THE THREE BEST BOOKS FOR THOSE WITH EVEN ONLY A PASSING INTEREST IN SWIMMING THE DEEPER END OF ROCK MUSIC COVER THREE CONSECUTIVE DECADES – AND THE MOST IMPORTANT ARTIST(S) OF EACH.
They share a style of in-depth song-by-song analysis which brings fresh insight to the subject at hand, and also often reveals wider contexts. Each is as appealing to dip into as dive into. There’s Ian MacDonald’s groundbreaking REVOLUTION IN THE HEAD: THE BEATLES’ RECORDS AND THE SIXTIES, which manages to strip bare each and every one of The Beatles’ recordings to reveal new naked truths underneath. There’s Simon Goddard’s stunning THE SMITHS – SONGS THAT SAVED YOUR LIFE, which neatly scrapbooks the stories behind the work of Morrissey and Marr during the 1980s. More recently published, and sandwiched between those two volumes, is Peter Doggett’s compelling THE MAN WHO SOLD THE WORLD: DAVID BOWIE AND THE 1970s, which covers the period between Bowie’s pre-fame years and the creative highpoint of 1980’s SCARY MONSTERS (AND SUPER CREEPS). Here, Doggett and The Mouth Magazine talk about the book itself, and extensively through Bowie’s life and work during that defining decade.
YOUR BOOK IS AN ACCOUNT OF BOWIE’S WORK DURING THE ‘CLASSIC’ ERA OF THE 1970s. WHEN YOU WERE RESEARCHING, DID YOU NEED TO REACQUAINT WITH PERIODS OF THAT ERA, AND WERE THERE ANY PERSONAL SURPRISES FOR YOU – SONGS THAT SEEMED BETTER, OR PERHAPS WORSE, THAN YOU REMEMBERED WHEN SUBJECT TO YOUR ANALYSIS?
There were three layers of research and preparation that I had to go through before I could write this book. The first was the most obvious. I didn’t want to write a Bowie biography, because I knew that Paul Tyrnka’s book would be published around the time that mine was finished, so there was no point repeating what he was doing. But obviously I still had to do my own research into his career – and particularly into the way he presented himself, on stage, on TV, and in the press. I needed to know what was going on in his life, his career and his head at each stage of the journey… The second layer was the 1970s itself as a period – I lived through it, and remember it well, because I was 13 in 1970, but I needed to research the central themes of the decade, to find out what it was like for someone exactly ten years older than myself to be alive and active at that time. And thirdly, I had to reacquaint myself with the whole Bowie catalogue. In fact, I spent several months literally listening to nothing else, and then following up what I found when I listened. I studied each song – worked out how it was put together, both in music/lyrics terms and then in the recording studio. And because Bowie was building on so many different influences and inspirations, I then set out to track them all down – to discover what he was reading about the Occult, for example, or what records he was listening to at each point of the way, and work out how he used those influences in his work.
I quickly discovered that nobody had ever come close in the past to examining Bowie’s work in context, and teasing out all the references to other musicians, artists and writers – some of them intended to be there, no doubt, but some of them accidental, because we can’t help revealing our influences, no matter how careful or individual we are… The result was that almost every song changed for me. Even the material that I knew really well came alive in new ways, and I hope I passed some of that on to the reader in the book. And I ended up awestruck by the stature Bowie achieved between 1969 and 1980 – the quantity, the quality, and the wild diversity of his work.
THE SENSE I GET FROM THE BOOK IS THAT THE PRE-SPACE ODDITY YEARS STILL REMAIN SOMETHING OF A MYSTERY. THERE ARE CERTAIN WELL KNOWN MYTHS THAT HAVE ARISEN – THE INCIDENT THAT CAUSED BOWIE’S DISTINCTIVE EYE-COLOURING; HIS BROTHER TERRY’S ‘MADNESS’; THAT FIRST ALBUM ON DERAM (DECCA) RECORDS; THE LAUGHING GNOME – BUT DESPITE ALL THAT IT SEEMS TO BE THE PERIOD THAT’S HARDEST TO BRING INTO FOCUS…
There are certain stories from the pre-fame era that are repeated over and over, but I wanted to see the bigger picture, and I wanted to try to discover what it was like to be this incredibly ambitious, knowledge-hungry young man who was desperate to experience everything, to learn everything, to try everything – and to become famous along the way. As a small-town boy from a very conservative background, myself, I felt that I could empathise with the rather claustrophobic atmosphere of David Jones’ house when he was a kid, and his family set-up…
HOW DID THE RELATIONSHIP WITH TERRY AFFECT HIM?
I started to realise how important his brother Terry was in opening up a dazzling world to David when he was about 11 or 12 and how crushing it must have been when he ‘lost’ Terry to the first hints of madness. I ended up examining what ‘madness’ was – how it operates in families, how Terry might have appeared different to his parents than he did to David, and what effect growing up in a culture where madness is on the agenda has on a young boy. All the time, meanwhile, Bowie had his music…
… AND HOW WERE HIS FIRST FORAYS RECEIVED?
I’ve spoken to people who knew him at the very start of his career, and they all stress how ambitious he was – and how he was always looking for new ways to package himself. And I realised just how important his year working for advertising agencies in London must have been – it seemed to me to be the secret, if you like, that cracked open the way in which he would carry himself through the world for the rest of his life, by giving him the power to choose from any of a thousand different images, and ultimately experimenting with them all. On a much more mundane basis, he was playing in bands from the age of 14 or 15, attracting girls, getting applause – being liked by people, including several managers, the way he’s always been. He seems to have been a naturally charming person. All he needed was the right outlet for his ambition and his creativity.
WHEN HE WAS IN THIS PERIOD, MID-TO-LATE 1960s, WHAT WERE BOWIE’S AMBITIONS AND HOW DID HE SET ABOUT ACHIEVING THEM?
He wanted to be a star, whatever that entailed – I don’t think he’d thought that through at the beginning of his career. And he was prepared to try anything to achieve that, from cabaret to folk to R&B to being a mime artist. On one level, that makes him seem shallow; on another, it makes him seem endlessly inventive and adventurous. I prefer the second interpretation…
IS IT FAIR TO SUGGEST THAT BY THE TIME SPACE ODDITY CAME ALONG, BOWIE HAD MORE OR LESS GIVEN UP ON ‘FAME’?
There was a brief moment when Bowie gave up on success, I think, when he considered becoming a Buddhist monk; but I think that was only a very short-lived impulse. Don’t forget that SPACE ODDITY itself came out of a TV special that his manager, Ken Pitt, was preparing to sell Bowie to the world, so stardom was very much his goal at that point.
SPACE ODDITY (1969) AND THE MAN WHO SOLD THE WORLD (1970) WEREN’T ESPECIALLY SUCCESSFUL ALBUMS AT THE TIME. MY OPINION IS THAT, THOUGH THEY’RE GREAT WORKS, THEY’RE NOT ENTIRELY COHERENT IN THE WAY WE’D LATER EXPECT. BOWIE’S STILL PUSHING OUTWARDS, LOOKING FOR SOMETHING, AND HE’S MOVING VERY FAST TRYING TO FIND IT. WHAT WERE THE DRIVING FACTORS FOR HIM – MICK RONSON WAS AROUND BY THIS TIME, SO HOW MUCH OF AN IMPACT DID HE HAVE ON BOWIE’S DIRECTION?
The DAVID BOWIE album (later reissued as SPACE ODDITY) is a strange beast indeed – it’s half apocalyptic singer-songwriter rock, inspired by his readings into the occult and science-fiction, and half folkie material left over from the Simon & Garfunkel-style duo that he’d been planning with John Hutchinson. It’s interesting to speculate about what might have happened if ‘Hutch’ hadn’t run out of money and had to leave London: I think Bowie would have been trying to get a joint recording contract for SPACE ODDITY rather than a solo one… I think that THE MAN WHO SOLD THE WORLD is an incredibly unified album in terms of its sound, which was enormously influenced by Mick Ronson. Not surprising when you discover that Bowie’s contributions to most of the songs were only added at the very last minute. And lyrically it points the way to lots of the themes that he’ll be exploring in years to come, albeit much more obscurely. But it’s not a commercial album, even in terms of the hard rock climate of 1971, and certainly not as ‘a record by the pop singer who did that record about being lost in space’.
HUNKY DORY (1971) AND THE RISE AND FALL OF ZIGGY STARDUST & THE SPIDERS FROM MARS (1972) ARE, FOR ME, INEXTRICABLY LINKED – MORE SO THAN THE TWO ‘ACTUAL’ ZIGGY ALBUMS (TR&TF0ZS&TSFM AND 1973’s ALADDIN SANE). HUNKY DORY FEELS VERY ENGLISH – ECCENTRIC AND BOHEMIAN… ZIGGY FEELS LIKE THE OTHER SIDE OF THE SAME COIN – A CORRUPTION OF HUNKY DORY… HOW MUCH OF AN INFLUENCE WAS AMERICA BY THIS POINT?
I think that all of us who grew up in the shadow of American rock’n’roll had this fantasy vision of what the country represented – half of which was actually true. So Bowie was fascinated by anything he thought was quintessentially American – which could be Little Richard, Jack Kerouac, Paul Simon or Andy Warhol. America was where real stars came from, and as a result it’s not a coincidence that when he started to examine the nature of stardom and celebrity, as he was doing throughout much of HUNKY DORY, he would do it in an American context. But he was also trying to work through his own philosophical and psychological dilemmas, which is where the Englishness came in. I see HUNKY DORY as an amalgam of the two, whereas ZIGGY STARDUST seems to come from a weird transatlantic place, halfway between Max’s Kansas City and the Marquee. And then ALADDIN SANE was pure America, but this time based on his travels, rather than on his imagination, as some of the earlier songs had been.
JUMPING FORWARD, PAST THE 1973 COVERS EXERCISE PIN-UPS, TO DIAMOND DOGS (1974)… IT FEELS OVERBLOWN, THE MIX IS QUITE MESSY. WAS BOWIE ACTUALLY LOSING HIS WAY, HERE?
I can see why you feel that way about DIAMOND DOGS, though in many ways it’s my favourite Bowie album – it’s like a gloriously rich swamp of imagery (some of it cut-ups, but not all) and decadence, pitched halfway between rock and soul. In retrospect, it’s easy to see that he was already on the path to YOUNG AMERICANS (1975).
THE TOUR TO PROMOTE DIAMOND DOGS WAS EXTENSIVE – I GET THE IMPRESSION THAT THE IDEA OF A LONG TIME ON THE ROAD, IN THOSE DAYS WHEN BOWIE WAS SHIFTING HIS IMAGE ABOUT SEMI-REGULARLY, WAS A BIT OF A STRAIGHTJACKET. BY THE SECOND HALF HE’D REBRANDED THE TOUR AND HE WAS ALREADY OFF INTO NEW MUSICAL TERRITORY…
I think the second half of the DIAMOND DOGS tour – the half that isn’t documented on the DAVID LIVE album – is one of the great forgotten moments of Bowie’s career. He was teetering on the verge of breakdown, losing his voice, but at the same time he was so open emotionally that his performances were absolutely epic. And a little shambolic, at the same time.
CRACKED ACTOR, THE ALAN YENTOB DOCUMENTARY FROM AROUND THAT TIME, HAS THAT REALLY AMAZING FOOTAGE OF BOWIE ABSOLUTELY OFF HIS MIND IN THE BACK OF A LIMOUSINE… HOW ‘ILL’ WAS HE AT THIS POINT? OR HAS ALL OF THAT ACTUALLY BEEN GREATLY EXAGERRATED?
Remember that the CRACKED ACTOR footage actually comes from that second DIAMOND DOGS tour! Bowie was struggling with his marriage; he was discovering things he didn’t want to hear about his business relationships and financial situation; he was taking too many drugs; not eating; not sleeping; quite possibly feeling suicidal. He had to spend months trying to get himself back on track, and whereas today he would have had minders steering him towards rehab, he was pretty much left to work it out for himself. Which is how he ended up in America during 1975, self-medicating, and trying to resolve all his outstanding issues with a mixture of the Occult and expensive lawyers. Not a combination I’d recommend.
SURELY NO-ONE WHO IS SUFFERING QUITE THAT MUCH COULD PULL TOGETHER SOMETHING AS STATELY AS STATION TO STATION (1976)?
I agree that it’s a miracle that he managed to achieve anything during that period, let alone an album as expansive as STATION TO STATION, which deals with so many different things – check my book for some clues! And he also made the Nicolas Roeg movie THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH at the same time, in which it was probably just as well that he had to play someone who didn’t really belong on this planet.
WHAT PROMPTED BOWIE TO MOVE ON, TO BERLIN – AND WHY THERE?
Why Berlin? Well, he couldn’t survive in America anymore, as a close friend told him. England was not only difficult for tax reasons, but it also represented the past – and he was never a man to repeat himself if he could avoid it. So Europe was the best solution – close to his son. He started in Paris, ran into Iggy Pop there, and between them they decided that Berlin, a city of extremes, of decadence, of conflict, was the only possible place to be. It almost broke him; but instead it sobered him up in every imaginable way.
HOW DID THE RELATIONSHIP WITH BRIAN ENO, SO BEAUTIFULLY EXPLORED ON LOW AND “HEROES” (BOTH 1977), COME ABOUT? PRESUMABLY THE PAIR HAD ACTUALLY MET WHEN ENO WAS IN ROXY MUSIC?
Bowie had spent a lot of time with Eno during the DIAMOND DOGS sessions, because Eno was working on his own album at Olympic Studios at the same time; and then when he heard Eno’s DISCREET MUSIC and ANOTHER GREEN WORLD albums, he knew that this was the guy he wanted to work with.
THERE’S THAT MARVELLOUS LINE REFERENCING THE BERLIN ERA IN THE NEW SONG WHERE ARE WE NOW?, ABOUT SOMEONE NOT KNOWING THAT BOWIE WAS CAPABLE OF GETTING THE TRAIN BY HIMSELF… LIKE THAT KIND OF MUNDANITY WAS A MASSIVE ACHIEVEMENT. WHAT WAS HIS LIFE OUT THERE ACTUALLY LIKE? FRUGAL, I IMAGINE…
Frugal sums up Bowie’s Berlin life perfectly, I think… though he was still able to indulge himself in any way he wanted. But there was no Hollywood star nonsense to get in the way. He could drink if he wanted, or take drugs, or chat up transvestites – or simply read books and stare at the Berlin Wall. It must have felt like real freedom after London, New York and Los Angeles.
TO ME, LODGER (1979) HAS ALWAYS BEEN UNSATISFYING, AN AFTERTHOUGHT TO LOW AND “HEROES” – THOUGH THERE WAS THE TERRIFIC SONG LOOK BACK IN ANGER AND THE SINGLE BOYS KEEP SWINGING, WITH ITS REALLY STRIKING VIDEO. BUT, GENERALLY, IT TREADS WATER, IT FEELS TRANSITIONAL. IF NOT ARTISTICALLY, WAS BOWIE ON TOP OF HIS GAME HEALTHWISE?
I think I say in the book that LODGER was the first point in the 1970s when Bowie actually got back in touch with who he was, beneath all the fame and success – just before LODGER, in fact, when he got free of drugs and went on a long trip with his son. He was the prime carer for his child now, which meant he had to stay sane… to some degree at least. Yet, at the same time, the fact that he had broken free of the sense of permanent crisis in his life left him floundering a little, trying to work out what could make him feel creative if it wasn’t a crisis. Which is why I talk about Bowie on that record as a cultural tourist: it’s as if he’s visiting other people and other lands, but not investing much of himself in what he finds. LODGER is probably my least favourite David Bowie album of this era – apart from PIN-UPS.
1980’s SCARY MONSTERS (AND SUPER CREEPS) ALBUM… ASHES TO ASHES, IN PARTICULAR… THERE WAS SOMETHING VERY ODD AND FRIGHTENING ABOUT BOTH THE SONG ITSELF AND THE VIDEO – TO REVISIT MAJOR TOM AFTER A DECADE ONLY TO FIND HE WAS ‘STRUNG OUT’, A WRECK… PRETTY DEVASTATING… MY FEELING IS THAT BOWIE WAS MINING A RICH SEAM, CREATIVELY – BUT WAS ALSO STILL STRUGGLING WITH… SOMETHING.
My feeling, which I’m sure I express much better in the book, is that SCARY MONSTERS represented a man who had reached the end of the road – who knew that his remarkable spurt of creativity (perhaps the most remarkable spurt in rock history) had come to an end, and that the old ways of inspiring himself wouldn’t work anymore. But, rather than go through the motions and churn out a Bowie self-pastiche (which is how I think of LODGER), he took the brave step of confronting all his demons from the past, and all his past success, and then chronicling his very confused feelings about it all into an album. That included revisiting Major Tom, and also writing a song like TEENAGE WILDLIFE, which sounds like an anguished farewell from someone who realises that he can no longer be the man he used to be.
DID SCARY MONSTERS SET BOWIE UP WELL FOR THE 1980s?
What set him up perfectly for the 1980s was realising that he had to stop. He took that break, for almost three years – partly for financial and business reasons, it’s true, but mostly because he knew it was what he had to do. And when he came back, it was as something and someone else entirely – hardly recognisable as the same man. Which is why my book had to end with SCARY MONSTERS… LET’S DANCE (1983) isn’t a record by the same artist…
… SO WHAT ARE YOUR FEELINGS ABOUT HIS WORK SINCE? THE NEXT DAY?
I haven’t heard the new album, apart from the first single WHERE ARE WE NOW?, which I loved – especially when taken with the video, which is a profoundly moving piece of work. The CD should be coming in the post next week… I confess that I haven’t thought about Bowie much at all since I finished the book. I’ve noticed this before. If you devote a year or more of your life to somebody else’s life and work, the last thing you want to do when you’ve finished is go back there. As I said earlier, I ended up with incredible admiration for Bowie as an artist – but it will probably be several more years before I’m ready to go back to the bulk of his work and enjoy it again as a fan. At the moment, whenever I hear him it just reminds me of the very enjoyable but also very stressful time when I was actually writing the book…
… SO YOU’RE UNLIKELY TO WORK ON COMPANION VOLUMES TO THE 1970s? I HAD A GREAT TITLE FOR YOU FOR THE NEXT ONE: THE 1980s…
No, definitely not! I chose Bowie and the 1970s because he was THE representative artist of that era – in any genre or medium. After LET’S DANCE, he never occupied that space again. He did do some great work, particularly during the decade between THE BUDDHA OF SUBURBIA (1993) and REALITY (2003), but he didn’t own that decade, the way he had done for the 70s… which begs the question of who actually owned the 1980s… Morrissey, maybe? The trouble is, I find his work very limited: interesting lyricist, but his voice and music bore me. Prince? He’d get my vote, but I don’t think I want to sink myself so deeply into somebody else’s work again. Or at least not for a long time… I have my own work to do!