popular musics — you think Low is an extraordinary album, then do yourself a favour and play A Small Plot of Land (track 4 off 1.Outside). It’s coming from the very same source. Albeit with rather more control and self-referentiality. But I think we can forgive David Bowie the occasional knowing smile.

Most people couldn’t have returned from The Serious Moonlight Tour. But Bowie wandered far further into the wilderness than even that. He went all the way to The Glass Spider and still found his way back. Nobody else could have done that. But, of course, Bowie is the coolest man on the planet (what with being from space, or another dimension, or something), so perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised.

In fact, he’s been able to treat the world to another decade of great music. Three of his post-80s albums get regular play on my mp3 player.

And I got to experience it first hand. No, I wasn’t at Hammersmith in July 1973, but I embarked upon an epic winter hitch around the UK in pursuit of the 1.Outside tour (granted the vibe was rather different — more post-apocalyptic industrial decay / less glittery space operatic). But it was utterly incredible. Sure sure, it got a bit psychotic at times, yes that’s true, but it was one of the great defining times of my twenties (a 36-hour hitch in a blizzard with a massive speed comedown… me and Justin, we didn’t have Vietnam, or The Somme, or the beaches at Normandy… we had the Severn View Motorway Services). I may have to post the full story of that hitch one day. It’s an epic voyage into the Heart of Darkness complete with angels, demons and Cliff Fucking Richard.

The above video, so you know, is the version of The Man Who Sold The World played on that tour. Clearly you won’t get the same shivers down the spine that it gives me, but I hope you dig it.

Posted in: Media » Audio, Video