EXPLORING BOWIE IN THE 70s
Q: How old were you when you first heard Bowie's work?
A: I must have been fourteen, I suppose, as it was early 1972. Ironically, the first Bowie song I can remember hearing was 'Oh! You Pretty Things', as sung by Peter Noone - the same way that I was introduced to Bob Dylan by hearing Melanie's cover of 'Mr Tambourine Man' on the radio. Strange times!
At that tender age, I was definitely a musical snob, who was convinced that pop was for girls, while boys should be listening to rock. There was a real hierarchy at school: the boys with greatcoats and sideburns were carrying around Deep Purple and Led Zeppelin albums, and I wanted to be like them, although I couldn't convince myself that I liked Purple's music. In my distorted view of the world, pop was fine when it was by one of the ex-Beatles or came out on Motown, but otherwise it was a joke, and I was particularly annoyed by Marc Bolan, for reasons that seem incomprehensible now. The fact that I actually liked his hit records didn't stop me hating him! And when 'Starman' came onto the radio, I was fully prepared to dismiss Bowie as another Bolan. But I can clearly remember thinking to myself: 'I shouldn't like this, but I do'. And I felt the same about the singles that followed, without telling anyone else about it. What's interesting for me in retrospect, though, is that nobody in my class of 14-year-old boys ever talked about Bowie or carried around a copy of Ziggy Stardust. Any Bowie fans at school were a couple of years behind me. It was obviously a particular generation who fell for Ziggy at first.
As money was always difficult to find, I didn't buy any Bowie albums until I was . . . maybe seventeen? That was when I found a second-hand copy of Aladdin Sane. Then at university I bought Young Americans new, and immediately went out to find the rest of the back catalogue. And when money allowed, I bought everything he released for the next few years, except Stage. Meanwhile, I had a Decca compilation called Hard-Up Heroes, which included 'The London Boys' - a wonderful song. So I was always open to hearing his early work, as long as it wasn't 'The Laughing Gnome'!
Q: In the book, you talk in very dismissive terms about Bowie's 80s work.
A: As soon as I heard the Let's Dance album, alarm bells went off in my head. I knew that it had some great pop singles, but it seemed as if something was missing. I couldn't connect the Bowie of the Serious Moonlight era with the man whose records I'd been buying in the 70s. One of my best friends was a Bowie fanatic, so she kept playing me everything, and I did my best to sound enthusiastic. But the spell had been broken, and every new album seemed to chip away at my memories of his earlier work. By the time Black Tie White Noise was released, I had given up on Bowie - as with Mick Jagger, I couldn't believe that I'd ever taken him seriously. Then I heard 1.Outside, and realised that something different was happening - and that sent me back to the 70s albums, where I discovered that, yes, Bowie really was a major artist after all, and I was the idiot, not him.
If that abandonment of Bowie sounds harsh, you have to remember that by that stage I was a full-time rock journalist, who was being sent mountains of new records every day, and used to have a pile of albums to review every weekend. So there wasn't much time for listening to anything that I didn't have to listen to. It wasn't like being a kid, where you only have ten records and you play all of them everyday.
Q: You say in the book that the opportunity to tackle this project was offered to you, so it wasn't your idea.
A: That's true. What happened was that my editor at The Bodley Head, Will Sulkin, was talking one day about his involvement as editor of Ian MacDonald's book about the Beatles, Revolution In The Head. At the time of his death, Ian had been under contract to write a similar book about Bowie and the 70s. Will then approached me and asked if I'd be interested in having a look at Ian's work in progress, if indeed he had started to write the book, and perhaps finishing it off if that seemed possible. He went away, and then came back to say that sadly there didn't seem to be any MacDonald manuscript at all, let alone a nearly-finished one. But by then I'd started to get excited about the project, so I asked if I could take it on from scratch. And here we are.
Q: What got you excited?
A: Playing the records. I pulled a whole run of Bowie CDs off the shelf in my office, put on a pair of headphones, and listened to them back-to-back across the course of a day. By that evening, I was convinced (or maybe I should say re-convinced) that the man was a genius, and I was overflowing with things I wanted to say about him and his songs. After that, nothing was going to stop me writing this book!
Q: What was it like working on something that was, after all, somebody else's idea?
A: I had to make it mine. I had to forget about Ian's Beatles book, and how he might have approached Bowie, and write a book that was true to me, and to my understanding of Bowie and his music. Which is why The Man Who Sold The World is so different to Revolution In The Head. The basic idea and the song-by-song format are the same, but from that point on I adopted a very different approach to Ian's. I didn't have any choice, really, because Bowie and the Beatles are so different.
Ian's book was a chronicle of how the Beatles became more sophisticated as songwriters, musicians and producers, and how they learned to use the recording studio as an instrument. With Bowie, it was a case of trying to get to the heart of the man behind the work - to understand how he was feeling, what he was thinking about, what he was trying to do, with each song. Ian concentrated very much on music, and musicological analysis. With Bowie, music was only part of the story: what makes Bowie so fascinating is that he's such a brave and experimental creative artist, who takes risks with his words, his music, his voice, his image and his psyche. He was also, in the 70s, much more engaged with the culture around him, and with reflecting it in his music, than I think the Beatles were - they were living very much in their own bubble. So I wanted to incorporate all those themes into my book.
Q: You mentioned David's psyche, and you explore the psychological basis of his work in some detail throughout the book. Did you have any qualms about doing that?
A: One or two readers of my last book, You Never Give Me Your Money, criticised me for daring to think myself into the heads of the Beatles during their break-up. Well, none of us even know what our partners and children are really thinking, so it's impossible to be 100% certain about what was going on in the heads of the Beatles, or David Bowie, at their creative peaks. But you can follow the clues - you can watch, and listen, closely enough to pick up on all the signals that people are giving off, the way they react with each other, the way they present themselves to the world. Having trained as a humanistic counsellor, that has definitely helped me to notice things that I wouldn't have noticed before. You can look at the way that someone approaches a situation, or deals with a crisis in their lives, and learn a lot about how they're coping - or not - with what's happening.
In terms of Bowie's career, I think that there was a really dramatic undercurrent to his work in the 60s and the 70s, where he's coming to terms with his family heritage, with the thrill and terror of being an incredibly creative person, and with the unbelievable pressures of fame, and all the temptations that come in its wake. Bowie is incredibly honest in his work - very open with his emotions - even if at the same time he was trying to lead the world astray every time he gave an interview!
Q: How did you research the song-by-song entries, many of which are much more detailed and wide-ranging than some readers might be expecting?
A: First and foremost, by listening over and over again to the songs, until I could hear exactly what was going on. It's amazing what you can hear when you really concentrate on music that you think you know really well. Then I tried to put myself in Bowie's place, and think, 'OK, what was he listening to at this point of life? What music did he have stored up in his memory? What books was he reading? What subjects was he obsessed with at the time he wrote that song? And what was happening in the world around him?' Fortunately, Bowie was always open about the things that were fascinating him at any particular time, whether that was the occult or the music of Kraftwerk, so I was able to soak myself in his culture, and see where he might have picked up influences, and how he translated other people's work into something entirely original of his own.
Q: When you reached 1980, and Scary Monsters, how did you feel about Bowie's body of work?
A: I was stunned by his instinctive brilliance as a composer; his absolute self-assurance as a singer; and by the sheer eclectic range of his music during that decade. In retrospect, it's a phenomenal collection of work - how could one man have done so much, and with such intensity, in such a short period of time? It's almost impossible to believe, but he did it. By the end, though, I was left with this deep sense of compassion for Bowie, and the exhaustion he must have felt after everything he'd been through - which I think you can hear very clearly on Scary Monsters. He had literally given everything to his work, and his fans, for a decade, and it's incredible in retrospect that he was able to do that and stay sane. Actually, it's a miracle he was still alive.
So it's not at all surprising that he should choose to ease back and stop digging into the depths of his own psyche in the 80s. The problem then, as it is for all intensely creative artists, is how do you get back to that state of creativity without driving yourself crazy? Most people never find the answer, and so they end up parodying their best work - rock is full of people like that, who've been brilliant when they were young without really knowing what they were doing, and who then grind to a complete halt when the fire goes out. The amazing thing about Bowie is that he found a way of rekindling his fire, even if it took him more than a decade to do it.
Q: What are your favourite Bowie albums?
A: Hunky Dory is still irresistible, and I've always loved Young Americans and Station To Station. Diamond Dogs was one that crept up on me slowly - it was the Bowie record that I kept playing consistently even during the dark years of the 80s. And of course Low and 'Heroes' are major pieces of work too. Plus, from more recent times, I love the Buddha Of Suburbia album, and I was knocked out earlier this year to be sent a CD-R of the unreleased Toy album, which I think could have been a major hit if it had come out when it was supposed to.
Q: What do you think Bowie will make of your book?
A: Well, I'd like to think he would be pleased by it, because it spells out in enormous detail exactly how brilliant his work was between 1969 and 1980. I'd hope that he'd be interested to see the way in which I've tracked down so many of the influences on his songs - like finding a source for the title of 'Quicksand', for example, or uncovering the person I think is the real star of 'Queen Bitch' (and it's not Lou Reed!). But realistically, why would Bowie want to read a book about his past? He's already had to live through it once. It would be a bit cruel to make him go through it all again.
PS: In the aftermath of David Bowie's death, I was reliably informed that he had three copies of my book about him on the shelf in his New York office. But whether he ever opened them, I'll never know . . .