Saturday Deluxe Special: 16 Jan 2016: A life listening to David Bowie
In the first of a special three-part feature, SDE Editor Paul Sinclair, reflects back to his earliest memories of hearing, buying and listening to the music of David Bowie.
Where do you start with a talent like David Bowie? The fact is, the story will begin in different places for different people. Probably my earliest Bowie memory is when a re-released Space Oddity hit number one in the UK in 1975. I remember seeing that rather red-saturated Mick Rock-directed video (filmed in 1972) of a Ziggy-era David Bowie singing his signature song. I was five at that time…
After that, I have little Bowie recall until the Sound and Vision single from Low. This would have been early 1977. My mother must have loved it, because she literally did the hovering while singing “blue, blue, electric blue…” (before mumbling the words she didn’t know). I’m not even sure if I knew what she was singing at the time, but the memory and the melody stayed with me and perhaps I pieced it all together at a later date.
There was another big gap until the Let’s Dance album. I was still a little young to be buying records, but of course the memorable David Mallet-directed video was shown widely and I do remember my sister having a birthday party and a friend of hers giving her the seven-inch of China Girl. That was probably the first David Bowie single to enter the Sinclair household.
The first David Bowie record I actually bought with my own money was the 12-inch of Absolute Beginners. In fact I’m fairly sure this was my first ever vinyl record, because I bought tapes, not vinyl when it came to albums (a bit of a mistake, looking back). Anyway, Absolute Beginners had a fantastic front cover featuring an effortlessly cool Bowie, an intriguing photo on the back of a little kid smoking (!), and it was a glossy gatefold. It also had the full-length eight-minute version of the song and a dub mix.
Never Let Me Down was the first album where I considered myself a ‘proper fan’ where I’d made a point of buying it on the day of release. By 1987 I was a sucker for buying singles in limited edition formats and EMI America obliged when lead single Day-In Day-Out was issued as a cassette single in console-game packaging. Groovy. There were loads of other interesting formats and singles, most of which you can read about here, but although I really love some of Never Let Me Down (the album), it was frustrating being geared up to properly enjoy a brand new David Bowie album for the first time and know that it’s far from his best work. It would be six years until his next long-player (I didn’t know that at the time, of course) so it was time to explore the man’s back catalogue…
I was a skint teenager at this time, so there was only one thing for it, find a mate who owns tons of Bowie, bung him a load of TDK SA90s (my blank tape of choice..) and get the albums taped. As a side note, I feel like I can be forgiven for ‘killing music’ by home taping at this point because, I would go on to buy Bowie’s output many times over in the years and decades to come. My school friend Paul Fraser was already a massive fan and was more than happy to try and spread the love for David Bowie. He did the dirty deed and shortly after I had everything from David Bowie (aka Space Oddity) to Scary Monsters taped, minus Pin Ups and the live releases. That’s 12 albums across six cassettes, which paired up quite nicely either side of the tape, as follows:
- David Bowie (aka Space Oddity) / The Man Who Sold The World
- Hunky Dory / The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars
- Aladdin Sane / Diamond Dogs
- Young Americans / Station to Station
- Low / “Heroes”
- Lodger / Scary Monsters and Super Creeps
Here’s the bit I’m really proud of, I taped my tapes for another pal and we both decided to ‘get into’ 1970s Bowie simultaneously, but crucially we’d listen to the albums IN ORDER OF RELEASE to try and replicate what fans who bought them at the time would have enjoyed, albeit we’d be squishing ten years into a number of weeks!
There was quite a bit of discipline here. On our commutes to work we’d listen to just one album for a whole week. Actually, that’s what I always thought we did, but thinking back as I write this, that wouldn’t have been practical, since I doubt we were wasting batteries in our respective Sony Walkmans by rewinding completely an SA90, to replay the same side (the ‘MP3 generation’ have it so easy) so we must have listened to two albums per week. So at the beginning it would have been David Bowie/Space Oddity on the way into work and The Man Who Sold The World on the way back. We’d play the same two albums all week and discuss them ad infinitum at the weekend! Then the following week we’d move on to the next two. Only the 9-5 drudgery of work spoiled this Bowie-fest.
This strategy was really good, because I’ll venture that the first ‘RCA’ album (David Bowie aka Space Oddity – actually issued on Phillips in the UK) is relatively under explored, but not by me because I really got into the folk-rockiness of it. Letter to Hermione and Janine, were both excellent and the long and dense Cygnet Committee was the first indication that Bowie was something really special and wrote songs that other people simply couldn’t write. Unwashed and Somewhat Slightly Dazed is bonkers with some wonderful lines, like when Bowie (or the narrator) tells his girl “It must strain you to look down so far from your father’s house / I know what a louse like me in his house could do for you”. Of course I knew the song Space Oddity, but only Bowie could write a moving number about a woman stealing a “tin of stewing steak” as he does in God Knows I’m Good, while the trippy, evocative Memory of a Free Festival seemed like a curtain call on the 1960s with it’s Hey Jude style extended coda.
The Man Who Sold The World was very different, of course with Bowie playing around with the heavy rock genre. I say ‘playing around’, because although the recordings were nothing less than committed, as the years ticked on, it became clear that DB got quickly bored and would want to move on to something else. Like a jacket he’d pick up and try on for size, enjoy it for a bit and then put back on the hanger. With this album it seems to take an age to get past the opening salvo of The Width of a Circle and All The Madmen and I must admit although I quite liked those tracks I preferred the relative ‘pop’ of tracks like Black Country Rock, and the title track and still do today.
For the first of my TDK SA90s, I’d definitely give a points victory to side one of the tape, i.e. David Bowie/Space Oddity.
We’re into ‘week two’ of my journey through RCA Bowie (remember it’s 1988) and this time it’s a heavyweight contest between Hunky Dory (1971) and The Fall and Rise of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (to be referred to as just Ziggy Stardust from here on in).
It’s not much of a contest for me. Hunky Dory is significantly better than Ziggy Stardust, which has to rank as one of my least listened to David Bowie albums over the last quarter of a century. I know this is a VERY important album for many fans, and no question there’s some great, great songs – Moonage Daydream, Ziggy Stardust and Starman come to mind – but for a famous rock ‘n’ roll album, it has a rather ‘thin’ production and lacks the craft and variety of Hunky Dory. I’m sure I’d feel differently if I had been a 16-year old and had seen David Bowie live in 1972/3 but remember I’m rather detached from all this fifteen years down the line in the late eighties.
Also, and I promise you I’m not trying to be controversial here, but for me ‘Ziggy Stardust’ is the least interesting of Bowie’s characters. Think about it, David looked cool as a Mod, interesting with his flowing blond locks, great on Whistle Test with the shorter embryonic version of the Ziggy cut, sharp and dangerous as the Thin White Duke and sexy and svelte for Let’s Dance… but Ziggy with the big red mullet and the one-leg-missing cat suit, and the no eyebrows seemed a bit silly and cartoonish. Don’t get me wrong, he’s a great concept and undoubtedly iconic and influential in terms of fashion and culture, BUT I never stood in front of a mirror and tried to look like Ziggy (actually, I did once, but that was for a fancy dress party).
But Bowie knew what he was doing and the commercial success of the Ziggy-era shone a spotlight on its predecessor and Hunky Dory got the attention it deserved, becoming successful after the event (Life On Mars was only a hit when RCA issued in June 1973 – 18 months and two albums later). The album is often cited as people’s favourite David Bowie album, and indeed less than a week after his death, it is number 14 in the UK album charts, the highest placed Bowie album outside compilations and Blackstar (the latter of which deservedly entered at number one).
Tape 2: Hunky Dory trumps Ziggy Stardust
Only four albums (and two weeks of commuting) into the ‘journey’ and I hadn’t even got to 1973. Still to come was the end of Ziggy, the ‘plastic soul’ of Young Americans and the so-called ‘Berlin Trilogy’. Meanwhile back in the late 1980s while I was digesting all this great music, Bowie was about to surprise his fans with Tin Machine and Rykodisc were preparing to re-present Bowie’s 1970’s albums to the world. I would soon get a chance to update my TDK SA90s with the real thing and would see Bowie play live for the first time. Stay turned for the continuation of A Life Listening to David Bowie…