David Bowie’s Birthday

I still can’t believe what David Bowie did on the 8th January 2013. Take a decade off for good behaviour, then show up unexpectedly and place the question “Where are we now?” into everyone’s consciousness. After so long a silence it is quite a remarkable achievement. Shut up for ten years, record a secret album, release new song on 66th birthday suprising everyone and entering top ten charts everywhere. Classy.

It wasn’t just the audacity and the coolness of the carefully maintained anti-hype which made it such a great event. It’s a very intelligent choice, to come in quietly. A nostalgic, observational song it’s a surprising choice of comeback but a good one, which catches the seriousness of these entropic times perfectly.

That Bowie scored a hit is no surprise. An intelligent man who has known and worked with highly creative people in many fields all his life, his early success could have been a one-hit wonder – he worked hard to get the audience he has. Tony Oursler’s video is a huge part of this. But by producing a complex meditative piece, a personal retrospective with a plaintive, questioning chorus, a lyric full of Berlin place-names sung in a sometimes frail voice, he makes an artistic statement which is typical Bowie, pleases fans everywhere and adds a few million more, no doubt.

If Bowie has genius it’s as much in his reading of the times we inhabit. The new song’s observant, nostalgic mood is a perfect foil for all the noisy self-assertion out there. Bang on for this historical moment, unrest everywhere, civil wars, bullets and bombs, it’s sympathetic to the mood of now. Berlin was a city under siege when Bowie lived there, with a free and bomenian culture. In the din of the endless regurgitated pop music machine, it stands out as an original as it catches a general mood. There’s a brand new dance, but I don’t know it’s name.

Having heard the question I can’t wait for the album, which is supposed to be full of variety and quite rocky. Perhaps that’s another subterfuge. Anyway, he got everyone’s attention most beautifully.

To quote another English poet from south London, the artist William Blake,

“The imagination is not a State: it is the Human existence itself.”

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Exploring the merits and demerits of composition techniques, I have written here and elsewhere about recycling, quoting and sampling music. I have pondered the commonplace practises of borrowing themes, phrases and styles, and the inevitability of inspiration leading to imitation. Since this blog is also intended as a demonstration, I thought it would be sensible to take something of my own where this has occurred and examine it on that basis.

For a couple of years, I enjoyed a great gig in Mondello, Sicily, which is a holiday resort of that beautiful mediterranean island which the Italians enjoy. The booking was 3 weeks to a month long, usually in one or two clubs, in February, out of season, so the venues were full of locals rather than tourists who would have expected a set full of covers. We were booked on the basis of our dynamic live show and all original songs.

My band at the time consisted of myself on lead vocals, keyboards, guitar and anything else I could lay my hands on, my writing partner and friend Kevin Goldsborough on bass and guitar, a 16 year old Ross Godfrey, who went on to star in Morcheeba, on guitar, his dodgy friend Nick on sax and percussion, and Sophy Griffiths on vocals and acrobatics. A drummer would have eaten up our funds, so we replaced live drums with loops, which I created myself from rehearsals, and programmed beats. I used the playback element to enhance the arrangements, which gave us a bigger sound, and kind of made up for the lack of kit. It was a modern sound for the time, and mostly the gigs were a riot.

She was the greatest thing that ever happened to him,
Tender as a girl can get
It would ease your mind to know, but you won’t ever
If she told you now to go, you would forgive her…

“Angel” is a song I wrote to fill a gap in my band’s live set, designed to get the crowd moving. The laid-back Sicilians were there to watch, listen and socialise, but we could generally coax them onto their feet. This song, which describes the siren call of sexual promise, quotes one of the most inspiring pop / rock musicians to have emerged in the latter half of the twentieth century, David Bowie.

Aside from giving me the ability to co-write with one of my musical heroes, the song is a collaboration with Kevin Goldsborough, who supplied the wonderful melodic bassline, which moves from dark and brooding in the verse to cheerful and uplifting in the chorus. We wrote hundreds of songs together, until it became second nature. Kevin’s musical clarity and expression remains a sublime part of my life. Funnily enough, he comes from exactly the same part of London as Bowie, and when he sings, listeners often pick up on the similarity. It’s the south London vowels.

With “Angel” I wanted to introduce layers of meaning, making the song accessible to the listener without knowledge of the other song, whilst adding another dimension to anyone who did have knowledge, which illustrated its meaning on a meta-level. I don’t think it matters that few people would get this – it is in the song for seekers to find – so long as it works on the simple level of tune, narrative, groove. Falling under a musical spell is an analog to falling under a sexual spell, commanding the soul and demanding that the body moves.

I quote Bowie’s song both indirectly by referring to it lyrically, by interpreting it in the arrangement, and also directly by incorporating it into the chorus. I’m not going to tell you which song I quote – if you know, then leave a comment, and I will fess up. This is a demo with a live vocal, recorded on a four track tape machine, so it’s a little bit rough around the edges sonically, but that is forgivable. It is a decent representation of how the band sounded live, and I think the recording is good for all that.

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Drunk Bowie Sings Heroes

Surely I shouldn’t be watching this right now, since David Bowie is a PRS registered UK artist and YouTube and PRS are in dispute and all the music is blocked. Not this though, thanks to @lagowski for the steer. Mind you, Bowie has advocated and pioneered the use of music on the internet, and like Prince, and a select band of enlightened “old style” artists has seen the value of digital music sharing: an essential route to new fans, along with radio, tv and playing live. If they have never heard you, they can’t like you. For artists with something to say, it’s also a direct channel to the people they love the most – their fans. Do not underestimate the power of disintermediated uncensored mass communication.

This is a pretty rousing live version of the classic Bowie song, his rock anthem par excellence, but you can hear the march of a thousand gigs in the performance. Bowie uses his mature voice in a unique way though, what energy. I’m a big fan of Bowie’s “trilogy” songwriting period: Low, Heroes, and Lodger.

The first single I ever bought (aged ten) was Space Oddity.

/end fandom.

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