David Bowie – The Joy Of The Unexpected

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.


Classic Album: David Bowie ‘Station To Station’

Few artists reach the milestone of ten studio albums. Fewer still are actually at the peak of their powers when they do so. Unfortunately for rock chronologists and obsessive fans alike, David Bowie is able to remember little about the genesis of this remarkable record. Its story is nevertheless an interesting one and serves to chart the transitional process between Bowie the chart smash and the artist responsible for the imperious Berlin trilogy of ‘Low‘, ‘”Heroes“‘ and ‘Lodger‘.


In the time prior to recording, Bowie was inhabiting the character of Thomas Jerome Newton for Nicolas Roeg‘s film, ‘The Man Who Fell To Earth’. Newton, an extra-terrestrial obsessed with television, was one of his most striking roles. While far less flamboyant than Ziggy, Newton’s haunting appearance is an entirely apt representation of Bowie at this stage in his career. Indeed, he admitted to hanging onto this character for months after filming and images from the shoot adorn the cover of both this album and its successor, ‘Low‘. From this grew The Thin White Duke, the last of Bowie’s adopted personae in the Seventies, whose monochrome attire dominated press photos and tours surrounding this record. Continue reading “Classic Album: David Bowie ‘Station To Station’”

2010 – Defrosting the overflow pipe

Best of 2010Having concluded the rundown of this year’s finest albums, it seems only fair to mop up those which just missed the cut or were simply released too late to have enough of an impact. Now, if you are of a sensitive disposition or still find that mentions of Robbie Williams bring you out in a rash, I’d skip the bit about Take That if I were you. But make sure you’re still reading when I get onto Gregory & The Hawk, Edwyn Collins, The Phantom Band, Broken Records and Caribou.
But first, reissues. 2010 was a bumper year for deluxe reissues and some of the finest musical acts had their histories dusted off, turned up and even, in some cases, remastered for the better. Whether we’re talking about the simple but splendid best of from Suede or uber-deluxe box sets for which the mortgaging of your house or first-born were a requirement, there was plenty of scope for misty eyed nostalgia this year and it really sound rather good. The Orange Juice box set deserves another quick mention here because it is one of those bodies of work which you really should have nestlings on your shelf somewhere. It’s the aspect of music consumption which still requires you to keep at least one toe out of the all digital download lifestyle, as box sets are no fun without the, er, box. Collection pretty much everything they ever did and including some things which aren’t strictly necessary but nice to have anyway, ‘Coals To Newcastle’ is a lovingly curated set, with all due attention to detail awarded to these magnificent songs. Naturally, sometimes it’s a bit too unavoidably Eighties on the production side, but that is largely part of the charm of these acerbic, energetic and downright precocious tunes. If you missed the boat on requesting this for Christmas, think of it as a pre-VAT increase treat to yourself. Or something. Oh, think of your own lie then.

bowie sts
‘Station To Station‘ in its jumbo box edition was the reissue of the year for me, containing as it did a frankly unnecessary number of versions of the same, admittedly magnificent, album which, to my mind, is his best ever and makes for a quite staggering listen via the DVD high resolution audio track of the original master. I’ve written a Spotlight piece on the record for Clash, which will appear in the January issue, hitting news stands any day now. I’m sure some version of it will make its way onto the site at some point. I can see how, at £80, it might not be the most appealing deluxe musical purchase open to you, but, if you’re a big fan of the album, accept the inevitable and get out the cash.

The top 30 2010 releases was a tricky list to get finished, as at least 35 albums were intensely vying for a position from the off. These New Puritans‘Hidden’ was originally on the list but I found myself wondering exactly how many listens were for pleasure and how many were simply some form of aural challenge. There’s much to appreciate, plenty to be impressed by and, by fuck, they’re good live, but I just wasn’t sure how much I actually loved playing it. And so it just dipped out. Likewise, ‘Swim’, by Caribou, which is a delightfully engaging electronic beast, launched magnificently by the Erland Oye featuring ‘Odessa’. In the vague mental lists which preceded the final countdown, it was caught in a battle with Four Tet for the position of ‘electronic album in the 30-21 bit’ and at the last minute dropped out altogether. Well worth sampling, as I suspect even if the whole thing doesn’t grab you, certain bits will. Edwyn Collins made a heartwarming comeback, prompting good feeling from pretty much anyone who likes music, and delivered a raw, direct and potent record in ‘Losing Sleep‘. The slightly raggedy edges only added to the charm. But for the occasionally annoying multitude of guest performers, it would likely have been comfortably within the list and I still feel a little odd about leaving this one out. A late arrival in my orbit was ‘Leche’ by Gregory & The Hawk, which is actually singer-songwriter Meredith Godreau doing her quirk-pop, orchestrated-folk, endearing whimsy thing. The voice takes a few listens to learn to love, but once she’s got you, you’ll be hooked. If you like your Alessi’s Ark or early Joanna Newsom then ‘Leche’ is one for you to seek out in the early days of the new year.

The Phantom Band continued to do their own thing, building on the majesty of ‘Checkmate Savage‘ and pursuing a more fleshed out and substantial sound with ‘The Wants‘. It’s a great album, and one which I suspect will continue grow on me as the months roll along. The other one with potential for being a sleeping giant is the second offering from Broken Records, ‘Let Me Come Home‘, which sounded a little to studied and Acarde Firey on first listen, and you’ll have noticed the incredibly high placing of ‘The Suburbs’‘ in the end of year list. That said, some cracking songs and one which I think will rise victorious out of the long wintery evenings.

Which just leaves Take That‘s ‘Progress’ which, and I shit you not, is the finest pop album of the year, the best thing they’ve ever released and, gasp, all the better for the return of Robbie. An electronic pop album which evokes everything from the Scissor Sisters to Bowie‘s techno period, it is a fine, fine, mature record, marking the first successful foray into the notion of the ‘man band’. ‘The Flood’ is now ubiquitous, but ‘SOS’, ‘Kidz‘ and ‘Happy Now’ are all minor triumphs deserving of your attention. Seriously. The marvellously Hi-NRG way in which the chorus kicks in on that last track is a delight to behold. By all means ignore me on this, and clearly there are at least 30 albums more deserving of your attention than ‘Progress’, but if you write it off out of pop snobbery, more fool you and your empty, joyless life.