“ Didn’t know what time it was and the lights were low. I leaned back on my radio. Some cat was layin’ down some rock ‘n’ roll… “ David Bowie: ‘Starman’ 1972.
I’m fifteen years old. And I’m passing my penultimate summer holiday before leaving home waiting tables at The Tartan Cafe in ‘Bonnie Wee Troon’ .
I’m spending my wages on String Driven Thing and Jethro Tull and Rory Gallagher. And on Exile on Main St. I’m underage drinking with Archie and Muscles and Paul and Nigel at the Craiglea Hotel and The Temple Bar.
And I’m dancing my Saturday nights away at the Loans Disco.
Watergate is on the news. Nixon will soon be gone. And Alice Cooper is at No.1: ”No more pencils, no more books, no more teachers’ dirty looks…” Indeed. School’s Out completely in fact. And Starman is in at No. 10.
Space Oddity, I must confess, had largely passed me by the first time out. But I wasn’t alone. The song that first introduced the world to Major Tom (who would return to us in Ashes To Ashes, in Hallo Spaceboy, and finally in Blackstar) was considered “a bit of a cheap shot at Apollo 11” by Toni Visconti when he passed on the offer to produce it.
As apparently did George Martin. While The BBC declined to play it at all until at least the Apollo 11 astronauts were safely back on earth.
But I wasn’t alone either in liking what I was now beginning to hear of David Bowie on his regular sessions for first Johnie Walker’s and then John Peel’s (it was never Jeremy Clarkson’s) Top Gear. Much of which would surface the following century as Bowie At The Beeb. Which if you have to start somewhere is as good a place as any. And a rather better one than any of the many ‘best of’.
It was on the strength of those sessions that I bought both Hunky Dory and then The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And the Spiders From Mars.
But while both were critically well received neither sold particularly well at first. Hunky Dory failed to spawn a hit. Changes charting only briefly at No. 66 in the US.
While in ‘Bonnie Wee Troon’ at least to carry either under your arm was to invite speculation as to your adolescent sexuality. Androgyny, far less bisexuality, was then as unwelcome as it was unspoken. While homosexuality, of course, although now legal at least in England and Wales, would remain a criminal offence in Scotland for another eight years.
Starman was recorded on February 4th 1972 and released as a single in April. Added to the Ziggy album at the insistence of Dennis Katz of RCA it replaced a cover of Chuck Berry’s Around And Around and sold only modestly until Bowie’s first Top Of The Pops appearance with The Spiders on July 6th propelled it to No.10.
With a chorus largely lifted from Over The Rainbow (the octave leap on ‘starman’ is identical to that on ‘somewhere’) and nods to both T. Rex’s Telegram Sam and the Supreme’s You Keep Me Hanging On, it was Bowie’s breakthrough as a performer.
Within a couple of weeks his chops as a writer were confirmed by the Mott The Hoople’s No. 2 smash All The Young Dudes. As Mott teetered on the edge of bankruptcy Bowie, a long time fan, first offered them Suffragette City before writing Dudes for them cross legged on the floor of a Regent St. studio during a meeting with Mott singer Ian Hunter.
Far from the youth anthem it seemed at the time Bowie later described the ‘news’ it conveyed as that of the same apocalyptic warning of Ziggy’s Five Years.“It’s not a hymn to youth at all” he explained. “In fact it’s completely the opposite”.
But you couldn’t have brands on the BBC. Oh no. So on the radio edit “Wendy’s stealing clothes from Marks and Sparks” becomes “… from unmarked cars” just as The Kink’s Lola had drunk “cherry cola” and not “Coca Cola”, on the radio at least, before her.
John I’m Only Dancing and The Jean Genie followed in short order. And by the time Lou Reed’s Walk On The Wild Side charted at No. 10 (its references to trans sexual prostitution and drug abuse not actually mentioning any brands and so escaping the BBC’s censor) David Bowie had chalked up five top ten hits as writer, performer and producer in under six months.
Most were recorded at Trident Studios in St Anne’s Court in Soho where a young Rick Wakeman was the studio piano player. And where twenty years later I would come to spend many an evening working on TV commercials and radio ads.
Yet even by the standards of the time, when Elton John’s DJM contact required a minimum of two albums and six singles a year, Bowie’s work rate, not to mention quality control and ambition, were little short of phenomenal.
By way of proof when you’re done with Bowie At The Beeb give Santa Monica 72 some time. If only for the first taste of the jazz tinged fills of then newly recruited pianist Mike Garson (Rick Wakeman having by then opted to join prog rockers Yes).
The set is heavy on Hunky Dory and Ziggy, of course, but it revisits older songs like My Death and Width Of Circle with all the newfound swagger of the Starman of the moment. And then finds a good five and a half minutes for a muscular cover of the Velvet’s Waiting For the Man.
And so, not quite twelve months on, I’m perched on what remains of seat NN 36 in Green’s Playhouse Glasgow (still then the largest cinema in Europe, ah, the days before arena shows) among five thousand of the faithful awaiting our audience with Ziggy in a state of near total hysteria.
It’s the second of two shows tonight and my seat has barely survived the first. Only he’s not Ziggy anymore, he’s Aladdin Sane. A persona, and an album, perhaps best described by Bowie himself as “Ziggy goes to America”. There’s less self doubt about it for one thing. And if ‘five years’ is ‘all we’ve got’ then he’s certainly hell bent on enjoying every single moment of them.
Though I would see him again at Milton Keynes Bowl one hot summer’s afternoon in 1983 and then once more in Berlin in 2003, and thoroughly enjoy both occasions, nothing could ever be the same as, or as simply, thrillingly, adolescently, good as tonight.
I would spend the rest of the decade studying law. And he would go on to knock out Pin Ups and Diamond Dogs (originally an ambitious retelling of 1984, by the way, compromised by failure to secure the rights) before morphing effortlessly through the plastic soul (his own description) of Young Americans, Fame, Golden Years and TVC 15 and then onwards and upwards to Brian Eno and the Berlin trilogy. Rebooting Iggy Pop’s career and staring in The Man Who Fell To Earth and Just A Gigolo along the way.
In truth I don’t really think I ever completely got the Berlin trilogy, or Low or Heroes at any rate, until some twenty-five years later when I found myself living and working in the new Europe in the new century. Certainly, if perhaps predictably, few pieces of music have ever made more complete sense to me than Warszawa on headphones with a coffee and a cigarette on the train to Poznan.
Or Heroes sung in german while driving through the Warsaw suburbs with Klaudia, a one time catwalk model of cropped blonde hair and razor sharp cheekbones, on the night of the day of the dead.
“And we kissed as though nothing could fall”.
It was in Warsaw too that I discovered the pleasures of Heathen And Reality. The Ziggy and Aladdin Sane of Bowie’s last but one productive writing spell. Everyone Says Hi, Fall Dog Bombs The Moon, Never Get Old and Reality itself for my money being up there with the best of his 70’s oeuvre. While his covers of The Pixies’ Cactus and Jonathan Richmond’s Pablo Picasso are as inspired and inspiring as he clearly once was to them.
The Berlin show on the subsequent Reality Tour, on November 3rd 2003, was at the ten thousand capacity Max-Schmeling-Halle and set up as a conventional arena rock show. Shorn of much in the way of theatrics and focussed on the band, the singer and the songs.
Mike Garson was now the last remaining spider. Earl Slick (a veteran of The Serious Moonlight tour) played lead guitar and Gail Ann Dorsey bass and backing vocals. As well as bringing the house down with her take on the Freddie Mercury part on Under Pressure.
Bowie is chatty. And the two hour plus set has something for everyone. From Never Get Old (“it’s a lie but only a little lie”) and Cactus to The Man who Sold The World, a scorching Rebel Rebel and a singalong All The Young Dudes. Where no doubt in deference to his german audience Wendy was back to the “unmarked cars”.
Marks… ? Marx… ? I guess you can see why.
The following summer, back in Germany, he suffered a blocked artery and the rest of the tour was immediately ‘curtailed’.
David Bowie would never tour again.
The rest is history. And for that reason alone I recommend finally that you spend some time with A Reality Tour Live. And then with Blackstar.
A simply astonishing record and one that I spent most of Sunday with. Little realising when I went to bed, of course, that we were listening to him saying goodbye. And that when we woke in the morning he’d be gone.
“ Seeing more and feeling less. Saying no but meaning yes. This is all I ever meant. That’s the message that I sent… “ David Bowie: ‘I Can’t Give Everything Away’ 2016