The Man Who Sold The World –
David Bowie and the 1970s
By Peter Doggett
The Bodley Head – £14.99
It’s hard to think of David Bowie as legible for a bus pass, but alas, he is. For in January, the artist formerly known as Ziggy Stardust finally turned 65. An ironic, numerical feat of sorts, which has unknowingly elevated the Brixton Bard more to the fore of late, than that of his music – which, to a surprising degree of nun-deluded pith, really is quite something. Especially when one considers that Bowie was one of the most interesting and iconic, individual and idiosyncratic artists of his age.
Indeed, many might still consider him to be so, which – to all intents and purposes – is fair enough. But I personally can’t remember the last time he made a great record, which again, I’d still like to believe is fair enough, as a similar persuasion of thought just as readily applies to an array of artists (of a similar age). The Rolling Stones, The Who and Eric Clapton are names that leap forth without hesitation. While Lou Reed, who lest it be said, had a huge influence on Bowie, really ought not to be a name on that list. But alas, he is. For in a quintessential quest to rejuvenate some sort of pulse into his most recent musical offering, Reed has recruited the shambolic sham of none other than pond-life extraordinaire(s), Metallica.
So might it be said that Bowie has chosen the right path of late, in keeping both himself and his artistic murmurings (if indeed there are any) firmly and silently under wraps. As in so doing, he has inadvertently rejuvenated a career that was, and still is, fundamentally anchored to that of the seventies. The decade throughout which David Bowie’s star shone far brighter than many of his peers and rivals combined.
A decade to which this very day is still being overtly analysed, deciphered and imitated. To be sure, the wretched cover-band circuit is awash with seventies acts, but luckily, The Man Who Sold The World – David Bowie and the 1970s doesn’t merely adhere to such safe and saccharine, popular expectation.
Its author Peter Doggett delves way beyond the clinical quagmire of re-hashing a menagerie of Bowieisms, by being just as equally thorough in his investigation of said decade, as he is forensic in equating it with Bowie’s artistry: ‘’Like The Beatles in the decade before him, Bowie was popular culture’s most reliable guide to the fever of the seventies. The Beatles’ lives and music had reflected a series of shifts and surges in the mood of their generation, through youthful exuberance, satirical mischievousness, spiritual and chemical exploration, political and cultural dissent, and finally depression and fragmentation. The decade of David Bowie was altogether more challenging to track. It was not fired by idealism or optimism, but by dread and misgiving. Perhaps because the sixties had felt like an era of progress, the seventies was a time of stasis, of dead ends and power failures, of reckless hedonism and sharp reprisals.’’
Along with such cultural cross-referencing, the book primarily consists of a critical examination of all of Bowie’s work from Space Oddity to Scary Monsters. And as mentioned at the outset: ‘’The unashamed model for this book is Ian MacDonald’s pioneering study of the Beatles’ songs, Revolution In The Head.’’
As such, there are numerous Bowie-Beatles references scattered throughout.
In relation to Bowie’s ‘Janinie’ (The Man Who Sold The World) Doggett writes: ‘’This psychological complexity was strangely at odds with the playful exuberance of the music, Bowie and Hutchinson ending the demo with the wordless chorus from The Beatles’ ‘Hey Jude.’’’ While in relation to ‘The Jean Genie’ (Aladdin Sane), he writes: ‘’Bowie briefly intended to re-record ‘Janine’ as a follow-up single to ‘Space Oddity,’ incorporating parts of another Beatles song, ‘Love Me Do’ – which he later added to ‘The Jean Genie’ in his 1973 concert repertoire.’’
Herein, Peter Doggett touches on a number of themes in relation to Bowie’s work; not least, the ever changing nature of the four cities that have played host – as well as such a pivotal role – in the artist’s work: London, New York, Los Angeles and Berlin. As a result, The Man Who Sold The World is an acute and enlightening accumulation of musical critique, cultural analysis and biographical insight.