I was desperately worried that you hadn’t read or heard enough platitudinous drivel about David Bowie — and therefore felt compelled to weigh in with my own observations. In all honesty I haven’t heard so much repetitive, imbecilic guff since Mandela shuffled off this mortal coil. It was even worse than the confected sobfest that greeted the passing of the charming and likeable Lou Reed.
The eulogies for Lou were simply a case of the BBC telling everybody that they are dead hip and edgy, really enjoyed ‘Perfect Day’ and once knew someone, back in uni, who had an album by the Velvet Underground. With Bowie, it was partly the misguided wish to show off that same hipness, but also an attempt to shoehorn poor old Bowie, only hours cold, into their relentless political agenda. And so as soon as the ‘experts’ had told us, over and over again, that Bowie was a ‘chameleon’, they started in on his revolutionary approach to sexual intercourse —which was, in short, an atavistic and unceasing desire to shag anything and everything with a pulse, as often as was humanly possible. As far as the BBC was concerned, this made Bowie a sort of combination of Harvey Milk and Peter Tatchell rolled into one: a fearless fighter for LGBT rights, pushing back the barriers of conservative morality and heralding, almost single-handedly, a brave new world of equality for gays, transgendered persons, bisexuals, etc.
Missing entirely were Bowie’s stated political opinions. Arriving back in drab, grey, strike–ridden Britain from America in 1975, he said the country needed a good dose of fascism. Asked to elucidate, he said: ‘I believe very strongly in fascism… Adolf Hitler was one of the first rock stars.’ He also lambasted declining moral standards, adding: ‘You’ve got to have an extreme right-wing front come up and sweep everything off its feet and tidy everything up.’
And then there was his disdain for the ordinary man, the plebs: ‘See the mice in their million hordes/From Ibiza to the Norfolk Broads.’ None of that stuff got any airtime, oddly enough. It didn’t match the template — creative liberationist!
He also hated rock music. Like another singular performer, the magnificently curmudgeonly Van Morrison, he found its constraints and pretensions tedious, stupid and soul-destroying. In the same year as he said England might be enlivened by fascism, he said rock music was ‘dead’. ‘It’s a toothless old woman,’ he remarked, with some acuity.
This was not just a tossed-off attempt to grab an NME headline — he was saying much the same thing ten years later. Like Morrison, he wished no association with rock music. And like Morrison, his finest work was informed directly by the music which preceded rock music — in Morrison’s case jazz and blues, in Bowie’s case music hall, Brecht-Weill, the sweeping soundscapes of Dimitri Tiomkin and avant-garde modern classical music. He could ‘rock out’ — ‘Suffragette City’, ‘Panic In Detroit’ and ‘Rebel Rebel’, for example, but not very frequently, and he was often indebted to his guitarists, especially Mick Ronson, for the riffs.
This brings us to the point missed in all those encomiums. Bowie was successful, and valuable as an artist, not because he was a ‘chameleon’ who changed characters and reinvented himself — as we have been lectured endlessly. Plenty of bands and artists have done that change-of-image business and failed lamentably. He was important because he had a quite remarkable melodic imagination, one which was not tied to the stultify-ing confines of rock music. The chord changes of his verses were often unorthodox and the melody line skittered around them with enormous range — miles away from the root chord, which elsewhere in this staid and conservative medium defines the tune. Then a swirling and unexpected chorus would sweep you off your feet — often a very non-rock-song chorus. ‘Starman’, ‘Oh You Pretty Things’, ‘Changes’, ‘Drive In Saturday’, ‘The Prettiest Star’ and more, even than these, the song he gave away to the band Mott The Hoople, ‘All The Young Dudes’. Hell, this last may be his best-ever song. How did he come up with such a chorus? A chorus that defies prediction.
The simple truth, I reckon, is that Bowie, for six years at least, wrote very good songs, songs that were not drawn from the medium with which he came to be associated. And that is why they still have resonance now.
In this he is like another, less fashionable, creature: Paul McCartney. The rock press always adored John Lennon and rather despised McCartney. But favourite Beatles songs are almost all by McCartney. Lennon was loved for his supposed ‘edge’, for his fatuous political convictions (the attendant hypocrisy forgotten). McCartney just carried on writing tunes which had about them a sophistication and vast melodic range. Compare the melodies of two songs which, initially, have a similar chord sequence: ‘Here, There and Everywhere’, by McCartney and ‘Woman’, by Lennon. McCartney’s soars all over the place and then, just for fun, changes key — twice. Lennon’s sticks doggedly to the base note of every chord.
The experts and the BBC will tell you that Bowie and the Beatles were successful for a whole plethora of what are, in the end, irrelevancies. The attitude, the make-up, the politics. Whereas in truth it’s much more simple — it’s all about the songs.