This was a really strange idea. Put the staff of Sounds in a room together and let them discuss one contemporary artist, then print it in Sounds later. Does it have value? Not so much at the time maybe, except for the fact that these people to a certain extent were closer to Bowie than most other people. Today I would say that this article have more value than when it was originally printed, as these are first-hand impressions of the man as he was seen by these writers at an early point in his career. This is what people actually thought at the time, and because of that it is quite interesting to read.
Enjoy this one.
A new series in which Sounds` staff analyse today`s leading artists
Bowie: Man and the mask
“Nobody knew how to handle Bowie – he was a total unknown quantity right up to `Hunky Dory` really”
Sounds writers, I assume like Sounds readers, tend to spend a fair amount of their time sitting around talking – about music and musicians as often as not. As a change from straight interviews or the single-minded bigotry of our personal opinion pieces, Jerry Gilbert (hereinafter referred to as JG) had the bright idea of recording a series of these conversations and getting them down on paper – some multi-minded bigotry for you. So, the scene is one rainy night in the Holloway Road in an otherwise deserted office, on the desk is a tape recorder, a bottle of wine, several packets of peanuts and a stack of David Bowie albums, and sprawled around it are JG, Penny Valentine (PV), Martin Hayman (MH), and myself, Steve Peacock (SP). We chose David Bowie as the first subject for these highly subjective quadrologues. We hope it provides you with some food for thought, and maybe some fuel for your letter-writing pens.
SP: The point that struck me listening to some of those earliest songs was that he seems to have projected himself totally into a certain image for that album, and the same applies to “Ziggy” – he`s put himself completely into this figment of the imagination which is Ziggy Stardust. It seems to be an approach he`s used fairly consistently.
PV: But he must be very upset at the moment that his image has taken over from his songs.
SP: No, I`d think he`s very pleased. What used to upset me, or annoy me, when “Ziggy” came out and all these new people started going for David Bowie, was that the guy who`d made “Hunky Dory” was getting lost somewhere back along the line.
I think that`s true still, but I think it`s his intention that David Bowie doesn`t really exist, and all that really does exist at the moment for the purposes of music and performing is this creation, this mask which at the moment is Ziggy Stardust but which is gradually being phased into Aladdin Sane or whatever comes next.
MH: So he`s operating from behind a mask, which releases his personality to do and think as he likes.
PV: But there`s still a difference between the live gigs which he did, say, three or four years ago and the live gigs he does now, as far as image is concerned, because he was just David Bowie sitting on stage with a guitar – there was no outward show except that he was pretty, basically, and perhaps a little bit vulnerable. That`s where the difference has occured so much, in the live performance.
The point about Bowie which is maybe responsible for how he is today, partly anyway, is that when he released that very first album everybody within the business thought it was an incredible album for that time because nobody had been writing those kind of songs before within that context, but he couldn`t get any commercial success – partly because he wouldn`t do many live gigs and he wouldn`t take the business seriously. Or so he said anyway.
They were really the first songs that were slightly quirky, slightly unusual in that way – even the early Beatles` things were fairly simple. I think he was the first English “pop” artist to really bring any kind of lyrical quality, and even melodic on occasions, peculiar little ideas into music. It was commercially unviable at the time and he had no real direction through a lot of his work, and I think this was half of his problem, and I think this is why he`s so strong on direction at the moment – at last he`s found “A Wav”.
But the fact about Bowie is that I think in many ways he felt very insecure for a long time because I don`t think anybody actually ever believed in him – I don`t know whether he believed in himself, but certainly there was never any direction within himself about how he would go. He would only do the odd concert, he would never do anything…
SP: You knew him at the time. Did “Space Oddity” take him by surprise when it became a hit? Because he didn`t follow it up.
PV: Yes, but you`ve got to remember that at that time he didn`t want to do any gigs – he did one tour with Humble Pie when they first started, which was a complete fiasco of a tour, and what he found was that when he sat on stage with his guitar and sang numbers like “Cygnet Committeee” for instance off that album, the audience were incredibly restless – all they wanted to hear was “Space Oddity”. And he became incredibly disillusioned in a funny way, because I think he felt that “Space Oddity” would be a kind of lever to get all his other songs heard, but because it was such a commercial proposition, far more than his other songs on the face of it…
JG: But if you can forget that “Space Oddity” was a hit, was that a stronger song than his others of that period?
PV: I`d say as a commercial proposition it was.
SP: I think the point comes out that his commercial success has always come with a rather flashy, rather flip and superficial kind of imagery – I mean “Cygnet Committee” didn`t make it, but “Space Oddity” did. It was a clever little story, a bit “weird” because it was about space and stuff….
MH: Spacey things were very much in vogue then, because it was about the time of Hendrix and the Byrds… it was in the air as it were.
SP: OK. Then he dived, and then came back with this mythical Ziggy Stardust figure.
MH: No, no, no – Ziggy Stardust surely was preceded by “Hunky Dory”.
SP: But “Hunky Dory” wasn`t a success commercially – it didn`t sell well at the time.
JG: Even so it did sufficient…
PV: But the thing you`ve got to remember is that up until Ziggy Stardust there were very few people who`d seen Bowie live on stage – I`d reckon that probably only five per cent or less of the audience he gets now ever saw him live up until then, and I don`t think they even knew about him until then – he was a minority appeal artist.
MH: It seems to me he`s gone from one extreme to another – from being extremely elitist with only a small band of people who were going to get into what he`s writing, to a very, very broad spectrum. It seems conscious.
PV: I have a feeling it was more very clever timing – whether on his part or not. His career went through so many peculiar patches and up until “Hunky Dory”, say, I`d seen him a lot and he never, never wanted to get involved in the business, never wanted to do gigs, couldn`t take it seriously. I don`t know how much of that was that he had no confidence in himself, which might partly be because he couldn`t get off the ground, couldn`t do any big gigs, but he always said he didn`t want to.
SP: So what do you think changed his mind?
PV: I think having a new manager.
SP: So why did he get a new manager?
PV: I don`t know what happened. I know that he was with Ken Pitman. I know that came to a halt. His argument directly after that and just before DeFries – he told me about DeFries – was that finally he found somebody who gave him confidence. I think more it gave him direction. See, nobody knew how to handle Bowie – he was a total unknown quantity, right up to “Hunky Dory” really.
He had these ideas about mime and things like that, and the business as a whole couldn`t quite see him in any kind of context. It`s very difficult to find out whether suddenly he fitted in or whether he suddenly found a direction.
SP: At the time of “Hunky Dory” or just after, I felt he started consciously creating this kind of wall between him and the public David Bowie.
PV: Well yes, but since none of us have met him since it`s hard to tell which is which now. The only thing that gives you a clue – from our experience at work – is that it seems he doesn`t want to talk to anyone who might have known him earlier on and all he seems to want is somebody who will reflect the image that he has now.
JG: So why is it that a few people have suddenly become a whole lot of people – is it just the songs, is it the image…?
PV: I don`t think the actual songs have changed much over the past, say, six years, so it must be that the audience taste has changed, that the promotion`s better…
JG: The presentation`s changed completely, not the songs.
MH: I think Bowie`s appeal now is very broadly based. I mean obviously – shall we say discriminating listeners – realise that the guy`s got quality, real quality to his songs which is something that he`s always had but hasn`t been appreciated up until now, plus the image is much more broad based – this kind of hermaphroditic thing that he has means that he appeals to blokes as well as chicks. Also in a fairly broad spectrum; young kids can take it straight because he`s a beautiful character, and the 25-year-olds can appreciate that he`s got this mask and is working the business very cleverly from there, and still appreciate that he`s writing good songs.
PV: The only worry I have about him actually is that at the moment – and I don`t think this is going to last because I think the image will finally die and the songs will stand up – the majority of people buying the albums are buying them because of Bowie. I don`t think the songs have the importance the image has, I don`t think the balance is there.
I think he`s being very clever in a way, getting the songs to the people, and I think eventually the importance of the image will fade slightly and the songs will be left.
JG: Do you think they will, or do you think the songs will fade too?
PV: No, I don`t think the songs will fade – well, as much as anyone can say.
If you look at him and hear him now, he`s the epitome of everything that`s happening in its strongest and most obvious way now, in the same way that Pete Townshend was the epitome of everything that was happening in its most volatile way at that time (the time of “My Generation”). I can`t quite express it, but he seems to have captured the freneticism of the kind of 1984 syndrome – I see something from the future as opposed to something that`s happening now.
JG: A sort of “Clockwork Orange” future.
PV: Yes, very much – he always reminds me of steel buildings. Very strange.
SP: But to put it another way, he`s not so much a projection of the future, as of a kind of future he`s created that wouldn`t necessarily have happened without him. He`s taken a load of elements from science fiction and all that kind of stuff and made himself into a kind of hero of that generation – and people are beginning to believe in it.
PV: The other great thing about him is that he has this sense of outrage where he outrages all but his followers – when you think how the Stones used to outrage all the adults, he brings out that same kind of response.
Half of the attraction young kids have always felt towards a hero – and you can forget all these little groups who wear make-up and all that rhubarb, they`re not heroes – is something that another generation would maybe find slightly distasteful. And I think to a great extent he`s taken a lot of his influences from what`s going down in New York, for instance, which is not particularly happening in England but which English audiences like to relate to because they love to relate to things American, to something they haven`t actually experienced but it is a kind of trend image. I think Bowie and DeFries between them decided to go out and provide a great shock factor to English rock music – it may not be so much that now, but certainly at the beginning it was; there`d never been that kind of a person up from the British rock scene, ever.
JG: Bowie`s American thing though was very strange – he had the tour set up, and he did it, and he did it really well, and then they started ploughing in these extra dates on the West Coast, until he got to San Francisco which is where I saw him on Hallowe`en. And it was the freakiest show I`d ever been to in my life – I could have sworn I saw Bowie four times before he actually got out on stage, there were people there who looked so like Bowie, but then there were hardly any people there anyway.
The general consensus seemed to be that San Francisco, which is supposed to be the great trend maker, has got its own freaks and it doesn`t really need imported English ones.
PV: Which is why I don`t think he could have started this whole thing in America, or in New York, but the English rock audience by and large is wanting to get in on what`s going on there but is still alienated by the distance…
I think the thing is, you see, that Bowie has at last found a place to belong, after all these years – I mean it`s been a long time he`s been ligging about, whether he took it seriously or not, for all the mitigating reasons that he didn`t get off the ground. I think at last he`s found a place he kicks off from – everyone needs a jumping-off point and I think he`s got it now.
JG: But I just think the metamorphosis might start wearing very thin very soon and I don`t think he can keep forcing a concept change without the material. I wonder whether his sort of end was after “Hunky Dory”, because I find the rift between “Hunky Dory” and “Ziggy Stardust” rather more… I mean “Hunky Dory” turned me on to David Bowie who I`d always been aware of, but “Ziggy Stardust” held me by virtue of the image but not by virtue of the songs, and the next album won`t do that for me.
PV: Yes, but you`re now sitting in a critical capacity – you see things in a different way, we all do, let`s face it, and I don`t think you can say he hasn`t got a lasting quality just because it did that for you. I think the fact is that after all these years he`s got success, what he does with it is another matter, but I don`t think he`s very easily going to let it go. But the other thing is that a lot of the things he`s always wanted to do, like the mime company and things, he`s now able to do because when you get success you have the facility to do things like that.
SP: People say that, people say that the success of having hit records and being on the front pages of the papers, has allowed him to put into practice the ideas he`s always had – but I thought the Rainbow concert with the mime company was mediocre in the extreme. It didn`t take the mime far enough, it didn`t take the music far enough, the musicians were used as props, stuck under bits of scaffolding.
So does it mean that having got to this pitch of commercial success, he isn`t really able to put into practice the things he was doing before – that the commercial pressures on him make him water everything down for public consumption? I didn`t speak to anyone else who felt it wasn`t as good as it could have been – everyone I spoke to thought it was great, Bowie has brought mime to a mass audience. Yet what he`d done was to bring an apology for mime to a mass audience, and they loved it.
MH: And his policy of record releases seems to be taking him further and further away from the kind of audience he could present a mime show to – for example to me, “The Jean Genie” sounds exactly like T. Rex on a pub juke box.
PV: This is what makes me think that he`s been so influenced by Bolan, from an outward point of view, from a show point of view. They`ve been friends for an awful long time, so now you think of a guy that cannot get any success, and who`s been sort of half trying – I mean, despite the fact that he always denied he wanted to be involved. I`m sure that you don`t make records unless you want people to hear them and you want to get some kind of recognition. So he sees Bolan suddenly projecting an entirely new image to an entirely new audience – I think it had a great influence on him, far more than he`d ever admit to.
I think their careers run very parallel actually, except that T. Rex supplied a want to a very young audience and Bowie has manoeuvred his image in a slightly different way.
SP: I`d say T. Rex supplied a need whereas Bowie created a demand.
I have personally transcribed this from the original paper. Any errors in the text from the original magazine may not have been corrected for the sake of accuracy. If you have a music-related web-page where this fits – please make a link to the article. With credits to the original writer of the article from all of us music fans!
This number of Sounds also contains articles/interviews with these people: Darryl Way (Curved Air), Geordie, Nazareth, Steve Marriott, Average White Band, Elton John, Francis Rossi (Status Quo), Slade, Thin Lizzy, Stackridge, Peter Gabriel, Mike Heron, Jesse Winchester.
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