I was on a train, somewhere in England, in 1983. I was on holiday with my mum, her friend Helen, and Helen’s daughter, on whom I was starting to develop a crush. I had a bright red plastic Walkman, with orange foam earphones. I borrowed a cassette from my mum and listened to it for the next hour. Then I played it again. I listened to it on repeat for the whole holiday.
The cassette was Let’s Dance, Bowie’s 15th studio album, widely regarded as his leap into global superstardom. It’s often thought of as his first sell-out; a sell-out in terms of principles, as well as commercial success. A journalist’s line has stuck in my head: ‘Whatever you think of Let’s Dance, it’s nobody’s favourite Bowie album.’
It’s not my favourite Bowie album, exactly. But it’s my first. It’s the first I discovered on my own.
I was born the year that Bowie released his third album, The Man Who Sold The World; the year after he’d married Angela Barnett. I’m around the same age as Duncan Jones, his son. So I’d missed around 15 years of Bowie’s career by the time I listened to Let’s Dance on repeat, on a summer holiday in 1983.
Missed? Not entirely. I was fully aware of Bowie, but saw him as someone outside my orbit, and held him at a distance. Or rather, I was already aware of Bowies: distinct, separate incarnations, even within my own thirteen-year lifetime. My parents owned a vinyl 45 of ‘The Jean Genie’ and ‘Ziggy Stardust’, and I’d taped them from the turntable to cassette when I was nine or ten years old, sensing their energy but not sure what to make of them. There was an air of the raw and grotesque, something intriguingly ‘grown up’: flies tried to break our balls, the kids had killed a man, a real cool cat with God-given ass, a genie lives on his back, keeping your dead hair for making up underwear. They were songs that spoke of post-apocalypse – already a science fiction fan and familiar with punk, I could imagine the world of Ziggy and the Jean Genie as Mad Max meets Judge Dredd – but I knew the lyrics held innuendos I didn’t understand. (Even the mention of ‘underwear’ made me giggle, so ‘God-given ass’ and ‘break our balls’ were phrases I’d never repeat out loud). They were like the graffiti I saw in train tunnels and on housing estates, and didn’t ask my parents about because I knew it was ‘rude’; they were like an overheard dirty joke, told by bigger boys. And yet, I knew also that they were from the early 70s, so on one level, they were made-safe by being part of the past, part of my parents’ culture. Unlike the Sex Pistols and the Buzzcocks – and again, even seeing ‘Sex Pistols’ painted on a Woolwich wall mildly shocked me, at that age – David Bowie’s explosive, early-70s singles were already history, a prediction of the future that had failed to come true. Ziggy was an attractive rebel, sure, but a rebel as distant from my own time as Robin Hood or Johnny B. Goode. I found a very similar, more contemporary energy and performance in Adam Ant’s Kings of the Wild Frontier, the first album I owned for myself.
Those were the specific Bowie songs I’d actually put the needle down on. But by 1980, he was already part of my broader background, part of the vague world that surrounded me. I recognised the choruses of ‘Fashion’ (turn to the left!) and ‘Fame’ (makes a man take things over) without knowing they were by Bowie. They were just snatches of song, musical soundbites everyone knew and recognised from repetition, like the Jaws theme or the R. Whites lemonade advert; if pushed, I would have grouped them with the song ‘Feelings’ (nothing more than feeeelings) rather than Ziggy Stardust.
That year Bowie entered my radar again, walking slowly towards the camera on a beach, arm in arm with circus people and harlequins, with a bulldozer rolling close to their heels. The colours and imagery of the ‘Ashes to Ashes’ video were nightmarish, a pop version of surrealist cinema; the music and vocals seemed deliberately cold and repetitive, and the lyrics eerily heartless. Walking home from school, I discovered new graffiti on the army barracks: Ashes to ashes, funk to funky / Sex is best without a dunky. If I hadn’t already associated Bowie with a sense of the uneasily ‘adult’: sex, drugs, horror, the stuff of X-rated films – that confirmed it. He seemed to want to make people feel uncomfortable, and I resented his intrusion into my life: as an unusual #1 hit, the video was shown on Top of the Pops every week, like a broadcast from a warzone in the middle of a kids’ TV show, or an art-terrorist interrupting normal programming with a mash-up of Un Chien Andalou and Meshes of the Afternoon.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ProrDsP1mhA (Ashes to Ashes on Top of the Pops, 1980)
It now seems slightly ironic that my first genuine connection, my first real intersection, was with Bowie at the point where he first sold out; with the first incarnation regarded as inauthentic, mainstream and commercial; with the straightest Bowie yet. The album artwork for Let’s Dance showed Bowie stripped to the waist in the butch guise of a boxer rather than the louche androgyny (and anthropomorphism) of Diamond Dogs, and the singles and videos featured a fit, tanned guy in a suit, with mussed yellow hair he later described as ‘scrambled egg’ style. He’d evolved from the Thin White Duke to the global CEO of Bowie Incorporated, with a new, very Eighties brand logo: a new career for a new decade. I’d already seen the video for ‘Let’s Dance’, the song, on Top of the Pops – like ‘Ashes to Ashes’, it topped the charts for weeks – which told a simple story of romance between a boy and a girl, with Bowie as impassive narrator or chorus.
Of course, I didn’t have the vocabulary or context to describe or locate my feelings at the time, but as a child, I had complicated, fluid ideas about gender – almost, inadvertently, echoing Bowie in the 1970s. I liked make-up, dresses and jewellery more than most boys my age; I was mistaken for a girl by strangers on several occasions, and for a while I half-believed that I’d develop into a woman during puberty. Aged 9 or 10, I had a Pong-style system that hooked up to the television, with a control that flipped between ‘GAME’ and ‘TV’, and I used to wish I could switch gender that easily. You might have thought that I’d gravitate towards the queer Bowie of that decade – the sexless alien Ziggy, or the femme drag of The Man Who Sold The World and the ‘Boys Keep Swinging’ video.
So why did I only connect with Bowie when he sold out a little and went more straight? Perhaps because for me, the weirder, queerer Bowie was something of the 1970s – and in the arrogant early 80s, there was nothing more dated than the previous decade. Perhaps because, as a thirteen year-old at a rough school, this Bowie provided me with an artist and icon it was safe to like. Bowie was now mainstream, and there would be no shame in telling friends or classmates that I liked his album, if I was asked the loaded question ‘what music are you into, then?’: no risk of being called a bum-chum or gender-bender, and bullied for it. And yet with hindsight there was still something un-straight about Bowie. Despite his suit and his businesslike front, his face was angular, his expressions pained, strained, almost alien still. He bared his pointed teeth in an odd grimace as he sang. There was still an edge of strangeness about him, heightened by the fact that he’d successfully disguised his otherness to the general public. He was passing as a fit, tanned businessman, and I could sense his strangeness underneath. Again, I didn’t have the vocabulary to express it or context to understand it, but I think now that’s what I connected with: he was queer but successfully passing, only pretending to sell out. Or more accurately, he was trying to sell out, to go straight. That’s what I now recognise in the jagged grimace, the drawn-back upper lip, the jerky half-dance of Bowie in 1983; a man containing and repressing something, an alien energy that still jumped and twitched inside him.
I saw this, in 1983, in a way I wouldn’t have been able to articulate. I remember making a list of things I liked – teenagers are big on self-defining diary lists, though now they doubtless do it online rather than in notebooks from W H Smiths – including ‘Bowie’s teeth’. I think I saw in him someone I could aspire to be; a way of becoming popular, of seeming perfectly straight, but retaining an oddity that was entirely absent in, say, Billy Joel and Lionel Richie. I liked Sting and Annie Lennox for the same reasons: they achieved the same balance between success and strangeness, between a necessary commercial pragmatism and a core of personal authenticity. Bowie in a business suit, narrating heterosexual romance stories, was in a way queerer than Bowie in a bodysuit singing ‘John, I’m Only Dancing’, because of the tension between exterior shell and interior self.
And yet, we should remember there’s nothing inherently straight and sell-out about men in traditional male drag. Three years later, in 1986, I stuck a pin-up of Peter Cox and Richard Drummie, from Go West, on the wall above my bed. They were standing close together, in cream jackets and trousers, against a blue sky background, and I fully accepted that I had a crush, not on them individually so much as on their relationship as a couple. I was sure they were both gay, and by consequence I thought I might be gay too.
By that point I was in the sixth form, and the school dynamics were different, and far from minding that people thought I might be a bender, I welcomed it as an opportunity to raise their consciousness, challenge their prejudices and open their minds. (I know. I was sixteen. Forgive me.)
Let’s Dance may be nobody’s favourite Bowie album, not even mine: but so many tracks seem now to have gathered stories – stories about me, stories about Bowie, stories about us both – that they trigger memories like snapshots in… well, in an album.
In 2005, I got married. It was technically a straight wedding: but in a way it remained quite strange, because neither of us knew for sure what a wedding should involve, and nobody interfered, so we just made it up and included whatever we liked: Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet, miniature fish and chips, peach-coloured roses, David Bowie.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZntFYTpw300 (Bowie, ‘Let’s Dance’ instrumental)
I was later informed that the groom doesn’t conventionally walk down the aisle to music, like a wrestler climbing into the ring or Elvis strutting onto the stage; but I hadn’t yet heard that rule, so I made my own grand entrance to an instrumental version of ‘Let’s Dance’. Our first dance was ‘Absolute Beginners’, another track from Bowie’s sell-out, suited and booted period; one of the least cool songs you could ever choose, but its naïve simplicity seemed perfect for two people inventing their own ceremony, and embarking on something new.
‘Modern Love’ is the opening track on Let’s Dance, and the opening moments of ‘Modern Love’ itself have Bowie announcing gruffly ‘I know when to go out / I know when to stay in. / I get things done.’ His butch, businesslike affirmation, reworking the anguished ‘I’ve never done good things / I’ve never done bad things / I never did anything out of the blue’ on ‘Ashes to Ashes’, is as much a performance as the apocalyptic ‘This ain’t rock and roll… this is genocide!’ at the start of ‘Diamond Dogs’, but this is a different role: a masquerade of working-class, no-nonsense masculinity. This voice may not have a name, but he’s as much a character as Ziggy, the Thin White Duke and Hallowe’en Jack – no more the ‘authentic’ Bowie than Aladdin Sane. And just as ‘Diamond Dogs’ ain’t rock and roll, but genocide, so Bowie admits that his performance on ‘Modern Love’ isn’t ‘really work… it’s just the power to charm.’
Let’s Dance features two collaborations, balancing each other on each side of the vinyl: ‘China Girl’, a revision of Bowie’s 1977 track with Iggy Pop, and ‘Cat People’, a reworking of Bowie’s 1981 soundtrack (for the movie of that name) with Giorgio Moroder. Comparing the album tracks with the originals returns us to that sense of tension, of attempted containment, visible in Bowie’s taut, strained ‘Let’s Dance’ video performance; the struggle to go straight, and the effort involved.
The 1977 ‘China Girl’ was co-written by Iggy and David in Berlin. Bowie had just turned 30 and released the Low album. The original track is a record of that period, that partnership and that environment. It begins sweetly and simply, with a gently wandering vocal and guitar melody over tinkling Gamelan-style synths, which are replaced by an aggressive, heavily processed guitar riff. Pop’s vocals leave the comfort of the keynote behind, mood-swinging from a lazy drawl to a distorted snarl; the synth violins, matching his energy, refuse to drop from that wild height even when his voice calms. By the end, it’s a buzzing headache of a song, a drunken stagger. It sounds like the Psychedelic Furs, Pixies and Nirvana. It doesn’t sound like a mainstream chart hit. Its cover, with Iggy holding an expressionist pose, echoes Bowie’s Heroes of 1977, and looks nothing like the macho, boxing stance of Let’s Dance.
Bowie’s 1983 ‘China Girl’, by contrast, was a solid success, only kept from #1 by ‘Every Breath You Take’. It’s a gentle, almost jaunty number, from its cod-Chinese introduction onwards: precise drums and keyboards recorded at a New York studio with all its slick production values, and Bowie crooning smoothly over the top. For all the twee pentatonic melody and lyrical Orientalism, there are no departures from mainstream Western pop here.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E_8IXx4tsus (David Bowie, ‘China Girl’)
ttp://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nZWUsn3AB1s (Iggy Pop, ‘China Girl’)
The 1981 version of ‘Cat People’ begins as a slow prowl – Bowie pitching his voice down to baritone – then escalates into jagged funk and ragged vocals. It was the year of ‘Scary Monsters and Super Creeps’, and ‘Wild is the Wind’, both of which walk the same line between experiment and convention, working within but pushing against the form of the commercial single as Bowie’s voice stretches from a rough Brixton twang to soaring, aching heights. ‘Scary Monsters’ is too raucous and spiky to be a rock single; ‘Wild is the Wind’ is too genuinely pained to be a pop ballad. ‘Cat People’, too, sounds like an artist trying to fit into standard limits, an alien pretending to be human, an elephant man making the effort to walk and talk like a gentleman. As such, it’s an experiment in itself – it doesn’t quite succeed, and in that failure, it’s fascinating. It’s almost there, but it still doesn’t sound comfortable enough to be a chart hit. It reached #26 in the UK.
Two years later, Bowie was in the right place to make ‘Cat People’ work as a single: he’d learned how to pass as a mainstream performer, and the earlier version was blended into something smoother. Taut, tight, with a raw rock vocal, its energy was more contained, and it was no worse – perhaps better – for that sense of control. As the B-side to ‘Let’s Dance’, it reached #1.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pRbuxshYvtg (Bowie, ‘Cat People’)
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VpdHMaccjw4 (Moroder and Bowie, ‘Cat People’)
These new versions have their own appeal: they’re polished and slick, with enough edge under the rich production to remind you that this is still Bowie, the man named after a knife. But they’re not the versions he would have released in 1977, or 1981, and they register a distinct, conscious shift in his persona, his performance, his public face. The original ‘China Girl’, with Bowie vocals, could have sat next to ‘Repetition’ on the Lodger album as an account of a dysfunctional relationship; the original ‘Cat People’, stripped of its vocals, would almost fit on the instrumental B-side of Low. Most obviously, this 1981 take on the song would have suited Scary Monsters, next to the anguished, awkward, art-rock and almost-pop of ‘It’s No Game’ and ‘Teenage Wildlife’. As that song declares, the new versions are the ‘same old thing, in brand new drag’: Bowie-as-businessman was neither a sell-out or a stripped-down return to his ‘real’ masculine self, but another mask.
Those four key tracks, all successful singles in 1982-3, walked a line between passing and not-passing, between Bowie’s current, global commercial acceptance and his previous, more European experiment (although this simplifies Bowie’s previous decade: 1975 saw the release of the soul-inflected Young Americans, before he even began the Berlin trilogy, and the almost avant-garde ‘Space Oddity’ was his first UK #1, in the same year).
Selling out and staying authentic, like so many things, works on a spectrum, not a binary. When did Bowie become stuck behind the mask of his new persona, the nameless normal guy in a business suit? Some would argue that the damage was done with Let’s Dance, some that the sell-out or creative failure was confirmed with Tonight (1984), ‘Absolute Beginners’ (1986) or Never Let Me Down, with its crass rocker of a single ‘Day In Day Out’ (1987): some might generously locate his loss of direction later, with the first Tin Machine album (1988). There is, of course, no straight or single answer; but Let’s Dance seems far too early to label as a sell-out. It’s the sound of internal struggle and resistance.
Nowhere is this more true than on the opening track of Side Two: and this was the hook, for me, listening in 1983. This was the moment that made me feel I’d discovered (a) Bowie for myself – not the already-semi-familiar singles, which belonged to other people in the same way as ‘Fashion’ and ‘Fame’, but a Bowie that surprised and spoke to me directly.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u64Cib_jZco (Bowie, ‘Ricochet’)
‘Ricochet’, especially after the three singles on Side One, is an oddity, a five-minute monster. It’s perhaps best described as a lost track from, or a look back to, the aborted Diamond Dogs musical of the previous decade: an unpredictable montage of slogans, spoken word and chants, driven onward with a relentless, syncopated guitar and drum section, and punctuated with jazz horn stabs and reverent, choral backing vocals. Bowie’s lyric is a cut up of pseudo-religious maxims and simple political comment – ‘march of flowers, march of dimes / these are the prisons, these are the crimes.’ To an adult, it might have sounded absurd, pretentious. To a thirteen year-old, it was utterly profound and gripping. ‘Modern Love’ hadn’t told me much about modern love – it confirmed my impression that romance was empty and doomed, a conveniently cynical pose for someone who wasn’t going to get a girlfriend until 86 – but this felt like reading a book for undergraduate students, or a science fiction novel for adults, not teenagers, and understanding it.
Or, rather, half-understanding it, because that was also the point. I got it just enough to want more. ‘March of flowers! March of dimes! These are the prisons! These are the crimes!’ I suspected that ‘March of Dimes’ must mean something (it did) so Bowie’s announcement that these were the crimes carried authority and weight. The guy was clearly a leader, a prophet – he plainly knew what was going on, saw the structures of power and religion, and was spelling it out to me, a kid – and so the song became a puzzle of clues to uncover.
‘Sound of thunder, sound of gold,’ declared one of the chorus chants. ‘Sound of the devil breaking parole.’ My mum listened to it and said Bowie had been clearly listening to Brecht. She had actually studied the work of ‘old Bert’, as she called him, for years, and was probably lightly mocking Bowie’s superficial engagement with political fable; I don’t think she knew Bowie had performed Baal in 1982, any more than I did. But for me, this throwaway remark locked the song into a broader discourse, locating it in that dazzling, challenging world of experiences, theories and ways of seeing things that I knew were there, but didn’t yet grasp; ideas that were still outside my reach. I taped the song onto my own cassette (heading up a compilation of Commodore 64 computer game soundtracks, which it seemed to suit), and carefully wrote on the inner label ‘Brechtian Music: Ricochet.’
The title itself was repeated throughout, another constant against the slogans and speeches – the name ‘Ricochet’ intoned in chorus with a distorted, processed backing vocal, as if calling a god or hero. The name ‘Ricochet’, because that’s how it instantly seemed to me. This was a song about a legendary figure, like Ziggy Stardust for the 1980s. I’m not sure now what shaped my understanding. This was a year before Sting starred in Dune, with its noble houses and heroes; three years before I started reading Batman again, and began subscribing to 2000AD. Maybe I visualised someone like the young Luke Skywalker, a leader who didn’t yet know it. Of course, what I was imagining was a better, cooler, more Bowie version of myself.
That one album track had a remarkable effect on my life. I began to draw and write about ‘Ricochet’, much as Bowie had doodled and designed grand science fiction narratives around Ziggy, ten years earlier. I built a world around this character – always ten years ahead of our own, so it began in the futuristic early-1990s – and a supporting cast. And then, with hindsight, putting it in the fan-language of today, I started to cosplay as my own creation. I didn’t shop much for clothes – lack of money, lack of confidence – but I began only buying things that helped me look like Ricochet, the one in my head. Bit by bit, I pieced together his wardrobe, based on my drawings. A blue pair of uniform-style trousers and a long, royal blue, green-lined coat, both with a clothing label ‘STEEL’. A pair of wraparound black shades – spending most of my money for the week – at a market in Paris. L’Oreal hair mousse to give myself a quiff. I probably would have carried around a space-age plastic pistol if I could have got away with it. ‘Ricochet’ wasn’t one of Bowie’s official characters, but, translated into my head, he gave me a persona for getting through from thirteen to seventeen; an internal ideal to aspire to while I struggled through the third, fourth and fifth year of school, and a way of being in Sixth Form, where I found more room to flourish and perform.
Ironically, I also incorporated the next track, ‘Criminal World’, in my imagined Ricochet franchise: my dad, listening to me listen to the track, had remarked ‘that would be the love theme in a movie’, and I took his idea on board. Ricochet, my home-made character, was an independent law enforcer leading a team of cool fashionista cops – halfway between arts students and vigilantes – and ‘Criminal World’ would play in my head when he got together with either Adeline Alençon or the other love interest, Mica Klinkowicz. The irony kicked in when I later learned that this heterosexual love theme was another cover: Bowie had poached it, cleaned it up and turned it straight. ‘Criminal World’, by little-known band Metro, had been banned by the BBC on its 1975 release for its bisexual overtones. Bowie cut the lines about queens and dresses, replaced them with vaguely femme fatale lyrics, and switched the genders of the characters for safety. At exactly the point where gayness was being criminalised and stigmatised in the context of AIDS campaigns, Bowie turned a queer song into a safe, harmless story where a ‘stick-up’ robbery was a single entendre rather than a subversive innuendo. If there’s a clear sell-out on the album, this is it: and I fell for it, embracing it as a sleazy anthem about gangsters and molls.
The opening line ‘I know when to go out / I know when to stay in / I get things done’ now reads as a diffident confession: the time to come out was 1972 (‘I’m gay and always have been’) and the time to go straight was 1983 (‘the biggest mistake I ever made was saying I was bisexual’). It got things done. It got things sold. On one level, Bowie had sold out politically, rather than just aesthetically, by ‘staying in’ and retracting his earlier claims of gayness and bisexuality. But as he added in 83, ‘Christ, I was so young then. I was experimenting.’ As a teenager who thought he might be gay, or bi – misrecognising one type of fluidity for another – I can see why I still identified with this confused Bowie, a man in denial, wrestling with mixed messages.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ioOp1rUvLNM (Bowie, ‘Criminal World’)
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7rAKyz8M1CI (Metro, ‘Criminal World’)
The most obvious way of locating ‘Ricochet’ the song is as a throwback, or a hold-over, from Bowie’s art-rock past – a last gasp of ‘authenticity’ and experiment on his most commercial album yet. But from a later perspective, it also, intriguingly – impossibly – looks forward as well as back. ‘Ricochet’ recalls the ‘Diamond Dogs’ descriptions of comic-book apocalypse, though it’s both more plodding and more thoughtful; but it would also fit on another album, twelve years in the future.
‘Ricochet’ now reads like a demo for 1.Outside (1995), Bowie’s avant-garde, future-noir detective narrative concept LP. The spoken word, the snatches of names and hints at character, the world-building and theatrical collage: they all slipped away from Bowie’s work in the late 1980s and early 1990s, but the devices from ‘Ricochet’ returned full force on 1.Outside. Rather than Ricochet, the later album showcases the stories of Nathan Adler, The Minotaur, Leon – names from Blade Runner and the modern myths of superhero comics – and Bowie’s voice is processed to become young female victim Baby Grace, old relic Algeria Touchshriek and villainess Ramona A Stone. The melancholy mutterings of Algeria Touchshriek in particular – ‘My shop sells egg shells / off the she-sores, and empty females… I’m also a broken man’ – echo Bowie’s vaguely Welsh-accented testament from an unemployed worker on ‘Ricochet’: ‘Men wait for news while thousands are still asleep / Dreaming of tramlines, factories, pieces of machinery / Mineshafts… things like that.’ Bowie commented of 1. Outside that ‘it’s attractive to be working with something which resembles Brecht’s work, the pieces he did with Weill.’
Draw the line where you like: ‘his best album since Scary Monsters’ has become common faint praise for every new Bowie release, based on the assumption that his last great work was thirty-three years ago – but even – or especially – in its cynical, scared attempt to heterosexualise ‘Criminal World’, Let’s Dance still speaks to me of strain, tension, containment and struggle.
Was the next release, Tonight, the first true failure? Not the way I experienced it, through the promos for its two singles, ‘Blue Jean’ and ‘Loving the Alien’. Both showcased a pop version of avant-garde Europeanism, with Bowie in dramatic theatrical make-up – blue skin in one, and a face shaded like a classical painting in the other. ‘Loving the Alien’ in particular is an ambitious, gloriously pretentious mix of surrealist sets and mid-80s digital effects, very much a continuation of ‘Ricochet’ with its snatches of political comment and grandiose sense of musical theatre. The last twenty seconds of the video offer a remarkable coda: Bowie as an extra-terrestrial refugee in a cell or hospital ward, listening to a tinny version of the song we’ve just heard, before an abrupt cut to static and a shot of what can only be Major Tom, grimaces as he hurtles through a psychedelic star-field straight out of 2001: A Space Odyssey.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OOaqDEjxQAU (Bowie, ‘Loving the Alien’)
Watching that video on the Max Headroom show in the mid-80s – watching it over and over again, freeze-framing and rewinding it to study his gestures and expressions – I certainly didn’t feel Bowie had failed, sold out or lost it. Watching ‘Loving the Alien’, I think I finally fell in love with him.
And where were the spiders? The ‘Ziggy Stardust’/’Jean Genie’ single, now a 70s artefact, provided background to my experience of his 80s work, confirming my certainty that there was a raw edge and energy behind the slick front. I listened to those songs again between 1983 and 1986, and they became bound up in a web of popular culture that Bowie-as-Ziggy couldn’t have predicted.
I was an early adopter of the ZX Spectrum home computer, and in 1983, the year I discovered Let’s Dance, bought a new game called Horace and the Spiders. I recognised the pun on The Who’s ‘Boris the Spider’, but also linked it back to the Spiders From Mars – the graphics were primitive, but I could read strangeness and melancholy even into a simple screen of Horace, the blue sprite, wandering across a rocky, alien cyan background with a yellow moon above him. I wrote my own, even more primitive game, called Spiders from Mars, and (though it never sold a copy, and was rarely seen outside my own bedroom) followed it with a sequel, Scorpions from Venus.
I was a late subscriber to the weekly comic 2000AD, starting in 1986, but I soon caught up with the adventures of Rogue Trooper, the blue-skinned Genetic Infantryman, and his sexy female sidekick Venus Bluegenes. The scientists who created both characters were nicknamed Gene Genies. So a science fiction story instantly bridged the gap between Tonight and Bowie’s 1972 rock singles; in my head, ‘Blue Jean’ became a sequel to ‘The Jean Genie’ in the same way that ‘Ashes to Ashes’ updated the story of Major Tom from ‘Space Oddity’.
What happened to Bowie in the late 80s and early 90s is a familiar story. Fortunately, my engagement with his music went backwards – I was barely aware of Never Let Me Down on its release, because I was still listening obsessively to ‘Ricochet’ and ‘Loving the Alien’, my experience and impressions of both now integrated with the Joanna Russ, Ursula LeGuin and Marge Piercy science fiction novels I read during lunch hours at Sixth Form. ‘Loving the Alien’ now became a soundtrack to LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, about a male ambassador who, stranded on a snowbound planet, enters a strange intimacy with an androgyne who had previously seemed male. It was just the kind of book I liked to be seen with, though to my credit I genuinely lost myself in it – sipping Cup-A-Soup alone in a classroom and looking up occasionally at the snowy playing fields outside the Sixth Form Block – and enjoyed its questions and challenges. Also to my credit, I never took up a friend’s suggestion to call myself ‘The Left Hand of Darkness’, even in private.
One of my best friends at school was Martin Hutton, who left at 16 but stayed in touch. When I went to the University of East Anglia, Martin worked at Zodiac Toys in Woolwich, and then at Our Price record store. One summer break I dropped in to visit him and he handed me a brand new cassette under the counter: ChangesBowie, including the bang-up-to-date remix ‘Fame 90’. More importantly, it included ‘John I’m Only Dancing’, ‘Starman’, ‘Changes’, ‘Suffragette City’ and ‘Heroes’ – a song I’d only ever heard before as a live cover by Shirley Manson’s band, Goodbye Mr Mackenzie. The following week, Martin told me he’d been sacked from Our Price: ‘I was too generous.’ I’m still grateful.
Finally in 1990, I was able to rediscover Bowie’s earlier work on my own terms. But while I still listed Bowie as my all-time favourite artist, my love for him was based on an astonishingly small pool of songs. ‘Loving the Alien’ and ‘Ricochet’ had been joined by the classic singles of the past two decades. Partly because of budget – my money went on new records (including 1.Outside, in 95, and its dynamic follow-up Earthling of 97) rather than into building an archive – but partly because that small collection of singles was rich enough to immerse yourself in, to play on repeat, to get inside and learn by heart, I didn’t invest in any of Bowie’s previous albums until 1999, when I landed my first proper, paying job.
At the end of my first week in full-time employment, I went to the Virgin Megastore and spent what seemed an incredible sum, around £200, on records: on albums I’d loved on cassette, on songs I remembered from my life so far, from Neil Young, the Beatles and Dylan through Blondie to the Psychedelic Furs. I didn’t buy all Bowie’s back catalogue at once; I built it up gradually, investigating each album in turn. Some of the old songs still resisted and eluded me: too whiney, too Mockney, too hippy. But in 2000 – ‘the year 2000’– I re-encountered a track from 1980, and found it had changed, or that I’d changed. Like a childish, sulky rivalry that, years later, becomes a crush, I gave ‘Ashes to Ashes’ another try, and realised it now spoke to me profoundly.
The circumstances almost sound like a cliché: in fact, they almost sound invented. I’d bought a new Walkman (silver) for my first long-haul trip to Australia, to a conference in Brisbane. I chose to only bring one cassette, and loaded it up with my ‘best of Bowie’, this time selected from all the original albums. Bowie, I decided, was enough. Bowie provided enough variety, depth and history that I could do without all other music, both on the 20-hour flight and the solo stay in a country on the other side of the world. I listened to nothing but Bowie for my ten days in Brisbane, and ‘Drive-In Saturday’ and ‘Wild is the Wind’ in particular still powerfully return me to moments in that strange December summer, walking along the bank of the Brisbane River next to shiny skyscrapers and cosmopolitan coffee shops, totally alone but vividly happy.
But ‘Ashes to Ashes’, like ‘Ricochet’ seventeen years before, was the track I played so hard and so often that the cassette almost wore out. I listened to it on repeat, on and off, during a six-hour stopover at Narita airport. I was exhausted, grubby, feeling stranded; feeling alien. The space was huge, bland yet impossible to read. I walked to pass the time, and got nowhere, or reached somewhere that looked the same as the place I’d started. I didn’t dare go in the shops because I didn’t understand or speak a word of the language. Everyone looked clean and neat, and I was pale, gangly, shiny with grease. So I read an Iain M Banks science fiction novel, and listened to ‘Ashes to Ashes’. ‘Ashes to Ashes’, an anthem to alienation and estrangement; ‘Ashes to Ashes’, a cold, eerie, jet-lagged slab of SF. ‘Ashes to Ashes’, the perfect song for a six-hour wait in an air-conditioned airport 10,000 kilometres from your home. ‘Ashes to Ashes’, with its casually racist line about ‘visions of Jap girls in synthesis’. So fitting for this circumstance that it feels like a cliché. But that was when I found myself inside a song I’d resented – resented both its internal repetitions and its weekly repetitions on television – twenty years earlier.
The first ten years of the new millennium were sometimes tough – a challenge, a negotiation and struggle like the 1980s, whereas the 90s – my twenties – had been, or felt with hindsight, like more of a joyride. Bowie’s rich, stately and melancholic albums of the time chimed with my mood, without really hooking me: ‘Survive’ and ‘Seven’ from hours… (1999), like ‘Slip Away’ and ‘Slow Burn’ from Heathen (2002) were thoughtful, mournful but not haunting. These were polished, reflective artefacts by an artist who, after two quick-fire bursts of energy and experiment in the late 90s, seemed to now regard himself as a veteran, a curator looking back. The sadness of Heathen is weary and nostalgic: by comparison, the ‘Loving the Alien’ lyric ‘Pray and the heathen lie will disappear’, supposedly from the slick, sell-out Eighties period, sounds genuinely torn, impassioned and anguished.
The following year, around the time of his 55th birthday, Bowie starred in an advertisement for Vittel Water, co-starring tribute act David Brighton as the Pierrot from ‘Ashes to Ashes’, a diamond dog, Ziggy, Low’s Man Who Fell to Earth, and the drag dame from Man Who Sold the World. The soundtrack was ‘Never Get Old’, from the new Reality album of 2003, and Bowie, tolerantly sharing a house with his earlier alter egos, glowed with youth and energy.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eBvR08RD_-I (Bowie and Brighton, ‘Vittel Advert’)
Since the late 90s, I’d taken every opportunity to dress as Bowie – much as I styled myself on the fan-creation ‘Ricochet’ in the 1980s – until people expected me to turn up with a lightning flash painted across my face not just at Halloween, not just at every party, but at every semblance of a get-together or soirée. I was a junior lecturer who secretly wanted to be a Bowie tribute act. That alternate career, of course, never happened, unless you count karaoke: but I found the second-best option and became not just friends with but the official photographer for a Surrey tribute band, the Thin White Duke. The lead singer wasn’t Dave Brighton but Dave Cull, and I arranged a photoshoot with him and a professional make-up artist: in a way, he was my surrogate, and part of me wanted to be in front of the camera rather than behind it.
http://www.thinwhiteduke.biz/ (The Thin White Duke website)
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tODEyPot5nw (The Thin White Duke live)
It didn’t always feel like a shiny, clean new millennium: sometimes this decade we’d anticipated as the ‘future’ felt like dystopia. As Bowie had announced way back on the Ziggy Stardust album, ‘It Ain’t Easy’. One night in ‘06 I came back from a karaoke evening, wearing mascara, and was punched so hard in the eye by three guys on the street that it broke the socket and cheekbone. I had three separate sessions in surgery over the next eighteen months: the first was an emergency op to fix the obvious damage, and it left my left eye gaping, drooping. The next two refined the job, but even at the end, after all that, I still stared at my face and hated the asymmetry and the reason behind it.
Again, it sounds like a story to say that Bowie ‘saved’ me. Perhaps more accurately, in keeping with my career, books about Bowie helped me and healed me. I read Hugo Wilcken’s wonderful study of the Low album, in the 33 1/3 series, and re-read David Buckley’s biography Strange Fascination. And I was reminded of the obvious: that Bowie’s eye had taken a punch to the face, and was technically ‘damaged’, but that, of course, he’d made a flaw into a feature and foregrounded it as part of his alien, otherworldly persona. I made an appointment at a local opticians and told them a lie about being an actor playing Bowie in an indie film, and walked out with two blue contact lenses. Naturally, I only wore one at a time. Immediately, I felt better.
But before that – that strange revelation that reminded me of my role model, and gave me someone to identify with again, even with a ruined eye – there were eighteen months that weren’t always easy. During that time, I did something odd: I made a music video, on my own. It was a kind of catharsis or therapy; but I didn’t think of it that way, not that deliberately. I just did it one weekend, without planning or prompting, without self-consciousness. I put myself back into ‘Ashes to Ashes’, the song I’d lived with for twenty-five years, and mimed a vocal to it, experiencing the lyrics first-hand. By the end of the video, I was genuinely almost crying from the intensity of inhabiting the track, which felt now like a brave, desperate protest, an attempt to be OK, an attempt to be happy.
One of the most important things Bowie taught me is that a performance can be absolutely authentic.
That is one of the beauties of Bowie, for me. That is the true ‘best of Bowie’. Even if he’s a series of characters and personae, there is almost always something painfully real and honestly felt under the mask and costume.
The pale Pierrot of ‘Ashes to Ashes’ is no more Bowie’s invention than the tanned businessman of ‘Let’s Dance’; they’re both suits, borrowed guises that he inhabited and adapted, and made his own. I think – I hope – I did something similar when I inhabited his songs, grew within them, mapped them to my own life, and, tailoring them to myself at various times, found the way they fitted around me.
With thanks to Morag Warren and Chris O’Leary (Pushing Ahead of the Dame)
Will Brooker, August 2013.
Will Brooker is Professor of Film and Cultural Studies at Kingston University. He is the author of several books on popular culture and fandom including: Batman Unmasked: Analysing a Cultural Icon (2001); Using the Force: Creativity, Community and Star Wars Fans (2002); Alice’s Adventures: Lewis Carroll in Popular Culture (2005); and his latest book, Hunting the Dark Knight: Twenty-First Century Batman (2012). On January 1st 2013, Will became the first British editor of The Cinema Journal.