The Stories Behind the Classic Songs 1970-1980
By Chris Welch
Carlton Books – £9.99
This year marks fortieth Anniversary of Ziggy Stardust and his (all so influential) assorted Spiders From Mars. As such, Bowie’s everywhere right now. In fact, there’s not a glossy music magazine in sight at the moment, that hasn’t got Bowie circa ‘’Tigers On Vaseline’’ tantalisingly draped across its front cover. Indeed, were it not for an entire generation of young English cubs on bail-outs and crack-cocaine who can barely speak their own language, it might just as well be 1972 all over again.
Well, not quite, but almost…
Living in Berlin – where Bowie himself relocated for what many consider to be one of his most musically fertile and productive periods ever – it’s both fun and simultaneously infuriating to still be able to pinpoint his ever-lasting legacy circa such predominant albums as Low and Heroes. The Stalinist architecture and the slick-back hair does, the Trabant trajectory and the Berlin-Warszawa Express (and I’m not talking of the current Berlin based band of the same name), the dour misogyny of the former album’s ‘’A New Career In A New Town,’’ not to mention the relentless misconception of (German band) Kraftwerk’s idiosyncratic influence upon the likes of Station To Station. A towering and somewhat speculative album, the recording of which author Chris Welch describes Bowie’s approach as: ‘’about to take us on a wide ride aboard an electronically-emulated steam train. At least these are the sound effects heard in the extended introduction. It takes a long while to build up a piece that signals the departure of the Bowie Express to whatever strange new destinations await the listener. The German electronic synthesizer band Kraftwerk, who had enjoyed a unexpected international hit single with an intriguing track called ‘Autobahn’ during 1975, probably influenced this locomotive device.’’
Such absorbing critique is liberally peppered throughout David Bowie – The Stories Behind The Classic Songs 1970-1980 and if nothing else, it is this that accounts for the book’s prime validity; even if only to remind us of what an astonishingly compelling catalogue of material Bowie had written during the decade. Compelling is in fact too lightweight a description, for at the height of his creative prowess, no one – with the exceptions of Lennon, Dylan and eventually Springsteen – even came close to Bowie. From melody and skin-tight vision to insistent theatricality and word play, the Brixton Bard bestowed such an abundance of chameleonic induced colour; it was nigh impossible to keep up.
The 189 pages herein, are a considered reflection of such analysis (and there are countless examples), of which Welch’s writing on ‘Life On Mars’ is perhaps one of the most interesting: ‘’Rick Wakeman’s deft touch at the keyboards is unmistakable as once again Bowie plucks a devastatingly gripping and original opening line about ‘’the girl with the mousy hair.’’ The very banality of this description quickly establishes that this is no jaunt into outer space. The girl has simply had a row with her parents and has gone to the cinema, only she’s seen this picture before and is bored by the ‘’Western’’ full of familiar scenes. Like the sailors fighting in the dance hall and the lawman beating up the wrong guy. ‘’Oh man! Look at those cavemen go’’ groans Bowie at the predictable nature of base mankind – Homo Inferior indeed. Here is a song full of provocative images, of Mickey Mouse turned into a cow, of workers striking for fame. There’s even a starry-eyed reference to John Lennon […]. Extraordinary how Bowie littered his songs with clues, premonitions and prophecies like the Nostradamus of jive. Despite all this dazzling array of images and the violence on the silver screen: ‘’The film is a saddening bore ‘cause I wrote it ten times before.’’ The crucial cry ‘’Is there life on Mars?’’ is a rhetorical question posed about the likelihood of real and active life ever impinging on those victims oppressed by the grinding inevitability of everyday existence.’’
Artistic food for thought – or what? This book is nothing less than a truly fab read.