The almost universal outpouring of joy prompted by the entirely unforeseen release of a new track by David Bowie on the occasion of his sixty-sixth birthday was itself not a huge surprise. After giving up hope of a return and with many articles having been written about how he had gently retreated into a gracious retirement after a health scare, the world was not braced for more Bowie. ‘Reality‘ was where it had all ended, a brief burst of creativity extinguished by the ravages of time doing their worst. How we pined for him, whilst not begrudging him a well-earned rest. He is a truly remarkable artist and it seemed unsettling to accept that we would hear no more from him. The euphoria prompted by ‘Where Are We Now‘ was like the reaction that might greet the second coming of a beloved elderly relative. They’d had a good innings, we were all very lucky to have known them but our grief is slowly fading and we’re trying to move on. And then they reanimate and walk back into your living room and into your heart, singing about ‘Potsdamer Platz’. As Peter Robinson put it on Twitter, “this is like waking up to find it has snowed.”
But why does this artist inspire such passion across the generations? If your formative years happened to coincide with those infamous Top Of The Pops performances and that rich vein of form through the Seventies, it’s easy to understand. But when my first single was a Jive Bunny 7″ and the Bowie of that time was forming Tin Machine and picking over the discarded copies of ‘Never Let Me Down‘ it’s not quite obvious. His willingness to constantly evolve has ensured that he had a role in most contemporary music scenes for over forty years, up to 2003’s ‘Reality’. The critics may been baffled by ‘Outside‘ and gently derisory over ‘Earthling‘ but you could hardly accuse the bloke of coasting. The mature pop of 1999’s ‘Hours’ seemed to hint at the arrival of a more demure Bowie, only for ‘Heathen’ to demonstrate a man still very much keen to push on.
I can still remember planning a trip to Virgin Megastore in Cardiff in order to use up some teenage birthday money on the 2CD set ‘Bowie – The Singles Collection’. Back in the days before any song you could wish to hear, and plenty you wouldn’t, was available with a solitary click, greatest hits albums always felt like getting the keys to the bank. All the good stuff in one place. Smash after smash, radio classic upon vintage singalong. But, unlike so many such collections, a Bowie compilation is not so much a primer for Bowie so much as a primer for popular music. Why do so many people care so much about this new song? Because, for many, he has been a tour guide through a world of wonderful music, a long-established motorway from which to explore curious A roads, an inspiration. A compilation which features ‘Changes’, ‘Rebel Rebel’, ‘Young Americans’, ‘Alabama Song’, ‘Wild Is The Wind’ and ‘Absolute Beginners’, to name only six, gives a pretty remarkable overview of how music had mutated and manoeuvred over the best part of twenty years. And it blew my mind. I didn’t get some of it at first (the Berlin late Seventies stuff mainly, which would subsequently become cherished) and I still don’t get other bits (mainly ‘Dancing In The Street’ with Jagger), but for someone raised on a beige diet of Britpop, and of course Jive Bunny, it was a revelation.
‘Station To Station‘ is my default answer when asked my favourite Bowie album, but only ‘Tonight’, ‘Never Let Me Down’ and the Tin Machines fail to have soft spots in my heart. Even ‘Black Tie White Noise‘ with its hilariously bombastic early 90s pop will get defended. He can falter, but he never falls. The simple act of returning was always going to generate a huge response but to do so with such a brilliant tune is all the more remarkable. The repetitive chorus of ‘Where Are We Now‘ is getting me every time. Something about the delivery of those words and ‘the moment you know, you know, you know’ thereafter is going through me. The very best music goes far beyond the brain and gently tickles the soul. That nagging refrain hasn’t left my head in 36 hours and I am very much ok with it. Roll on the new album, long live the legacy. The return of Bowie is very, very good news for fans new and old and still to be found. Everyone has a point when Bowie clicked for them, a moment we cherish, a moment when you know, you know, you know.