Author: jackaconnell

Bowibury Week 3

The commentariat of Pushing Ahead of the Dame are dedicating February to listening to Bowie. Here are my thoughts on his dreaded Eighties and the promise of the early Nineties.

Other people had to wait until a few years of Reagan and Thatcher before declaring the Eighties miserable. Bowie got there first on a promotional disc for Scary Monsters, dismissing it as “awful” and “dreadful” as early as 1980, and prepared for the coming decade by making a collage of his past, throwing out old costumes. Tom Ewing, reviewing the standout “Ashes to Ashes”, remarked how his music was always strongest when it was just him in a hall of mirrors, and it’s while gazing at his distorted reflections that Bowie would write what critics consider his greatest last record (every new album he cut from the 90s onward seemed to come with a “best since Scary Monsters!” sticker on the packaging).

This is Bowie in peak art-rock period – living in New York, soaking up the punk and New Wave scene, giving an acclaimed performance in The Elephant Man, working with his best band and producer. Scary Monsters is him closing down the theatre and emptying it of props. Major Tom is back on Earth drugged out of his head. Lines and melodies reappear in new guises – “Rupert the Riley”‘s “beep-beep” hook ends up on “Fashion”, the Astronettes’ “I Am a Laser” gets fused in a transporter accident with “We Are Hungry Men” for “Scream Like a Baby”, the adolescent angst of “Tired of My Life” becomes sharper and far darker on “It’s No Game” (‘put a bullet in my brain / and it makes all the PAY-perrrrrs…‘; within months of recording this, John Lennon would be shot).

71o2272bvhml-_sl1300_The British music scene had brought new contenders to the throne by way of the Blitz Club – Steve Strange, Spandau Ballet and Gary Numan amongst them – and while Bowie’s relinquishing the throne, he’s not going without a fight. Playing King Lear on the deranged “Teenage Wildlife”, he sneers at ‘broken-nosed moguls’, little more than the ‘same old thing in brand new drag’. He despairs at being crowded by his descendants, reduced to ‘a group of one’, and fills his vocals throughout the album with cracked grandeur – he’ll never sound this frenzied or regal or urgent again, and certainly not in his prime. You could see it as either harsh but well-meaning advice for the next generation, or a taunt from the grave, but the message is clear: “If you come for the king, you’d best not miss.”

Scary Monsters‘ main problem, at least in terms of sequencing, is that it’s pretty top-heavy. The first side has the title track, “Up the Hill Backwards”, “Fashion” and “Ashes to Ashes”, while the second side (not bad by any stretch) has duds like “Because You’re Young” weighing it down, complete with indifferent windmill chords by Pete Townshend. This frontloading also haunts Let’s Dance, or “The One Where Bowie Makes All the Money”, but it’s more noticeable when the tracks aren’t as inspired. Having finally rid himself of his thieving manager and a hostile record label, Bowie recruits Nile Rodgers to write some hits. He gets a lemon meringue hairdo and a tan, calls his queerness a phase, and does a mammoth world tour that will slowly become the due thing for rock stars in the Eighties. Small wonder this is considered the definitive sell-out move.

But that seems a bit unfair. At its core, Let’s Dance borrows heavily from Fifties and Sixties R&B records, especially the ones from Bowie’s youth; his career started with fronting various R&B groups around Bromley and Beckenham. The blues-pop sound hadn’t yet become mainstream. At the time, too, Rodgers wasn’t known as a hitmaker – his last effort was on Debbie Harry’s doomed Koo Koo – and was perplexed when Bowie said it was what he did best. But then Bowie did have an eye for budding talent. In addition to cementing Rodgers’ skill as a producer with a tight sense of rhythm and time, Let’s Dance is jam-packed with guitar solos courtesy of future superstar Stevie Ray Vaughan, providing a musical foil for both the tightly-performed dance tracks and the vampiric iciness of Bowie’s vocals.david-bowie-lets-dance

In the backhanded compliment to end all backhanded compliments, Paul Trynka describes Let’s Dance as “not a Great Album, but a Great Eighties Album”. Fatalistic songs get dressed up in shiny pop clothes, from the title track (‘for fear tonight is all…’) and the wonderful “Modern Love” to the slick Luciferian charm of the “China Girl” cover. Where Iggy was consumed with self-hatred, Bowie sells his wicked plans better. But there are clear signs he’s running out of steam. The bulk of the work was done by Rodgers and the session musicians, a good chunk of the tracks are covers, and a pointless remake of “Cat People (Putting Out Fire)” that strips away all the Gothic melodrama of the original. “Ricochet” is the odd duck, and feels more like a promising student copying Bowie. I’d be lying if I said Let’s Dance didn’t make me dance, and it’s hard for me to really dislike, but it is very much the beginning of the end, Bowie happy to get lost at sea. The Imperial Phase stops here.

When I write these posts, I always refer to the notes I wrote while listening to these albums on Google Docs. Since I haven’t listened to some of these in full, the level of detail changes depending on my own familiarity. The one exception is 1984’s Tonight, where I had only one thing to say: “This is what plays in Patrick Bateman’s head.”

I could just leave it there and move onto the next one. I don’t think I can sum it up better. But I should explain my reasoning. Tonight is, by far and away, the worst David Bowie album I’ve ever heard. Considering some of the dreck I’m covering in this post, that’s no mean feat. What put this over the edge was that, for all the many many faults of the later years, you always got the sense he was trying. That he had some new ideas. There’s none of that in Tonight. It stinks of non-effort.

81t2b0zw-7wl-_sl1500_There are bright spots. “Blue Jean” is fun and disposable, while the opening track “Loving the Alien” has some potentially good ideas crippled by bad production. Everything else sounds like it should be playing on a cruise ship. White musicians performing reggae has a spotty precedent. On one side, you have The Police, and on the other, you’ve got Magic or – God help you – UB40. Bowie thought it would be a great idea to dabble in it right when everyone worthwhile was abandoning it. Why would you take a song about a girlfriend overdosing and turn it into a Club Med-lite duet with Tina Turner? I keep expecting the PA to come on midway through and announce they have shuffleboard on the Lido Deck.

This is the sellout album if ever there was one, but I don’t even know if I can call it that. It reached #1, sure, but that was probably because it was a new Bowie album. Once people started listening, sales dipped sharply, and while EMI had already recouped their investment with Let’s Dance, they got second ideas about their new star player. I could go on and on about all the failings of this wretched, wretched album. Let’s just leave it there and move onto slightly less shit territory.

Popular wisdom is that Never Let Me Down is the true stinker of Bowie’s career. For a while, his official website didn’t list it; it just managed to make the Top Ten upon release; the accompanying Glass Spider Tour was widely pilloried for its overblown bombast and many, many technical failures. Having spent a good hundred words on Tonight, it won’t surprise you that I disagree, but Never Let Me Down is still pretty bad. I don’t think a better image sums it up than the cover – Bowie in a mullet jumping through a circus hoop.
While Let’s Dance at least sounds different to other Eighties records – I’d argue it has a lot in common at least musically and thematically with Thriller – Never Let Me Down is very much of the time. “Busy” almost sells it short. Even the promising cuts, like “Zeroes”, the title track and the superb “Time Will Crawl”, are overproduced and loaded with geegaws that don’t give them room to breathe. Def Leppard drums, whole armies of backing vocalists, waves of synthesisers, horn sections, endless guitar wankery from Peter Frampton…the kitchen sink probably has a credit somewhere.

Tonight‘s problem is that Bowie very clearly didn’t care about what he was selling, but you couldn’t accuse him of that on Never Let Me Down. On the contrary, he tries way too fucking hard. Some of the vocal melodies are so complicated that Bowie sounds strained and out-of-breath trying to sing them. Not helping is that a lot of the songs are, frankly, not very inspired. “New York’s In Love” sounds like it was commissioned by NYC & Company to attract the world’s most boring tourists. “Day-In Day-Out” is a musical poverty safari. Mickey Rourke has a mumbled John Cooper Clarke-esque rap on “Shining Star (Makin’ My Love)”, and it’s somehow not the worst part of the song. Someone as talented and forward-thinking as Bowie spending so much time, money and effort on tepid corporate rock is like a team of Nobel-winning chemists working round-the-clock to make a new brand of stool softener.

71g3by43ybl-_sl1300_In pre-release interviews, Bowie was enthusiastically talking up the album, how pleased he was and how much fun he had on tour. Part of it might just be letting himself get browbeaten by popular consensus, but Never Let Me Down failing as publicly as he did really seemed to shock him. The overproduction is the album’s biggest sin – “Time Will Crawl” got remixed to great effect in 2008, and I’d like to see someone like James Murphy or Richard X take a stab at salvaging it. For now, though, Bowie’s powers were failing him. He needed a fresh start. He found it in the form of his press officer’s husband.

Reeves Gabrels is the most controversial of Bowie collaborators, from his elaborate guitar squawking to his in-your-face and boldly confrontational approach, which seemed at odds with his rather ordinary appearance. Depending on the year, he looked like a retired History of Art professor or your dad in a Rocky Horror tribute act (nowadays he looks like an owl that used to be a Hell’s Angel). But he is absolutely vital to the Bowie he knew today. A friend and confidant during the Glass Spider Tour, he would listen to Bowie complain about how he felt compelled to make this music; Gabrels asked, not unreasonably, why he needed to do this. He was David Bowie, for God’s sake. His best music has always been when he was at his most selfish – not uncaring, necessarily, but defiant and bold. This was exactly what Bowie needed to hear, and after years of constantly turning right with everyone else, now he was leaving the race and going left.

Not a lot of people were happy with the results, though. Bowie recruited two old figures from his past – the Sales brothers, Tony and Hunt – to play with him and Gabrels on a few sessions. Somehow they ended up in a band they would call Tin Machine, although it’s probably more accurate to say they were two teams who shared one office. Bowie and Gabrels were artsy-minded and avant-garde, determined to push rock music out of its ossified state; the Sales brothers were experienced session men with punk backgrounds and played with demonic ferocity, with Hunt playing his drums on a twenty-foot high riser. All four were talented musicians with huge personalities, none of them prepared to be sidemen, all wanting to give popular music a shot in the arm. Tin Machine’s recording process is borderline straight-edge: no synthesisers, no overdubs, no rewrites, everything cut live, with a sound influenced by Hendrix, Glenn Branca and upcoming Massachusetts band Pixies.

tin_machine_vinyl_album_coverAll of this makes for interesting reading, but in practice, the Machine failed to execute the grand vision in Bowie’s head. As part of the schedule, I listened to both Tin Machine albums back-to-back – 1989’s Tin Machine and the 1991 sequel Tin Machine II – and I came away wanting to go to sleep. In pieces, it’s fine, even inspired at points. “Prisoner of Love” builds and builds to the point it gets vertiginous, and “I Can’t Read” almost singlehandedly justifies the project; there, the tension between a frontman pining for his muse while his band storms away uncaring drives it forward. But at album length, it’s exhausting to listen to. It’s like eating a dinner made entirely of M&Ms piece-by-piece.

While the players had a mutual goal, their ways of going about it were radically different. Bowie has never been comfortable being a full-on macho rocker, and a lot of his songs require finesse in a way that Tin Machine just does not provide. “Heaven’s On Here” has one of his best vocals in years, but the last two minutes are spent on a pissing contest between Gabrels and Hunt to see who can solo the longest. “Working Class Hero” and “If There Is Something” get stripped of their irony and wit because all the Machine know how to do is pummel a track into submission. Socially-Conscious Bowie rears his ugly head on “Crack City” and “Under the God”, blunt-force tracks with easy targets (drugs and Neo-Nazism respectively).

dbowietinmachineiiNick Cave’s Grinderman, another project designed as a deck-clearing exercise, succeeded where Tin Machine failed, and I wonder if it’s because Cave can sell that low-fi grimy blues sound better than an aesthete like Bowie. There’s a solid, potentially great album in these two releases, especially since TMII is more melodic at points than its predecessor. The final track on a Tin Machine record, “Goodbye Mr Ed”, is one hell of a high note for a band to finish on, and they stirred something in Bowie. This was a band full of players who challenged him at every turn. For all of his ego, Bowie listened to advice and wasn’t afraid to shift direction if it was more advantageous to do so. It made him fearless, and that’s what the world needed.

For a while, the dominant memory I had of Black Tie White Noise, the official comeback record after the indulgence of Tin Machine, was that it cost me £1.03 to complete it on iTunes, having bought a few of the songs beforehand. The last Bowie album to top the UK charts for twenty years, it was a modest seller that made little impact and failed to re-establish him as a powerhouse. On another listen, though, BTWN is better than I remember – not great, but some of these tracks have grown on me, especially the instrumentals (“The Wedding” is lovely, even when it has glurgy but strangely heartwarming lyrics pasted onto it, and “Looking for Lester” is indescribably cool).

Nile Rodgers is producing again, but he wasn’t running the show like he did on Let’s Dance. There’s a weird game Bowie’s playing on here – it’s his first solo album in six years, but there’s no obvious hit single, and there’s all these weird flourishes like Middle Eastern instruments and jazz stylings that stop it from being commercial. The theme is right there in the title; it’s an album about ties and bonds. His marriage to Iman is the most obvious, and there are ties to his past – Mick Ronson returns for one last solo on “I Feel Free”, he duets with childhood hero Lester Bowie on “Looking for Lester”, Terry Burns is given a futuristic wake on the excellent “Jump They Say” – but there’s also the artists he’s influenced. Sometimes this works, like his cover of Scott Walker’s “Nite Flights”, a song that wouldn’t have been possible without the Berlin albums; other times it doesn’t, like the glittering camp spectacle of Morrissey’s “I Know It’s Gonna Happen Someday”, festooned with live instruments on an electronic-influenced album.

71b72y9kctl-_sl1280_Even with his creative batteries recharged, it’s clear Bowie wasn’t yet all there. “Don’t Let Me Down and Down” is like the wretched Eighties never left, now complete with awful cod-Caribbean accent, and there’s no greater act of misplaced generosity than giving the bulk of the title track to a complete non-entity like Al B. Sure!. Not that Bowie doing it on his own would have made it better, mind; the plastic soul of Young Americans had more to say than this watery knock-off of “Ebony and Ivory”.

But, then again, you listen to Bowie for the weird shit, don’t you? That’s the appeal, and there are more winners on BTWN than losers. “Pallas Athena”, the sound of Philip Glass going to the club, appears to have inspired Rob Dougan’s entire career. It’s neither fish nor fowl, and I’ll always have a place in my heart for weird orphans like this. Fortunately, Bowie didn’t feel the need to be a commercial superstar any more. The record still sold, and now that he was free from having to tour it, he could move onto whatever interested him next.

The Buddha of Suburbia is the forgotten Bowie album. At the time of its release, it was classified as a soundtrack for the BBC series of the same name rather than a proper studio record, despite using basically no music from the show itself. The original novel by Hanif Kureishi is almost a stealth biography of him – a queer young man escaping Bromley to make something of himself in London – while a picture of Bowie at the protagonist’s high school is treated like a holy relic. So Bowie and his jack-of-all-trades Erdal Kizilcay, the one-man band, set about turning Buddha into a musical autobiography.

Not the kind you’d expect, though. Rather than pastiches of his previous work, Buddha is based more on abstract impressions. Jazz, Philip Glass, glam rock and Brian Eno get thrown into the mix, but blurred and distorted radically. “Ian Fish, UK Heir” in particular is a palimpsest of a song; the title track scraped away of everything but the most basic notations. In the liner notes, Bowie writes about the narrative form being a ball-and-chain holding music back as an art form; this is the closest he’s gotten to writing ambient music, but infused with jazz and electronic music.

the-buddha-of-suburbia-coverBowie called Buddha his favourite album, continuing his reign as King Hipster by choosing the least-known entry in his discography. It’s also where the creative energies really begin to work again in the old bastard; it’s practically a font of new and bold ideas. “Bleed Like a Craze, Dad” seems to mutate and bubble over with every fresh element introduced. There are traces of Twin Peaks in the beautiful “The Mysteries”, and there’s a fantastic one-two punch of “Strangers When We Meet” and “Dead Against It”. I don’t quite know what it is about those two tracks, but listening to them fills me with joy. The book and show are focused on change, on adapting to other cultures while retaining your own identity. That’s a very Bowie notion, and Buddha of Suburbia is when he finally recaptured the lightning.


Bowibury – Week 2

Over at Pushing Ahead of the Dame, people are listening to a Bowie album every day of the month. This week: Bowie conquers America, leaves America for Europe, and hits his finest period with the help of Iggy Pop.

Of all the weeks I have to cover for Bowibury, I was looking forward to this one the most. Neil Tennant coined the term “Imperial Phase”, the period in an artist’s life where they can do no wrong, and while that certainly describes this stretch of albums, it’s too small a concept for someone like Bowie who’s had several throughout his career. But the mid 70s all the way up to 1980 definitely has the fattest riches for fans of Bowie the avant-pop star.

It starts with him finally breaking the States with Young Americans, a love letter to his adopted country written with poison ink. Any album that finally launches someone into the mainstream always gets sneered upon as not being as good as the earlier stuff, and it seems Bowie agreed, often describing it as “plastic soul…the squashed remains of ethnic music as it survives in the age of Muzak, written and sung by a white limey”.

As assessments go, it’s pretty spot-on, but I don’t see that as a pejorative. The relationship between art and artifice has always been a thing with his music, and here the somewhat phony nature becomes an advantage. For a while, I couldn’t really get into the title track because of its opening couple of seconds – descending piano chords, twelve-string strumming, trumpets happily piping along. It sounded like it belonged in a Disneyland Rock n’ Roll Revue. But that was the point. On the surface it’s a good time singalong, but it reduces America to pantomime, a bunch of thinly-sketched characters (a young couple, a businessman who carries a razor “just in case of depression”) cast against a blur of images: Afro-Sheen, Ford Mustang, Nixon, Barbie, Soul Train. It’s a twisted soul album, full of breathless love songs to cocaine, and victory anthems for a faceless politician.

10cb711b5861f03c3b3a92adcb701391-1000x1000x1Calling it plastic also belies the fact that there’s real goddamn soul on this record. Bowie might have just been wearing a gouster’s clothes but damn if he couldn’t act the part, although having an amazing supporting cast (ex-James Brown man Carlos Alomar, backing singers including a young Luther Vandross) undoubtedly helped. When recording in Sigma Studios, he was horrified by the sound of his voice; where other studios had effects that could cushion the blow, Sigma was “dry”, so having a great backing band only pushed him further. He would be a worthy singer for the players, and the proof is in the gorgeous and soulful “Win”.

Young Americans nearly goes off the rails with an abysmal cover of “Across the Universe”, made solely to get John Lennon into Electric Lady Studios. Bowie doesn’t always have the best luck with covers, as we’ll get into next week, but the gentle spirituality of the original gets covered in a ton of thick syrup, to the point where he has to camp it up just to be heard. “Can You Hear Me” is another mid-tempo ballad that adds to the drag, but thankfully “Fame” comes along to course-correct. His first US #1, it’s the weird outlier of the record, more akin to the Berlin experiments. No horns, no strings, it’s just all rhythm, fractured and broken down, as taut and relentless as a shark. It’s a groove so potent that Mr Dynamite himself would later rip it off, and I don’t think you can get a higher compliment than that.

But that’s not close to Bowie’s apex as a performer. That honour goes to Station to Station, a futurist soul album that marks the start of his path as an art rock mystic who could go anywhere he pleased. There’s a lot of stories about this album – conceived in a cocaine blizzard, Bowie living on red peppers and milk while recording, witches allegedly trying to steal his semen – that added to its mystique, along with its striking minimalist sleeve and the severe figure of the Thin White Duke, an aristocratic revenant who dressed like a Berlin cabaret singer and sung about love as though from muscle memory. It’s also my favourite record.

When I put this on as part of Bowibury, I was amazed at how much I could sing along to it. It’s almost embedded onto my DNA, and what kept me coming back to it was the frightening level of style, power and control. They say the drugs don’t work, but Bowie was coked out of his mind while making this and it’s superbly mixed with truly fantastic performances from all involved. There’s not a dud track on here. The best way to describe the sound is “cold fire”, a deceptive term for a deceptive album; the title track begins with feedback and train noises, descends into neat minimalist krautrock, and then kicks into fifth with a joyous breakdown: “It’s not the side effects of the cocaine! I’m thinking that it must be LOVE!”

unnamedStation to Station is Bowie’s first attempt at marrying R&B with krautrock, crafting neat minimalist lines and charging them with life. For all the Duke’s iciness, there are heart-stopping moments: desperate negotiations with God on “Word on a Wing”, the slick flattery of “Golden Years” transforming into pleading, and the decadent croon of “Wild is the Wind”, elevating an abstract song dashed off for a movie into pure art. Hybridisation seems to be the name of the game here. “TVC15” merges a 1950s teenage death ballad with the Ballardian idea of television as an all-consuming predator we willingly allow into our homes. Christianity is used interchangeably with the Kabbalah and Gnosticism and Aleister Crowley; English Pagans would throw random gods together if it would help them get through the day. Past and future, white and black magic, America and Europe – all colliding together, with Bowie harnessing the resultant energy. Transitional record? Sure, but it stands on its own, self-assured and manically confident.

Of course, that kind of insanity is something nobody could keep up, not even iron-willed Bowie, so after they finished touring the album, he and Iggy Pop packed up their bags and headed for Europe to kick the habits: first France, then later Berlin. The resulting partnership gave the world two albums that would end up launching a thousand post-punk acts: Iggy’s The Idiot, and Bowie’s Low.

I feel I have to talk about both together because, well, enough has been said about Low by many a talented writer, but also because I don’t think you can talk about one without the other. They’re like twin atoms.

For one, The Idiot came first. Bowie was using Iggy as a guinea pig, testing out new directions to go in. Mostly it was an outgrowth of Station to Station‘s fusion of American and European rock, what Iggy called “James Brown meets Kraftwerk”, with the instruments bent and warped out of shape. For Iggy, it means a sound and texture as thick and sludgy as molasses, murky and dense (mostly because Bowie isn’t much of a producer, but you can’t deny it works.) In Bowie’s case, the influence from krautrock and Brian Eno is more apparent. A brilliant R&B band – Carlos Alomar on rhythm guitar, George Murray on bass, and human hurricane Dennis Davis on drums – are forced to play music anathema to them. Davis’s drums sound hollow and sharp thanks to Tony Visconti’s production; the gated drum effect of the 1980s starts here.aacff350a26bdf394ed6167f6ccf85c5-1000x1000x1

The grooves on both albums are almost bent on locking the listener in place. On Low, it encourages this idea of stasis and feeling frozen, of instrumentals and chords cycling endlessly, rarely reaching a conclusion. There’s a reason why most of the first side is instrumental, after all; even lyrics escape Bowie. Over on The Idiot, though, they’re almost claustrophobic. “Sister Midnight”, “Nightclubbing and “Funtime” reduce dancing and debauchery to a series of mechanical motions; fittingly, the album ends with an eight-minute industrial dirge, inspired by Iggy’s memories of Michigan. Low, meanwhile, has a second side devoted to imaginary European cities. “Warszawa” is based only on the few hours Bowie spent there, walking through town and buying a folk record, with a synthetic choir singing what sounds like a long-forgotten European pidgin.david-bowie-low

The big difference between the two? Iggy has never been afraid to cut himself open, and he does so constantly throughout The Idiot, spilling out the ugly secrets of his brain. He confesses to his muse on “Sister Midnight” about a sex dream with his mother. He croons despairingly about how innocent his lover is on “Baby”. On “China Girl”, it comes with the added taste of imperialist guilt – “I’ll give you television / I’ll give you eyes of blue / I’ll make you want to rule the world”. It’s a corrupted man afraid his disease will spread; “I’ll ruin ev’-ry-thing you ARRRREEEEEEE“. But Bowie? He’s more about isolation. Where Iggy flays himself open, Bowie watches the blood scab over. What few lyrics that are legible refer to hiding away from the world, staying in an electric-blue room, sketching awful things on the carpet, all seemingly to kill the time. The closing track, the cathedral-like “Subterraneans”, appears to have been written in private code. But it’s not doom and gloom, either. “Sound & Vision” puts a bright spin on the idea, a man sitting down, watching a song unfurl around him, seemingly content to wait for the full thing to come together. It’s a healing album, in a very weird way.

The next Berlin album, Lust for Life, is definitely more Iggy’s baby than Bowie. While he’d been a willing test subject on The Idiot, now he was carving out his own statement. Aware that Bowie worked fast, Iggy made himself faster, improvising whole vocals and lyrics in the studio. It probably helped that he was backed up by the Sales brothers, a ferociously talented bassist and drummer who could bring the thunder like no band of his since the Stooges.

71rh0pdzy-l-_sl1300_Largely free of the murk from the last album, Lust for Life is full of energy. The first thing you hear is Hunt Sales beating out a Motown tattoo as though his drums did him wrong; the eponymous “Lust for Life” builds from there, growing in momentum and delirious joy that it found its calling nearly twenty years later as the theme for Trainspotting (and also for Royal Caribbean commercials). The whole album is a hoot, especially “Success”, where Iggy plays Southern Baptist preacher and challenges his backing singers to keep up with him, and “Tonight”, a dark joke of a song that’s a sincere declaration of love to his girlfriend overdosing on the floor. Lust for Life can’t quite sustain the momentum – the Jim Morrison cabaret of “True Blue” and chest-puffing bravado of “Neighborhood Threat” drag too long compared to the sprightliness of the first side – but everyone involved’s working at the height of their powers, and there are two perfect rock songs on there: the title track, and “The Passenger”, the sunnier side of “Nightclubbing” in that it makes prowling the city by night sound Zen.

Something about the speed of production, of watching Iggy working at the mic, inspired Bowie to get back in the studio with Eno and Visconti, setting up camp at Hansa Tonstudio (“Hansa By-the-Wall”) for what would eventually become “Heroes”. Compared to Low“Heroes” gets less love, probably because its sister came first (and maybe because the instrumentals aren’t on the same level as “Warszawa” or “Subterraneans”). Where Low broke new ground, “Heroes” is building on those foundations. A shame, because this is almost the quintessential Seventies Bowie album – voice full of grandeur, weird go-for-broke experimentation, and wonderful pop melodies.

tumblr_mlceg6gzie1qflrq9o1_1280In a way, it’s the antithesis to Blackstar. Where that record has an avant-garde jazz group translating rock music into their own language, “Heroes” has a rock band (Robert Fripp plus the Alomar-Murray-Davis trio) taking a stab at making free jazz. The increased use of Oblique Strategies, a way of breaking creative blocks, led to more improvisation, with most of the music coming from jam sessions. It’s a looser, more confident sound, even with the tropical extremes in mood throughout. You go from the eerie “Neukoln”, full of Bowie skronking away on his sax, to the deliriously camp “The Secret Life of Arabia”. Where Low is probably about depression, “Heroes” is more bipolar, the songs mutating – “Blackout” drops away for Davis to drum up a storm amidst shrieks for a doctor, “Joe the Lion” sees Bowie go from a newsreader-like delivery to pure manic savagery.

Nowhere is this organic nature more apparent than the title track, or as I like to call it, The Greatest Song in the History of Anything. It’s just so wonderfully human, even with the ironic quotation marks around the title. The couple in it are barely functional. The man drinks all the time, the woman has a harsh temper, they accept it because “we’re lovers / and that is a fact”. It would almost be scathing if Bowie didn’t suddenly let loose four minutes in; during recording, the vocal gates around the mic would only open at a certain pitch, so Bowie’s essentially roaring to keep them all open. The narrator recalls the two of them kissing by the Wall, reacting to the guns, taking what could be the last opportunity to be human and in love again before they’re reduced to ash. It turns something so small into a heroic act; after his death, the 1987 Berlin performance is regarded as an important step in bringing down the Wall.

Just so we’re keeping count, that’s four albums with Bowie’s involvement released in 1977. Of course he’s going to take a break, and he makes an album, 1979’s Lodger, out of his diary entries. Bowie called it part of the “Berlin Trilogy” along with Low and “Heroes”, but it has little to do with either. The cast is largely the same, Visconti’s still producing, and there’s a similar experimental feel (Eno has a lot more involvement), but Lodger is a lot more difficult to piece together than the other two, hence its position as The Godfather Part III of the Bowie canon.

Take the record on its own terms, though, and it’s a fine grab-bag of ideas. Lodger isn’t attempting to reinvent the wheel, although its use of world music predates Peter Gabriel and even Eno’s own My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. It’s just Bowie throwing things at the wall to see what sticks. Get your band to play chords when indicated on a chart? Cool, build two songs around it. Sample other music and do something weird with it? OK, let’s rap over a barely recognisable “Suzie Q” about being trapped in the jungle. Sample your own music and do something weird with it? Go nuts! There’s no coherent structure like the other Berlin albums; there’s a vague travelogue idea on the first side, with musical influence from Turkey and Africa (which part of Africa is up to you), but it doesn’t really hold up.

b39cbf69601690e0cf43f51269268d36-998x1000x1No, I’d say that this is an album built from salvage material, kind of like Diamond Dogs. Where that was built on failed narratives and ideas, however, Lodger‘s foundation is in a more recognisably human realm. This is Bowie as tourist, an alien on safari, re-engaging with the rest of us. We get songs about living with depression, drunken German mercenaries, Turkish workers, queer men, women abused by men, the record-buying public (Bowie records, to be precise: “DJ” can mean disc jockey or David Jones, remember). Even the angel of death, on the Wildean melodrama of “Look Back in Anger”, has a cough and wings that have seen better days.

It’s definitely the weakest part of the Berlin Project, but even a diminished Bowie album kicks the arse of most other records at the time. There’s a similar punkish energy to the New Wave albums of the time, but odd enough that it doesn’t look like a trend chaser, and there are some outstanding tracks here. “DJ” is the Talking Heads song David Byrne wishes he could have written, “Look Back in Anger” gives Bowie the voice of an archangel, and “Boys Keep Swinging” outcamps the Village People, sending up masculinity with tongue firmly in cheek as Adrian Belew’s guitar solo sets fire to the scenery. That’s the thing when you’re in an Imperial Phase; everything you touch turns to gold.

But empires also have to end.

Bowibury – Week 1

The fine community of Pushing Ahead of the Dame are listening to a Bowie album every day this month. I’ve written up my thoughts from the first week. In some cases, this will be my first full listen to these records.

We start with two albums, both self-titled, both released in the 60s, both meant to show off a bright new star in the pop music galaxy. But as far as their creator’s concerned, there’s only one proper starting point. The first in a series of boxsets chronicling Bowie’s career begins with 1969’s David Bowie, begins with “Space Oddity”, with his 1967 debut, also called David Bowie, now regarded as juvenilia (or “non-canon” if you prefer).

You can see why Bowie would rather everyone forget about his first professional record. The guy on the sleeve looks more like a member of the Monkees, which already sported a David Jones. It came out the same day as Sgt. Pepper, a record that also took Edwardian whimsy and psychedelia and managed to make it art. It’s the perfect encapsulation1967_-_david_bowie_-_front of his pre-fame years, more a glorified audition tape where a nineteen-year old Bowie puts on a variety of hats to see which one looks the best, bordering on novelty. You can almost hear the strain at points – here he is as Syd Barrett! Now he’s Ray Davies! Oop, now he’s Anthony Newley!

It’s a Bowie who doesn’t quite know who he wants to be. For someone who built his career on appearing effortless and superhuman, showing your work was out of the question. But dismissing the 1967 David Bowie as an amateur effort overlooks the real gems hidden here. No force on Earth will make me love something as chirpy and smug as “Love You Till Tuesday”, but “Silly Boy Blue” is absolutely majestic, a perfect slice of pop loveliness about a young Tibetan monk struggling to fit in with the culture. “Uncle Arthur” predicted the modern nerd (an adult who lives with his mother and still reads Batman comics and is perfectly happy with his lot), “She’s Got Medals” hints at the gender-bending and androgyny of his future work, and as gimmicky as they are, “We Are Hungry Men” and “Please Mr Gravedigger” showcase the go-for-broke weirdness he’s always been fond of indulging. Throughout, there’s a real sympathy for the oddball, the ones who don’t fit in.

It’s as good a beginning for the Bowie story as any. Even “Space Oddity”, the official start of his career, has its DNA in this period, full of childlike language (“Major Tom” belongs in a Dan Dare comic, not from any official protocol). But for adavid_bowie-space_oddity-frontalll intents and purpose, the narrative starts with the folkie phase, with Bowie in the role of a serious young singer-songwriter who got lucky with a one-off novelty and determined to show he’s no flash in the pan. So 1969’s David Bowie is full of songs tracking at around five minutes each, even when they don’t need to be, with a pop classic like “Space Oddity” as an outlier. You can spot the occasional hint of the future – “Wild Eyed Boy from Freecloud” follows a messianic figure who’s too much for the doomed world below, and would later be paired with “All the Young Dudes” like Lego blocks – but otherwise it’s a sombre album devoted to soulful confessionals for old lovers and proggy jeremiads against the whole British counterculture. It’s the last gasp of the 60s, especially the closer “Memory of a Free Festival” descending into communal chants and group chatter a la “Hey Jude”.

There are some prog elements in The Man Who Sold the World, especially in the Luciferian sexjam  “Width of a Circle”, but mostly the follow-up is a swaggering piece of glam metal, full of melodramatic lyrics about demons and madness and Nietszche that Kieron Gillen would approvingly dub “#NoneMoreGoth”. As legend has it, Bowie was so swept up in his new marriage to Angie Barnett that the bulk of the work fell to producer Tony Visconti and his new guitarist, one-man Stravinsky Mick Ronson. While Bowie would object to this – “No-one writes chord changes like that,” he groused in 1998 – it can’t be denied that The Man Who Sold the World has a lot more rhythm and swagger than he’d normally be capable of. The closest he’d previously come was “Janine” and “The Laughing Gnome”, and you need a band who swear by Hendrix and Cream, as well as T. Rex’s new smash producer, to bring that out.bowie

On the other hand, it’s not like this is a “featuring David Bowie” album either. His pet themes run throughout – doomed messiahs, ancient gods, and especially madness. Cane Hill, the mental hospital that housed his half-brother Terry, graced the original American cover art, but the institution’s shadow looms over the whole album. “All the Madmen”, Ken Kesey in the key of Syd Barrett, has the narrator choose the company of the insane asylum to the “normal” outside world. On “Width of a Circle” and the title track, a man suffers such a psychotic split that he cannot recognise himself, seeing only a monster, or a road not taken. The countless amount of covers and interpretations of “The Man Who Sold the World” cement this further – doppelgangers, shadows, other versions of yourself you can’t recognise. But there’s also a stasis to the strange life. “The Supermen” is dominated by Ronson trudging back and forth between two chords over the “guardians of a loveless isle”, and the title track’s signature riff doesn’t change. It just goes on and on, cycling endlessly, trapping you. There’s no escape whatever you do, only a new set of irons.

Now how about something a bit lighter? It’s fitting that the sleeve for Hunky Dory depicts Bowie as a Time Lord mid-regeneration because this marks another shift, and probably the most significant. This is Bowie the Composer, the brilliant pop songwriter who traded in his battered old twelve-string for a piano at Haddon Hall, and in the process makes his first great album. The first side is a complete knockout, just classic after classic – “Changes”, “Oh! You Pretty Things”, “Kooks”, “Quicksand” – in a confident display of skill. Imagine being so confident that you listen to “My Way”, think ‘I can do better’, and actually succeed with “Life On Mars?”

a3e30f7e7fa1b1bf0dbab2ae5ea7e730-1000x1000x1Hunky Dory deals with legacy and succession: “Oh! You Pretty Things” quietly accepts that a new generation is coming along; “Kooks” was written after finding out he was a father. But the second side is more overtly about his influences, in some cases cheekily positioning himself as an heir apparent – “Song for Bob Dylan” cribs its title and theme from Dylan’s own “Song to Woody”, another letter of admiration from fan to legend. Biff Rose, Andy Warhol, Dylan and Lou Reed all get namechecked or tributed (sometimes even succeeding), while Terry Burns, possibly his greatest muse – the man who introduced the young Bowie to Buddhism, jazz, the Beat poets and science fiction – gets an enigmatic tribute in “The Bewlay Brothers”.

There’s something very postmodern about the pop here. It’s not that musicians never copied anyone else; any songsmith worth their salt needs a magpie’s eye after all. But Bowie was the first to show his homework. “Kooks” is obviously inspired by Neil Young’s “I Believe In You”; “Andy Warhol” opens with constructed studio patter in reference to its namesake; “Queen Bitch” and “Life On Mars?” both give thanks to the Velvet Underground and Frank Sinatra. Notably, Bowie is credited as “The Actor”, and that’s appropriate, with Hunky Dory seeing him move effortlessly through a series of masks and backdrops.

It was while in the studio for Hunky Dory that Bowie created his most enduring character, a red-haired rock prophet killed by his audience: The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. It’s often considered one of the finest concept albums out there, with its apocalyptic framing device and tales of aliens from way out there, not that he ever had a firm story in mind. Some have tried to guess at the narrative; the best one I’ve heard is that the album’s first side is the world Ziggy is born into, with the second side about the world he created. It’s all up to interpretation, but that’s arguably why it works as well as it did. Ziggy has substance only in the audience’s head.

ziggyI’d thought I had run out of new things to say about Ziggy Stardust, but listening to it again has unearthed new gems. If you cut the cover of Ron Davies’ “It Ain’t Easy” from the tracklist and replaced it with an out-take like “Velvet Goldmine”, you’d have an absolutely perfect album that marries Little Richard and A Clockwork Orange and Judy Garland so easily it’s almost an act of magic. As it is, it’s only sort of perfect, but it oddly fits; it’s the flaw in a Persian rug. The other thing that leaps out at me is how death and beauty go hand-in-hand. The opener, “Five Years”, is a string-swaddled ballad about the end of the world, where order has broken down and everyone greets each other with expressions of love – ‘Your face, your race / the way that you talk / I kiss you, you’re beautiful’. Elsewhere, we have warped love songs like “Soul Love” and “Moonage Daydream”, an extraterrestrial paean to humanity like “Starman”, before Ziggy dies in his followers’ arms, screaming for them to ‘GIVE ME YOUR HANDS! ‘CAUSE YOU’RE WONDERFUL!’ The apocalypse isn’t met with shock, but beautiful chaos, the nobody people colliding together and spinning into oblivion.

What always surprises people who first listen to Ziggy Stardust is that it doesn’t “rock” as hard as you’d expect such a celebrated rock n’ roll album to. For those people, there’s Aladdin Sane, or “Ziggy goes to America” as Bowie dubbed it, a snapshot of how the Spiders brought the house down while on the road. Cheekily, Bowie steals from the Rolling Stones’ at the point where their sound was laying dormant; Exile on Main St. was buried in murk and grit, while Goats Head Soup was their first truly mediocre record. If they weren’t using it, might as well put it to work on “Watch That Man”. Sometimes the humanity of those songs gets lost – Bowie reinterprets “Let’s Spend the Night Together” as a louche come-on rather than Jagger’s nervously excited proposition – but it fits the plastic veneer of Ziggy and the Spiders at the time.

On the previous records, America was a mythic country glimpsed only in imported records; “Moonage Daydream” is often described as a pop record from the world of A Clockwork Orange. On Aladdin Sane, Bowie is exposed to the US for the first time, and the sound is more quintessentially American. There’s a harder edge to the guitars, with many of the songs cracked portrayals of wherever the tour bus was passing through – Hollywood begets “Cracked Actor”, “Time” comes from New Orleans, “Panic in Detroit” is self-explanatory. It fit right in with glam’s obsession with the past, particularly the 1950s; Roxy Music were adapting doo-wop on their debut, while The Rocky Horror Picture Show owes a debt to rock n’ roll and drive-thru B-movies. There’s some European influence, notably on the Evelyn Waugh-lite title track and Mike Garson’s avant-garde piano solo, but otherwise Aladdin Sane is both fascinated and morbidly disturbed by American life.aladdin_sane

There’s no real transcendent moments on the level of Ziggy. Beauty give way to decadence and corruption: the faded Hollywood star hungry for sex on “Cracked Actor”; the ‘passionate bright young things’ flitting about on the title track; “The Jean Genie”‘s demonic charmer leading women astray. Even Bowie’s older “Prettiest Star”, written to celebrate his marriage, gets reworked into a raucous wedding party. The closest we get to sheer elegance is the final track, “Lady Grinning Soul”, possibly the best Bond theme that never was, an ode to Amanda Lear, the gender-bending and stateless conqueror of hearts. “She will be your living end”, indeed.

1973’s Pin Ups has the unfortunate honour of being the red-headed stepchild of the Bowie canon. Not as bad as the 80s records but not as good as Ziggy or Aladdin Sane, it came out after Ziggy had been decidedly put to bed under contractual obligations; Bowie’s manager Tony DeFries was haggling for better rates and urged his client not to put out any new material in the meantime. Just in time for Christmas, the world got a cover album of songs from Bowie’s mod years. The selections were clever – The Who, the Kings and the Yardbirds all get featured, but only their lesser-known records. These acts were all his contemporaries, so not only can he maintain his cred as Hipster King (“I was listening to The Who before any of you lot!”), he positions himself in their history. He was there from the beginning! He’s no one-hit wonder who got lucky!

That’s about as interesting as the finished product gets, sadly. It’s not a bad record by any stretch. The band are in good form and having a ball covering some old faves. Pin Ups front.tifSome of the interpretations are even inspired – “See Emily Play” shows real knowledge of and affection for early Pink Floyd, and “Sorrow” turns the original’s nervy blues into sweeping Romanticism. The problem is that so much of Pin Ups is functional at best. If you listen to “Rosalyn” or “Here Comes the Night” or “Don’t Bring Me Down”, you gain nothing that you didn’t already get from the originals, and sometimes they’re actively worse. What possessed you to turn “I Can’t Explain”, a song about a nervous young man plucking up the courage, into an act of peacocking? ‘I can’t explain what I’m feeling’? Bullshit, Mr Narrator! I can tell you’ve done this song and dance many times! Not a total loss, but the layers of camp going on in Pin Ups often turn it into a Rock n’ Roll Revue on a cruise ship in terms of hollow glitz.

Critics gave Bowie a lot of stick for his postmodern dilettantism, a charlatan pretending to be a rock star, content to piggyback on better musicians. Iggy Pop despaired when he listened to “The Jean Genie” and realised his identity had been stolen. In hindsight, we can agree this is a bit silly, but it rattled Bowie enough that, after disbanding the Spiders, his immediate response was Diamond Dogs, another stab at a concept album where he played almost every instrument, including the lion’s share of guitar.

Of course, the response is plenty barbed, presumably as another middle-finger to Lester Bangs. Diamond Dogs is a hideous chimera of several different projects. Amongst the component parts include: his failed musical version of Nineteen Eighty-Four; the vague concept of ‘Hunger City’ and its ghoulish teenage marauders; a musical about Ziggy Stardust that ended up a Viking funeral to glam rock; plus his growing interest in American music, particularly Bruce Springsteen and the Philly soul scene. The result is an almost oppressively grim record that features mutual suicide, ends with Big Brother crushing wills and making the bodies dance in a doomsday disco, language eroded away. The glam holdouts, “Rebel Rebel” and “Rock n’ Roll with Me”, lead off both sides and are an oasis in the middle of such darkness.

In conversation with William S. Burroughs, T.S. Eliot was brought up,tumblr_kzr79tsh8y1qbn2z0o1_500 with Burroughs surprised that Bowie hadn’t read The Waste Land. That must have stuck in his head, because Diamond Dogs tries to do for rock music what Eliot did for mythology. Cut it down the middle and you’ll find Ballard, Orwell, vaudeville, John Rechy, Joe Meek, the Stones, Tod Browning’s Freaks and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. And those are just the ones I can name off the top of my head. It’s a record made from junk and debris.

This kind of magpie behaviour isn’t remotely unusual for a Bowie record, but there’s not a speck of polish here. There’s no finesse to the instrumentation, especially the guitar, just pure sound and texture. It’s jagged, abrasive and froths with feedback, as though rock music has become infected. The cut-up technique, pinched from Burroughs and Brion Gysin, creates nonsensical lyrics that adds to this sense of chaos, of the centre not being able to hold. Even the meagre characters and settings it creates – Hunger City, Halloween Jack, the Diamond Dogs themselves – are phantasmal. You can see what the punks saw in it; this is Dadaism in torn and salvaged drag, and there’s a strange kind of beauty in that ugliness.

Given the muted feedback Diamond Dogs received upon the release, it’s surprising to me how well-regarded it is, particularly in the US, where it became the first Bowie album to crack the Top Ten. Many fans, including Neil Gaiman and Devin Faraci, have commented on how it conjured up this dense narrative world with just a few strokes, like a used paperback in vinyl form. As to its Stateside popularity, I have a vague theory. The Seventies were marked with assassinations and disasters and massacres. Within months of its release, Watergate would hit the front pages. The world suddenly looked uglier and darker. Diamond Dogs, built from the wreckage of dead stories, was the music it deserved.

Bowibury – Prelude

Over at the best music blog going, Pushing Ahead of the Dame, the wonderful commentariat that’s built up there over the years have announced plans to listen to a Bowie album every day of the month, like visiting the Stations of the Cross. So that’s what I’m doing too, and I’m writing about them every week.

I’ve not talked about it much on this blog, or indeed any blog that I’ve pretended to run, but David Bowie is my favourite artist by a considerable margin. I reviewed his albums for assignments, I ate up all the mythology and trivia surrounding him, I stole liberally from him for my Masters dissertation, and my contribution to Litmus 2015 was a lengthy essay about what he meant to me. My reputation as an amateur Bowie scholar (which is a polite way of saying I have no social life) meant that, after his death was announced, I got texts and messages from friends and family checking to see I was alright, as if I’d lost a beloved uncle.


There were no tears on my part. However much I listened to his albums or read about his life in Brixton and Berlin and Switzerland, Bowie would never be someone truly close to me. On top of that, at the time I dug into his work, he’d been out of the public gaze for years, delivering messages to the world via Tony Visconti, so it was easier for me, a younger fan, to adjust to the fact that David Jones was gone.

But it felt weird nonetheless. You can trace Bowie’s influence throughout so much of modern music, and throughout pop culture in general, that he’s like background radiation. He’s there in Jarvis Cocker, in Lady Gaga, Adam Lambert, East India Youth, Annie Lennox and Kanye West. He’s there when you dye your hair, when you sexually experiment, when you’re stuck indoors waiting for inspiration to hit and for scars to heal. Traces of him can be found in Watchmen, Matt Fraction’s Casanova, Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman, Gillen & McKelvie’s The Wicked + The Divine; Michael Fassbender in Prometheus, Denis Lavant in Mauvais Sang, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Velvet Goldmine, RuPaul’s entire performing career. It’s still weird to wake up in a world without the original Bowie, the river from which all these tributaries sprang.

Funnily enough, I’ve never actually sat down to listen to his complete catalogue before. Most of the albums in my collection are from his Imperial Phase during the 70s; the likes of Tin Machine and Never Let Me Down and ‘hours…’ loom ahead like Devon mires. I’m excited, maybe a little nervous, especially since Spotify can’t provide everything I need for the month. So here’s how I’m going to do this:

1) Standard editions only.

When you get a film’s Deluxe Edition, maybe you get an extended version of the film proper. Not so with an album. While I’ll always appreciate extras, running orders are there for a reason, and putting more songs there feels like clouding the water.

2) No live albums.

This is a real shame, since some of Bowie’s songs get their definitive version in a live setting, but they’re more diaries or chronicles, and aren’t really essential to the whole thing. For every Live in Santa Monica ’72, which really captures how ferociously good the Spiders from Mars were, there’s a David Live where he sounds like zombie Scott Walker.

3) No soundtracks.

This one isn’t set in stone depending on how quickly I can get some of this done, but right now, I’m limiting myself to studio albums only rather than soundtrack tie-ins. The Baal EP and the five songs off of Labyrinth aren’t on the same level as The Buddha of Suburbia, where the compositions got drastically altered into a full album-length statement. This would also open the floor up to every soundtrack contribution, and frankly I don’t have nearly that amount of time.

4) A new post every week.

Being brutally honest, I only found out about Bowibury today through PAOTD, so I’ve got a lot of catching up to do. A post every day won’t be possible at this stage, and I’d rather not rush things.

If you want to listen along, or at least see where the road takes you, here’s the Bowibury schedule, as laid down by Galdo over at PAOTD:

  1. David Bowie (1967, Deram) and David Bowie/Space Oddity (1969)
  2. The Man Who Sold The World (1970)
  3. Hunky Dory (1971)
  4. The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1972)
  5. Aladdin Sane (1973)
  6. Pin Ups (1973)
  7. Diamond Dogs (1974)
  8. Young Americans (1975)
  9. Station to Station (1976)
  10. The Idiot (1977)
  11. Low (1977)
  12. Lust for Life (1977)
  13. “Heroes” (1977)
  14. Lodger (1977)
  15. Scary Monsters (1980)
  16. Let’s Dance (1983)
  17. Tonight (1984)
  18. Never Let Me Down (1987)
  19. Tin Machine I + II (1989, 1991)
  20. Black Tie White Noise (1993)
  21. The Buddha of Suburbia (1993)
  22. Outside (1995)
  23. Earthling (1997)
  24. ‘Hours…’ (1999)
  25. Toy (2000, the “lost” album)
  26. Heathen (2002)
  27. Reality (2003)
  28. The Next Day (2013)
  29. Blackstar (2016)

As you can imagine, this is quite a lot of music to get through. Recommended reading would be Starman by Paul TrynkaThe Complete David Bowie by Nicholas Pegg, and Rebel Rebel by Chris O’Leary. Enjoy, and be good to one another.

Image: Helen Green, “Time May Change Me”, 2015.

L’Age d’Ultron

It’s easy to forget sometimes that the geek has colonised pop culture – that we live in a time where the next Doctor’s identity is a national event, where Game of Thrones gets discussed around the watercooler, where everyone loves Groot the living tree, and where Marvel has become the undisputed emperor of the multiplex. Having turned D-listers Guardians of the Galaxy into household names last time round, Marvel Studios have now brought an Avengers sequel, Age of Ultron, as a kind of victory lap and another step in their intricate plan towards total box office domination. Of course, it isn’t really a sequel to 2012’s The Avengers, so much as a follow-up to three separate movies. It probably helps to have seen them, but newcomers are well-served by the opening: a breathless long take following each Avenger as they lead a charge on a mountainside fortress, showing off how they work as a team, battlin’ and banterin’ away. It’s a pace the film maintains as it travels from South Africa to South Korea and back, finally making it clear the Marvel universe doesn’t revolve entirely around the United States.


The fortress belongs to HYDRA, the terrorist cell last seen undermining national security in Captain America: The Winter Soldier and now doing the traditional supervillain thing of evil experiments. The Avengers ruin their plans, but only Tony Stark, aka Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) isn’t happy, still suffering from PTSD after the alien invasion in the last Avengers, and questioning the team’s role. For Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans), being an Avenger is a calling; for Tony, it’s a means to an end, and an increasingly ineffective one. He’s seen how small the team is, watched the sky open up and nearly destroy New York, and suddenly punching super-Nazis in the face seems pathetic. He and Bruce Banner/the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), create an artificial intelligence, Ultron (James Spader), to try and safeguard the planet from threats. Neither men appear to have seen 2001: A Space Odyssey, because they seem surprised when their baby goes rogue and decides that saving humanity means murdering all of the team by way of creepy superpowered twins, a chase across three countries, and millions of robot drones.  

Believe it or not, Whedon planned for the sequel to be smaller. Having cleansed his palate with a fine screwball take on Much Ado About Nothing, he’s aware trying to recapture lightning in a bottle is just going to leave him very charred. There’s not a conscious effort to try and outdo the spectacle of The Avengers, although try it does, with Whedon’s attention more focused on the principle players. The man cut his teeth on TV with shows like Buffy and Firefly, very much a writer’s medium where the emphasis has to be on compelling characters since there’s so little in the budget for everything else.

The secret to Marvel’s success has always been the characters and the easy chemistry the actors have with one another, with each subsequent film building on this foundation. The most enjoyable sequences are just them interacting, from the friendly digs at each other to everyone attempting to lift Thor’s hammer at a party. Even Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), benefits this time around, emerging as the true heart of the team. It’s these strong bonds that Whedon puts to the test when the team first encounter Ultron and his acolytes, the twins Wanda and Pietro (Elizabeth Olsen and Aaron Taylor-Johsnon), like an alchemist putting quartz to a flame. Wanda has the power to cast illusions, making the Avengers see their worst fears and adding further shading and texture. Some like Cap and Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), still carry scars from their past. Others, like Stark and Thor (Chris Hemsworth), fear for the future; the former sees his friends lying broken in the cold abyss of space, the latter dreading the inevitability of Ragnarok.  

The MCU in general has had trouble giving the women anything to do. While it avoids the Guardians of the Galaxy thing of regarding them like a sniggering preteen boy would, Age of Ultron near-exclusively defines its female characters by their relationships. Natasha is paired off in a Beauty and the Beast relationship with Banner, both being able to see the humanity in another while regarding themselves as monsters. You can see the logic behind it, it’s basically the bond between Ann Darrow and King Kong, but it’s the only arc Natasha gets in the whole film. Worse, the reason she thinks she’s inhuman isn’t necessarily all the people she’s killed, it’s apparently because she can’t be a mother. Maybe it’s just an innocent mistake, but in a story where the women are either plot devices or love objects, it doesn’t look good. Especially not for Whedon, who boasts about how he writes women as actual characters.

On the villain side, Wanda and Pietro have powers and accents, but not actual personalities. The latter, better known as Quicksilver, particularly suffers from this when compared to Evan Peters’ fun and breezy portrayal in X-Men: Days of Future Past. James Spader’s trademark eccentric intonations and gravelly baritone bring gravitas to an underwritten AI-gone-rogue role. There are hints that Ultron got his worst parts from Papa Stark, that he’s all of Tony’s relentless egomania channelled into something darker, but perhaps as a casualty of the editing needed to knock it down from three-and-a-half hours, it’s so under-served that it might as well be a cloud pattern.  

The thing with The Avengers is that it’s a lot rougher on rewatch. The opening is murky and awkwardly staged, and it has to go through some heavy lifting introducing each character and carefully placing them on the board so the audience knows what’s going on. But where it resonates with audiences, aside from being the first big superhero crossover flick, is that it has real emotional high points – the death of Coulson, Hulk smashing Loki around like Pete Townshend with his Gibson, and the famous long-take of the Avengers fighting aliens all across New York. There, it felt like the culmination of everything in the last hour, where the heroes finally worked in concert with each other, and felt truly cathartic. Age of Ultron doesn’t quite have a moment like that where the audience pumps their collective fist in celebration. The overall downbeat tone might prove less friendly to repeat viewings than its predecessor, but it fits the bleak undercurrent present throughout Whedon’s work – Firefly is about the losers of a civil war living on the outskirts. The Cabin in the Woods proposes that humanity is built on an inherently evil system. Even Much Ado About Nothing is about how nobody really truly means what they say.

There’s speculation that the perpetual Marvel engine might be in need of repair, what with Whedon talking about the draining experience, an exhausting press tour that’s resulted in a few badly-phrased statements, and Edgar Wright’s public exodus from Ant-Man, a project he spent six years working on. This isn’t the day the empire collapses, though, and it would be unfair to regard Age of Ultron entirely as an excuse to make more money than the GDP of most island nations.

Consider: Whedon was working on this project, from the first outline to the last session in the editor’s suite, for about three years. His job had taken him to Burbank, Johannesburg, Surrey, Bangladesh, Seoul, New York. By his own admission, he was separated from his family in Los Angeles for a long period of time. Halfway through Age of Ultron, we’re introduced to Hawkeye’s family; a wife and two kids, with a third on the way (and Natasha’s very disappointed to learn it won’t be a girl), living far away from the metropolitan cities where danger tends to strike. A family he doesn’t see often due to his work, and one he works hard to balance.


Legacy, by way of parenthood, can’t help but hang over the movie. When Stark tries to create Ultron, as ‘a suit of armour around the world’, it’s to ensure that Earth is well looked after when he’s no longer around. Aside from the culmination of a character arc that started with him as a narcissistic playboy saving the day to stroke his own ego, it’s an apt description of being a parent – creating a successor to carry your banner, to do what you couldn’t. Ultron’s first moment of genuine anger comes when an acquaintance of Stark points out he accidentally used one of his catchphrases. The megalomaniacal conqueror is scared that he’s too much like his old man, and gets his own paternal fears when his own progeny, the Vision, rebels against him.

Mark Kermode argues in The Good, The Bad and the Multiplex that since tentpole films with a big enough budget can’t ever lose money, they’re an ideal Petri dish for experimentation, trying new ideas. In the past couple of years, we got a summer blockbuster with a non-human lead and most of the dialogue in sign language. The studios are wallowing in ‘an endless ocean of cash’, so there’s no harm in branching out a bit. The raggedly personal nature of Age of Ultron, likely to rule the box office until the new Star Wars, is testament to that ideal.

Poster by Matt Ferguson.


Yes, the poster doesn’t look promising, but I’m going somewhere with this. From the outset, Spring Breakers looks like another pretentious trashy post-Tarantino action flick full of armed swimsuit models kicking ass in what a horny twelve-year-old thinks is feminism. In reality, however, Spring Breakers is a very atypical pretentious trashy post-Tarantino action flick full of armed swimsuit models etc., because of the man behind the camera.


Harmony Korine is one of those filmmakers that seemingly has no middle ground when it comes to reception. He’s either a brilliantly subversive daredevil who pushes boundaries, or he’s an immature scuzz merchant who seeks to shock in the name of popping monocles the world over. There’s truth in both – Korine’s subject matters wallows in filth, deliberately seeking out the weirdest subcultures and the outcasts that make them up. What unsettles people the most, I think, is the way he treats the disturbing dregs of society with normalcy. The closest comparison is Trainspotting, or perhaps Lou Reed’s New York, a darkly curious work that sketches out the details without judgement and letting the audience do the rest.


They’re not in for an easy ride, either. Within two minutes, you get hit with a succession of slow motion images from a typical Floridian spring break: the twisting of sweaty tanned bodies, the extensive consumption of low-proof alcohol, and more tits than an average episode of Springwatch, scored to blistering EDM. Young female flesh gets ogled extensively by the camera throughout as it shakes, wiggles and gets covered in zebra lines of coke. It’s shamelessly exploitative, giving its audience what they think they want, but it becomes so pervasive and constant that it stops being erotic. It’s like being force-fed jelly until the sight of it makes you feel ill.

A film like this runs the risk of being insufferably preachy, what I call the Funny Games Problem. Michael Haneke’s 1997 (and 2007) study in cinematic violence was constructed entirely to make one point – Violence Is BAD – and the result was cold finger-wagging for 90 minutes. They even had the villain talk to the camera about what you want to see, because oh ho ho aren’t we so clever, being all metafictional and shit, you love seeing the blood don’t you, yes you do you filthy perverts.

Spring Breakers at least has more to enjoy beyond purely physical pleasures, creating an experience like an episode of Girls Gone Wild directed by David Lynch. Benoît Debie’s cinematography is stunning, surreal and alight with candy-coloured neon. The score is a perfect marriage of Skrillex’s thunderous dubstep and Cliff Martinez’s pulsing rhythms; the latter’s work on Drive has pretty much guaranteed him work on any number of art-trash films made until the end of time. James Franco is basically doing a Riff Raff impression but it’s compelling in just how much he commits to the role of ‘gangster mystic’ Alien (or ‘Ay-leen’ in Dirty South), selling Korine’s weird repetitive dialogue like a mad prophet.

It’s that last point in particular that makes Spring Breakers feel more like a fever dream. The Florida town of St. Petersburg is treated like Mecca, the characters regarding it as a holy place, a ‘spiritual’ place as Selena Gomez’s good Christian girl Faith1 puts it. Lines of dialogue loop over and over again: ‘pretend it’s a fucking video game’, ‘pretend it’s a movie’, ‘look at my sheeit’, ‘this is my/the (American) dream’ and ‘spring break forever’. That last one gets used so much it becomes an intonation, a prayer. It’s the kind of hazy, often nightmarish imagery and sounds you might get after ingesting peyote and passing out at a keg party.

But then Korine throws you for a loop and includes moments of strange beauty, most notably the “Everytime” scene. James Franco playing a Britney Spears ballad on a baby piano for gun-toting girls in My Little Pony balaclavas is an inherently surreal and funny image, and scoring a gentle song over slow-motion scenes of violence is an old trick at this point. But there’s nothing mocking or sarcastic about it; they’re all completely sincere in their love for Miss Spears, ‘an angel if ever there was one’. It highlights how tragic and gorgeous the ballad is by contrasting it with violent provocative imagery.

How much of this is intentional and how much is just me reading into it is up for debate. What really stymies about Korine’s work is that he isn’t bullshitting. His work isn’t planned or structured so much as it emerges raw and blinking from his id. There’s no central narrative to Spring BreakersGummoMister Lonely or Trash Humpers beyond ‘strange people in strange place fuck about’. Whether it’s springtime Florida, storm-scarred Xenia, a commune in the Highlands or the back alleys of Nashville, Korine has always been interested in tribes and outcasts, rarely getting into their motivations in favour of preserving them on film, like dried flowers in the pages of a book.

The casting of former and current Disney stars like Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens has given Korine a much wider audience than before, and with it a wider sense of division. Those expecting a fun summer crime flick about cute girls will be put off by the creative choices; feminist critics will argue if the leads having actual agency makes up for all the nude female skin on display; there’s a lot to be said about the racial undertones of all the black characters being ruthless thugs to be gunned down en masse by white kids wearing balaclavas that look more like Klan hoods. What will frustrate people further is that Spring Breakers provides no easy answers. It’s a Rorschach blot, with every viewer seeing what they want to see.

Old-New England

For this writing prompt, I was to write about 500 words on a place of some kind. It ties into the discussion of psychogeography, which you may have noticed is a recurring idea throughout this blog. Again, it’s the Alan Moore model, so maybe I’m way off in my understanding.


I know the suburbs and the high streets; I know the dull chrome arclights, the flowered fountain, the clock tower and its ring of busts, all seagreen and pock-marked with pigeon. I have spent most of my adolescence there, going to the library, kicking around parks, getting fish and chips from the same café my mum used to work at as a teenager. I’m following old paths like surface memory, cut out by many urbanites before me, because really, why go anywhere else? What else does Bexleyheath have to offer?

Look harder. South of Danson Park, you can almost see it. A slit, a scar, a crack in the skin of ash and smoke, cracking open as it snakes across Bean Road until it peels away and… there! Tudor in spirit, Gothic in design, all cross gables and sloping roofs, bricks the colour of decaying iron. The grass becomes greener, the clouds pristine and fluffy, and you’d swear roses have started to bloom, heralds of the older Bexleyheath.

In Bruges, William Morris dreams of an older England, his Guinevere sleeping gently between wrinkled sheets of Sea island cotton. He dreams of an England captured in paint and oils, where the world can be translated to canvas, blemishes and flaws dying in the transition; a photograph of the England that should have been. He will build his old-new England in Kent. The brave new world begins only a short distance and six hundred and eighty-six years away from where pilgrims travelled to Becket’s shrine in Canterbury, tracing a path carved out in the Stone Age. Kent is a palimpsest, new lines written over old etchings, Morris and the pilgrims seeking and following ghosts.

He chooses Upton, three miles from the skeleton of an abbey and three miles from the railway station that will take him into London. He regards London as a tiger, fascinated and yet fearful of its splendour. He nervously glances at Brunel’s infernal machines as they hack and cough soot and coaldust into the sky, watches the countryside become increasingly tattooed with rail tracks. His discomfort is shared by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, forever in the whirlwind throes of Arthurian romance, the once and future Lancelot. Soon they find their brothers: Ford Madox Brown, Edward Burne-Jones, Arthur Hughes, fellow knights seeking Camelot.

Morris and Rosetti and Siddal have all gone. Bexleyheath is swallowed by London nearly a century later. But there, on the other side of the bite mark where the Council tore into Kent, there is the Red House, a spell captured in tile and mortar. It is here where the old Bexleyheath sleeps beneath Greater London, and dreams of a new Camelot, the Red King in redbrick.