being a fan for 32 years or so and having been through my besotted
teen phase, my rejection phase in my early 20s, rediscovered him about
10 years ago which coincided with his last recorded output (the
brilliant Heathen, and less brilliant ----- ), I now suddenly find
myself able to listen to his greatest works, the ones in the 70s and
late 60s, with completely new ears.
Bowie himself does seem to have extraordinary talent and yet I think
in his early years you could easily have been forgiven for thinking
him to be one of pop history's also rans. This I think is because his
talent is not the straight forward one that many of the great pop
His early songs were rather poor to be honest, or mawkish, with
twinkly bits and corny stories. However, something happened when he
started working more closely with musicians. You can hear it on the
Bowie at the Beeb discs as the rather average sounding songs he wrote
in 1966/67 got turned into somehting completely other through late 67
By 69 David Bowie as we know him was more or less there. He was able
to use the talents of his musicians, and the influences he'd subjected
himself to, to produce an entirely new music. On the debut album now
known as Space Oddity you can hear a blend of country rock and folk
throughout the album, with some psychedlic interludes, which very much
is of its time and yet sounds like nothing else. It is London,
English, suburban, very warm and seems to be about the exotic in the
mundane. It's not a million miles away in purely sound terms, from the
sort of albums churned out by the likes of Macca a couple of years
later. But by then Bowie had moved on.
On the second album - which is a clumsier album - The Man Who Sold The
World - Bowie attempts to go heavy. It is all together darker, delving
into myth and the occult. There are great moments - All the madmen
about his brother - some touches on that that were to become trademark
Bowie - varying the speed of the vocals.
No doubt very influenced by Led Zeppelin at the time, who, apparently,
he was rather scared of.
In 71 there came Hunky Dory, which I don't really like too much. It's
whimsical, incoherent and obviously a reaction to his previous - odd
that he'd make his heaviest and then his most accoustic albums back to
back like that. But clearly he was trying things out. This was his
Neil Young / Bob dylan album.
Bowie - a pop tornado - who tore through the landscape ripping up and
everything absorbing some, did really change everything. Did he do the
job the Beatles did in the 60s - I have argued before that left to
itself the US would not recognise its own pop culture, rather it would
go all out to stamp the devient culture out. it really only accepts
the multicutral soup that is Pop, blues, rock n roll and jazz after
the fact and as a nice safe historical artefact.
In the 50s rock n roll was utterly wiped out by the elites that run
America in just a few years. Many of the key early figures were forced
to turn away from rockabilly / rock n roll and turn to country for a
living. Others were destroyed by the press, and Elvis became an
establishment cuddly figure that could represent the sanitised rock n
roll which became the dominant form. The Beatles however shook all
They revived rock n roll and were instrumental in taking it to the
next phase - rock. While their brethrens the Rolling stones, and all
the other nice middle class boys were intent on rebelling via blues,
the Beatles were far more sophistacated than that and came up with
some original music.
The Beatles took Rock n Roll back to America, and ultimately they were
never sanitised. they were unGodly aliens who were told in no
uncertain terms to Get Back to where they came from. Eventually Lennon
was shot, which effectively ended the Beatles' story.
The other thing the Beatles did, which was probably more subversive at
that time was support black music like almost no-one in America did.
The Beatles, being British, were obviously not immersed in a racist
society. They also idolised mostly black American artists.
I would argue that without the Beatles, and the European support it
helped to bring about, black music would not have been elevated into
the mainstream as quickly as it was. Even so, the music business in
America remained instituitonally racist even in the 1980s.
Of course, the Beatles weren't alone. Frank Sinatra was also a notable
anti-racist who fought the segregation laws.
Bowie then came along after the 60s counter culture that bands like
the Beatles and the stones, the Kinks and Small faces, etc had helped
to inspire. Now we had Iggy and the Stooges and numerous garage style
bands all over America - which in very real terms was where punk
Bowie was almost alone in picking up on the US garage scene -Iggy, the
Velvets, etc. and allowing them to inspire his music. After he'd
worked his way through Dylan, Neil Young, The Beatles and Led
Zeppelin, he started writing songs inspired by this far more extreme
music which had been almost totally ignored by everyone.
It's arguable that Bowie's take on that stuff was much much safer, and
less pure. And indeed I agree with that. But as a way in it was
Without Bowie, who else in the mainstream would have brought this 60s
music through into the 70s?