Joe Stannard is a music journalist (I first noticed his excellent work in THE WIRE) and the curator of Brighton’s monthly night of haunting, The Outer Church. I asked him to write to you a few days before David Bowie’s birthday, and that’s what was on his mind when he sat down to type:
As I write this, it’s David Bowie’s 65th birthday. Cue hilarious remarks about pensions, bus passes, etc and perhaps the odd comment concerning the fact that the erstwhile Thin White Duke hasn’t released a new album in almost a decade. Me, I’m a fan, but I’m not holding my breath for a comeback. If Bowie chooses to spend the (hopefully long and happy) remainder of his life well away from the limelight, that’s absolutely fine by me. And y’know what? If he does return, I won’t be looking out for anything resembling Ziggy Stardust, or Aladdin Sane, or even the Duke. I’m more interested in the fellow who released an unexpectedly astonishing run of albums between 1993 and 2003. That’s my Bowie.
And here’s why.
In the late 80s, inspired by the Pixies, Sonic Youth and the New Sonic Architecture conjectured by the adventurous, forward-thinking music press of the time (I’m mainly talking about Melody Maker, incidentally, not the NME, dear me, no) Bowie assembled a rock group comprising guitarist Reeves Gabrels, drummer Hunt Sales and bassist Tony Sales. Derided as a rich man’s folly and only sporadically any bloody good, Tin Machine nevertheless performed an important function for Bowie. While the music press sneered at what they took for the playing out of a midlife crisis, the artist himself was rediscovering the joys of spontaneity and collaboration. The catalyst this time – and there’s always a catalyst with Bowie – was his new guitarist. I realised something interesting was taking place when I first heard the still-outstanding ‘Baby Universal’ – a single from Tin Machine’s second album, released in 1991. Here, Gabrels’s technique picks up where avant-guitarists Robert Fripp and Adrian Belew left off in the late 70s, howling like a jet engine for the duration of the track, which sped along on the kind of manic motorik Bowie hadn’t touched since 1980’s Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps).
Tin Machine was the beginning of a process through which Bowie looked back over his career to assess what had been lost during the 80s, and what could be recovered. The band had exorcised his rock ‘n’ roll demons for the moment, and a return to Ziggy-era glam would be both undignified and undesirable. It would be more befitting and potentially fruitful to recall the lessons he had learned while working with musicians and non-musicians such as Eno, Fripp and Belew. When he reunited with Let’s Dance producer Nile Rodgers for 1993’s Black Tie White Noise, it was something of a surprise to find the resulting album, whilst obviously influenced by contemporary urban pop, more reminiscent of the Eno era and its immediate aftermath. Tracks like ‘Jump They Say’, ‘The Wedding’, ‘Pallas Athena’ and the gleaming, chrome-plated cover of Scott Walker’s ‘Nite Flights’ revealed a Bowie less interested in putting on his red shoes and dancing the blues than re-engaging with a future he had prematurely abandoned.
The Buddha Of Suburbia slipped out quietly in 1993, but offered still more striking evidence of Bowie’s creative renaissance. Expanding on his soundtrack work for the BBC TV adaptation of Hanif Kureishi’s novel, Buddha boasted bittersweet balladry, avant-jazz experimentation and Kraut-ish electronic buzzpop as well as Bowie’s first substantial forays into beatless ambience since “Heroes”. When I first heard this record, I had just developed a taste for the bathyspheric sounds of 70s Eno, Can and Sylvian & Czukay, and tracks like ‘Ian Fish, UK Heir’ and ‘South Horizon’ blew my mind. How could an artist rediscover his muse so dramatically, almost 20 years after the fact – especially when the largely empty spectacle (give or take the odd great song, like his theme for the 1986 animated version of Raymond Briggs’s When The Wind Blows) of his 80s career had left him a laughing stock? Fans such as myself, who appreciated his 70s glam racket for its tunes and flamboyance but were revolutionised by contact with the Berlin trilogy, found their hero restored after a decade in the glossy wilderness.
It was only a matter of time until Brian Eno re-entered the picture, which he did as producer of 1995’s audacious 1.Outside, the opening installment of an as-yet-unfinished neo-gothic dystopian hypercycle centered around the grisly intersection between murder and art. It really can’t be stressed enough that if you were too young to have witnessed Ziggy’s demise or the Berlin rebirth first hand and had become used to the sensible, conservative Bowie of the 80s, this gloriously gaudy, bloodthirsty exercise in mock-schlock industrial rock constituted an enormous jolt. But, confounding expectation, 1.Outside didn’t sound like the Berlin trilogy, nor indeed much like anything else in Bowie’s back catalogue. The influence of future tourmates Nine Inch Nails could be heard in the punishing machine beats and tortuously processed guitar of ‘Hello Spaceboy’ and ‘The Heart’s Filthy Lesson’ while the improvisations of pianist Mike Garson (last heard on 1973’s Aladdin Sane) lent proceedings an unpredictable, maniacal edge. Mood-wise, it shared something of the dank futility of Diamond Dogs, but wrenched sideways into yet another possible future. Bowie’s look at this point was just as striking as his music: gone were the stylish suits and immaculate coiffure in favour of a dyed-red spike cut, black eyeliner, bondage pants and tattered frock coat. Bowie became the Gallifreyan ambassador we deserved but knew we’d never get, a true leper messiah and a welcome riposte to the dimwitted flag-waving undertaken by the imbeciles of Britpop.
Having successfully re-established himself as a live act, Bowie set about recording what might just be his most divisive album to date. His first wholly digital recording, 1997’s Earthling incorporated a big, bloody chunk of Drum & Bass alongside moves mimicked from Underworld and The Prodigy. Songs like ‘Telling Lies’ – arguably the first ever downloadable single from a mainstream artist, with remixes by A Guy Called Gerald and Adam F – and ‘Little Wonder’ were constructed upon lightspeed syncopations built from samples of Zac Alford’s live percussion. Many sneered at the idea of a fifty-year-old demonstrating his love of Jungle, but the album stands up remarkably well fifteen years later. I have a particular fondness for ‘Looking For Satellites’, ‘Dead Man Walking’, ‘The Last Thing You Should Do’ and ‘The Law (Earthling’s On Fire)’, which find then-voguish influences colliding with Bowie’s signature songcraft to create something engaging, unusual and defiantly futuristic. Lyrically, the songs communicated a playful, plaintive English melancholia, evoking Syd Barrett and, again, Doctor Who – the most English alien of all time, with the possible exception of The Man Who Fell To Earth’s Thomas Newton. To these ears, Earthling is too weird to have significantly dated. For what it’s worth, it’s the Bowie album I return to most frequently.
The three albums that followed Earthling weren’t as batshit bizarre, but each had its merits. 1999’s Hours… encased the bittersweet balladry of Hunky Dory within an airtight, uber-slick production yet sounded like the most natural and relaxed Bowie album in years, intimations of mortality and regret notwithstanding. ‘Seven’, ‘Thursday’s Child’ and ‘Survive’ were standouts, rueful reminiscences which at least sounded heartfelt, even if Bowie was, once again, indulging in his customary roleplaying, while ‘Something In The Air’ shamelessly plundered its ring-modulated vox and climactic descending chord sequence from Annette Peacock’s gut-crunching 1972 jazz-rock confessional ‘I’m The One’. Despite a couple of unimpressive ‘rockist’ moments, Hours… was a graceful, understated record, tinged with sadness. 2002’s Heathen welcomed back 70s collaborator Tony Visconti – an underrated factor in the brilliance of Low, “Heroes” and Lodger among others – to produce a set of songs which, like Hours…, suggested that Bowie had found himself at last… or at least arrived at a satisfactory facsimile of his ‘true’ persona. It was a slightly bolder album than its predecessor, bookended by two songs, ‘Sunday’ and ‘Heathen (The Rays)’, which occupy their own solemn space within the oeuvre, neither rock nor ambient, effectively haunted by both. Bowie’s voice on Heathen was perhaps the best it’s ever been, rich, sonorous and romantic. His final album to date, 2003’s Reality, sounded like the work of a man with little left to prove, and it’s my least favourite of the post-Tin Machine releases. Given the strength of its predecessors, however, that’s hardly damning, and it was also blessed with one of his finest songs, ‘The Loneliest Guy’. Elegiac barely covers it – just recalling its beatless, oceanic swell and devastatingly bereft lyric (“Steam under floor/Shards by the mirror’s frame/Clouds green and low/No sign, no nothing now/But I’m the luckiest guy/Not the loneliest guy”) brings a lump to my throat. It’s the unsettling sound of the emotional entropy awaiting us all.
Since then, there has been little in the way of new recorded output save a few guest appearances here and there. Bowie’s been spotted leading a relatively normal life in New York – the life of a father and husband. Given his legacy, and the unexpected manner in which he rallied and returned to full strength as an artist between 1993 and 2003 – not to mention his recent health issues – who can begrudge him? A recent (possibly fake) tweet intimated that a return to the studio may be on the cards, inspired by his newly notorious contemporary, Lou Reed (now of Lou Reed & Metallica, apparently). But if this comes to naught, I won’t shed a tear. Naught is precisely what he owes us, after all.
Many happy returns, Mr Jones. Or not. It’s your call.
The next Outer Church night in Brighton happens on January 20th.