Editorial by: Geoff Husband - TNT UK
Published: January 2016
The Soundtrack Of My Youth Has Ended
All that's left is the Ker-lunk of the run-out groove.
Yes this is personal – forgive me. Woke this morning to hear on the radio that Bowie had died. I was shocked, not so much at the news (he's been very ill for 10+ years now) but at the affect it had on me. Many of the stars of my youth are now gone, but nothing prepared me for physical blow. Somehow no other artist in the last 45 years has so got under my skin – maybe even spoken for me at times.
By the time you read this there will be a million obituaries out there written by critics far better placed that I to do the man justice. And as you read this a week after the event, no doubt you will have become sick of the sycophants and the record companies seeing another bonanza - (On their hands - a dead star*) – nothing sells records so fast. I'm not about to join the throng. 5 minutes on Wiki will get you the nuts and bolts of the career, buy a decent biog if you want to know more.
So here goes my own effort...
When I say that Bowie was the soundtrack of a generation I guess the only other people who will really understand will be those who were teenagers in the 60's and had The Beatles constantly in their ears. They, with the various imitators and spin-offs, grew up as their teenage audience grew and helped make the 60's what it was like no other group. Bowie was a bit like that for the 70's, but where the Beatles managed to evolve with the decade and reflect the changes, Bowie seemed to be constantly dragging the decade along behind him – if you couldn't keep up and got left behind so-be-it. And so for me and many others the playing of one of his songs will take you to a time and place – the moments in the list at the top of the page are as fresh in my mind as the days they happened. In my case this continued through the 70's and mid 80's – cutting through the noise of Glam Rock (which Bowie practically invented), Punk, New Wave, my discovery and love affair with Led Zeppelin, a brief 'classic'' flirtation, Jazz in all its forms etc. all of which I loved – but all the time I kept playing my Bowie albums where other bands were abandoned. I kind of lost faith somehow in the late 80's electronic era, no doubt as I was by then rapidly going down the Blues/Rock corridor (something I will inevitably now put right). Even then I was brought up short by some of his releases, though it was the first 20 years of his career that still had me by the throat. Ironically at a time when it was panned by critics I loved the second Tin-Machine album – perhaps because for once he followed me to my roots rather than the other way round! In 2004 Bowie suffered what turned out to be a heart attack during a concert in Germany. The next date was due to be at the Vieilles Charrues in Central Brittany (France) just 20 miles from my home. I had tickets. The gig was cancelled (we were told it was shoulder strain) and so I never got to see him – nor did anyone else - Bowie never toured again.
Bowie's career-path was perhaps unique. Almost the perfect rock-star he was never as commercially successful as his contemporaries – it seems incredible now that it wasn't until 1975 that he achieved his first UK No1 and that with a reissue of a song already 6 years old (Space Oddity) and written well before perhaps the most creative explosion of his career. All those iconic songs that we instantly associate with him never made it – 'Starman' peaked at 10, 'Life on Mars at 3, 'Rebel Rebel' at 5. Amazingly it wasn't until 1980 and 'Ashes to Ashes' that a current Bowie song hit No1. Add 'Let's Dance' in 1983 and you have the complete list of solo UK No1 singles – just 3 in all in a 45 year-career. In the USA 'Fame' and 'Let's' Dance' were the only No1's.
And yet for a generation many of Bowie's singles could be identified instantly from just an opening chord – in much the way the enigmatic chord of 'A Hard Day's Night' is unmistakable. Few groups managed this trick, so deep are the songs embedded in the psych of teenagers of the period.
The paradox is at least partially explained when you realise that Bowie's golden age was when Albums were what counted and in the UK alone he amassed 29 top-ten albums – of the 15 Albums released from 1970 –> 1980 only two failed to reach the top 5 and 4 made No1. Though he relocated to the USA and pushed hard he never had a No1 Album in the US charts. What this fails to emphasise is that for the next 45 years ALL of those albums continued to sell in considerable numbers and never ceased to be in-stock. As an example Ziggy Stardust peaked at No5 but was 168 weeks in the UK top 100 and though Space Oddity only made No17 it went on to sell over 3 million copies and contribute to over 100 million total album sales world-wide. Yet even this is a pathetic number, less than artists like Taylor Swift, Bon Jovi, Bruno Mars, Rod Stewart, Olivia Newton John and many others. Does the fact that Elton John** has sold some three times as many records over the same period reflect in any way their respective talent or influence on Music? As always his record sales are a pale reflection of his place in the music industry. As some kind of perverse measure of talent I doubt any of those placed above him in the list (and there are over 60) would produce the kind of outpouring from the industry on their deaths, with the possible exception of Paul McCartney and to be brutally frank, does McCartney's solo career really stack up against Bowie??? Let's not mess about – he is by some distance the most important and influential single musician/songwriter of the last 50 years. Sounds like hyperbole, but then think up a rival, compare what they've done and be shamed into defeat.
No-one in the history of music has been more multi-talented, or more determined to use every drop of that talent. He could write lyrics as deep, or cryptic as Dylan and sing-along tunes worthy of McCartney, his stage shows rivalled Queen, his transformations of style and content predated Madonna by 15 years. He performed songs that spent most of their time on one chord (Jean Jeanie, Rebel Rebel) and songs that were rhythmically and musically immensely complex (The Width of a Circle, Blackstar). Listen to the output of his first ten years and you'll realise that not only is he playing many of the instruments, but that he provides almost every backing vocal on every song. Who else dared take on classic Stones numbers and totally transform them ('Let's spend the night together') or risk humiliation by covering Jaques Brels 'Amsterdam' and become the only Anglophone to pull it off? In his spare time he produced and helped promote a raft of artists - he made Lou Reed 'Walk on the Wild Side', Lulu 'Sell the World' and turned Mott the Hoople into 'Dudes'. Take away Bowie and you lose whole generations of popular groups that made a living from his groundwork, often just from one album - And on that subject who gets their songs covered by such diverse artists as Nirvana, Lulu, White Stripes, Beck, Smashing Pumpkins and The Smiths?
Many artists after brief (or long) careers decide that they are bored with churning out music for their fans and so dive off in new directions – few succeed – most disappear up their own fundament and spend bitter years complaining about their fans. Others sit safe in their niche and produce decades of music that increasingly sound like versions of songs written 20 years before, but which didn't quite make the grade. We know who these people are – groups and individuals that stand astride the music industry, call them colossus or dinosaur depending on your point of view. Bowie never did this. Instead after every album he pushed the limits with the next – but never left all of his fans behind. It was like he had an acute sense that if he could take maybe 50% of his old fans with him he'd find enough new ones to keep going. His instinct rarely failed him. Thus he always remained familiar yet challenging, avante garde yet grounded.
For most that would be enough for a dozen lifetimes, but somehow he managed to pack in starring roles in several films, live theatre, learned dance, produced many artists, was a prime mover in Live-Aid and a gifted talent spotter. That he did all this whilst surviving drugs, 70's style rock parties and avoiding Aids is nothing short of miraculous. In a way it's a bit disappointing that something as prosaic as smoking probably did for him - but there's a lesson for everybody...Though I never saw him in the flesh I did see the Bowie Exhibition. All I can say is that it is as interesting, enigmatic, original and wonderful as you'd expect from the man – right now it's touring the world – go see it...
How on earth do I sum all this up? How can a couple of thousand words encompass a talent and career that made pygmies of his contemporaries? The life of a man so important to me - and a death felt so hard that I'm forced to choke back tears - isn't going to be distilled into a potted history. Rather here's a short explanation, mostly for my own benefit, as to why the world is now poorer. I guarantee that one word will keep popping up to describe his career - 'Chameleon'. It's tempting to use it, but lazy and utterly incorrect. A chameleon changes its colouring to match the background. NO! Bowie was a Human Being, an 'Earthling', a far more dangerous species. One almost defined by it's ability to be constantly changing and which then changes the environment to fit. One that looks around and is always dissatisfied, that never stops seeking new challenges and opportunities. One that never stops striving.
We will never see his like again.
*Morrissy – one of many who owe their careers to Bowie
**Sorry Elton – I'm a huge fan but hell no!
© Copyright 2016 Geoff Husband - www.tnt-audio.com