The World Of David Bowie

David Bowie, The Thin White Duke reading Viz on the train.

This is another feature originally published on my previous website, and I think it’s fairly obvious what the subject is. I found out the news about David Bowie early one dreary miserable morning when one of Tin Machine messaged me on Twitter, and frankly I would not have wanted it any other way. I’d never felt entirely comfortable with Bowie’s latterday ‘National Treasure’ status – a relatively recent invention courtesy of people who, for the most part, were trying to say more about themselves than about him – and had always preferred him as the angular, unpredictable figure singing gloriously silly songs about gnomes and, well, making a bloody racket with his mates in suits; let’s not forget that he spent pretty much the entire nineties with the music press treating him as a contemporary artist that they didn’t quite ‘get’, which was quite an achievement when you consider most of his contemporaries were dribbling about in stadiums doing all-star versions of their Greatest Hits. As you’ll know if you’ve read Can’t Help Thinking About Me, I saw Bowie live on both of his least popular tours by some enormous distance, and I genuinely could not be prouder of that fact. And then there’s the films, the jokes, and every other way he touched my life in areas that went way beyond a couple of his more radio-friendly singles. Anyway, that’s who he was – and still is – to me, and after an entire day of people sobbing to Warszawa and dismissing everything he did after 1983 – oh and the bloody shrieking car alarms spluttering about how they couldn’t understand why anyone was upset and it’s time to move on people blah blah blah blah oh fucking shut the fuck up – I felt compelled to list a few of these as my own not-technically-heartfelt heartfelt tribute to The Thin White Duke Reading Viz On The Train. I honestly think it’s what he would have wanted.

I’ve been thinking all day about what to write about David Bowie. Not so much because I’m short of anything to say, but because, well, everyone else is doing deep and serious and the big outpourings of emotion, and in some ways that was never who he was to me. As much as I love the Berlin Trilogy and all the rest of it, my absolute favourite aspects of Bowie’s career have always been when he’s playing around with the medium and the artform, and generally having a bit of a chuckle at everyone else’s expense, not least those who would never stop moaning about why couldn’t he do another record like that nice Let’s Dance etc etc. The sixties albums, Earthling, Tin Machine, the bewildering acting engagements, those paintings of the back of his head or whatever they were, all of them laudable and amusing attempts to stray from paths that had been marked out for him by the wider audience, and aren’t going to go away no matter how hard some people may wish they would.

So I kept on thinking about this, even vainly attempting to enlist the help of Oblique Strategies in a quest for inspiration, when I remembered a time that I’d ended up writing about David Bowie without ever intending to at all. This was when I was dared to try and write an article about the famously dull sixties Doctor Who story The Space Pirates, and although I started off doing just that, halfway through I realised that I’d started writing about the Space Oddity album instead, which turned it into a very different and much better piece (one that I’m still very pleased with, and which you can find in my book Not On Your Telly). This started me thinking about just how much David Bowie had worked his way into the background of pretty much every aspect of my everyday existence, and at that point I decided to do a list of ten unexpected examples of him doing just that. It’s a little bit ragged and unpolished – a bit like the first Tin Machine album, then – but hopefully it says what I want to say. Thanks for everything, Silly Boy Blue.

Great Pop Things

David Bowie's film career, as seen by the NME's Great Pop Things.

It’s difficult to put into words just how much I used to look forward to Great Pop Things, the skewed and not even remotely accurate history of rock by Colin B. Morton and Chuck Death, that appeared at the foot of every NME letters page between 1987 and 1997. Driven by an almost nihilistic irreverence, and crammed with wilfully arcane in-jokes and pop culture references, it ridiculed the great and good (and Bros) more with thoroughly deflating absurdity than offensiveness. I can still be reduced to helpless laughter just by thinking about how Atlantis by Donovan is “about six minutes of wibbling on about where Atlantis might be, followed by about six seconds of singing about wanting to live in a coral house under the sea”, or U2 being instructed by Oblique Strategies to “play as boringly as possible”, or NWA rejecting aspirant rappers MC W (“an’ I’m here to trouble you!”) and MC * (“and I’m… erm… um”), or Can forming in school (“Sir, The Beatles are better than Stockhausen (in German)” – “Do not be stupid boy (also in German)”), or Robert Smith upsetting Siouxsie by turning up to rehearsals with his new ‘happy’ image, or Morrissey’s ‘Glum Rock’ album (“This Chin Is Big Enough For Both Of Us!”) ‘Produced by Mick Ronco for A Chinnichap’, or Pere Ubu “of whom Talking Heads were a substandard just-far-out-enough-to-say-you’d-been pale shadow” reinventing themselves as “a sub-Talking Heads drippy love song type group”, or Tom Baker telling a dumpster full of proto-grungers that “it’s OK to come out now, the punks have all gone”, or Jimi Hendrix being welcomed to London by Marianne Faithfull, Jeremy Thorpe and Ken Dodd, or PiL singing Where Is Love? (“B’dum! SKREEEE!”), or… well, I could seriously go on all night. But it began with a multi-part history of ‘The Chameleon Of Rock’, following him from getting in trouble in school for “cutting up library books and using the wrong changing rooms”, through inciting beach riots with his incendiary mod anthem The Laughing Gnome, and his controversial late seventies attempt to hail a train whilst dressed as Hitler and singing Helden, all the way to Tin Machine’s fractious relationship owing to the others’ bewilderment at his constant On The Buses references. And the writers’ comic obsession with the essential concept of ‘Dave’ would spill over into pretty much all of their other strips too, from Syd Barrett’s mental deterioration being signposted by his bursting into The Laughing Gnome onstage, to the sidesplittingly Dickensian Sex Pistols story starting with ‘tea-leaf’ Steve Jones nicking Bowie’s equipment in a swag bag, all the way to The Laughing Gnome himself proving a punning nuisance during the invention of the electric guitar. Sadly, although some other performers were known to enjoy it (though not Morrissey), Bowie never really expressed an opinion on Great Pop Things, but it’s fairly safe to assume he would have seen the joke.

States Of Mind

States Of Mind by Jonathan Miller (Pantheon, 1983).

These days, you’d be hard pushed to find a bigger fan of Satire Boom-launched polymath Jonathan Miller than me, and in particular his UK Psych-inventing film adaptation of Alice In Wonderland (which you can hear me talking about here), the masterclass in how to make a complex television series for uncomplicated audiences that is The Body In Question, and his assertion at the start of A Brief History Of Disbelief in 2004 that “I should perhaps warn you that what you are not going to see in this programme is anything that you might be tempted to think of as ‘Walking With Atheists’; I will not be seen leaning over a balcony, watching René Descartes nibbling his quill while he struggles with the problem of mind-brain duality, and there will be no blurred, slow motion shots of people making leaps of faith or failing to do so, because I think such dramatisation is somewhat vulgar and inappropriate” (“OMG did that person just say that thing in that programme from thirty years ago!?!?!?” – Pappy’s Fun Club, 2015). When I was a lot younger, however, he was simply the presenter of States Of Mind, a rather quite scary show about psychology and mental disorders that came on BBC2 at lunchtime on a Sunday after the family-friendly stuff like Windmill and Taken Obody Sword Forit had finished. States Of Mind was introduced by rotating concentric ‘brain’-denoting circles and a creepy piece of electronic music that I later described as “an ominous synthesiser melody that sounds curiously like a toxic rewrite of the theme song from Orm And Cheep. This music would lodge itself in my mind and resurface at inopportune and disturbing moments – especially during exams – so you can imagine my surprise when I eventually bought the CD release of Low and found Art Decade hidden away on Side Two.

Absolute Beginners

Absolute Beginners Soundtrack (Virgin, 1986).

Not the song per se, which admittedly is one of the best that Bowie ever wrote, but the film itself, a grand overhyped overlong jumble of a stylistically inconsistent bewilderingly directed Patsy-Kensit-meets-Courtney-Pine-meets-Sade-meets-Smiley-Culture-meets-Lionel-Blair mess, which may be many things but is never, ever boring. On any level. Being something of a sucker for the neglected corners of cinema, especially ill-conceived and under-budgeted British-made attempts to ‘sweep the board’ at any given awards ceremony (they never do), I’m naturally very fond of Absolute Beginners; it’s never been given a fair critical crack of the whip and is a lot better than you’ve probably been told it is, and in any case, the bizarre story of how it came to be made in the first place, and then bomb so dramatically, is nothing short of a goldmine if you’re interested in the relationship between society, culture and popular culture. So intoxicating is this infectious and all-consuming misjudgement of youth culture that it’s easy to forget that David Bowie not only sang the theme song but contributed two other numbers and even acted in a key role until you actually watch it. Which, let’s be honest, most of you haven’t done, have you? If you’re still in doubt, you can read about my love of the Absolute Beginners soundtrack album here, hear me talking about how much I love Absolute Beginners – as well as its close spiritual relations Jazzin’ For Blue Jean and the Tin Machine film – on the excellent Betamax Video Club podcast here.

‘Ziggy’ From Grange Hill

Ziggy Greaves from Grange Hill.

On to a somewhat more popular and longstanding fixture of the viewing habits of eighties youngsters. When crash helmet-haired scouse cheeky chappie Eric Greaves arrived at Grange Hill in 1986 to wreak havoc with Gonch and Hollo’s money-making plans, wisecrackingly derail the bullying aspirations of both Trevor Cleaver and Imelda Davies, and generally repeatedly end up with fibreglass down his back for reasons that nobody is really quite sure of, the story behind his given nickname of ‘Ziggy’ was initially left as a mystery. All would be revealed, however, when he ‘rescued’ some jumping-up-on-playground-wall-type girls from the world’s smallest ‘big’ spider, confessing that it was his twin admiration for our eight-legged pals and David Bowie that had earned him his popular handle. Two characteristics that, in true Grange Hill fashion, were never remarked upon ever again.

“It’s My Lunch, Terry”

Tin Machine on Wogan (BBC1, 1991).

Back in its heyday, almost everyone watched BBC1’s early evening chat show Wogan – seriously, just think about how many interviews have become longstanding national reference points – and it was always a pleasure to see a musical act turn up who really ought not to have been there. This was especially true when Tin Machine made a trip to Shepherd’s Bush in 1991 to mime to You Belong In Rock’n’Roll and indulge in a spot of post-performance natter with the host. Terry Wogan wasn’t always quite the genial figure we know and love him as – the interview with David Icke is evidence enough of that – and he approached the band with a gallery-playing combination of sneeriness, mocking disdain (“what are you trying to do here?”), and a total lack of interest in the other three members verging on base rudeness. It’s hardly surprising, then, that Bowie should have reacted to his banal line of questioning (especially that bollocks about pretending not to realise what that shoebox-shaped guitar was) with interview-sabotaging non-sequiturs. Wogan has since repeatedly tried to paint himself as the victim in all of this, but in all honesty he brought it on himself. If you provoked David Bowie into refusing to play the fame game, you’d really gone wrong somewhere. In case you hadn’t guessed, by the way, I’m something of a staunch defender of Tin Machine, as you can find out in no uncertain terms if you read Can’t Help Thinking About Me.

“Portable Telephones Could Make You Turn Into A Cow…”

Armando Iannucci on Radio 1, 1993

Jump They Say is an exhilarating, danceable and powerfully affecting attempt by a major recording artist to come to terms with his brother’s suicide, speculating on the thoughts that might have run through his head in a genuinely heart-wrenching fashion, inspiring you to look out for your fellow human beings and providing an emotional wallop in a way that certain of his peers’ mawkish displays of familial mourning (or for Princess Diana for that matter) sure never managed. And when he’s finished singing like he means it, he starts playing the saxophone like he means it. However, it also served as backing music for Armando Iannucci’s early nineties stint as a Radio 1 DJ (which you can read much more about in Fun At One), looping endlessly and hilariously in the background as he reviewed the new platform game ‘Aled Jones II’ and read out nonsense about Robert Robinson On Ice (“featuring scenes from Ask The Family and Call My Bluff), the new one-sided two pence piece, and Sharon Stone starring as a granary bap in a movie adaptation of Delia Smith’s One Is Fun.

The Real Pin-Ups

See Emily Play by Pink Floyd (Columbia, 1967).

Unless they had a career as brief and unprolific as Nick Drake (and even he did bloody Tow The Line), it’s always a mistake to claim that everything your favourite artist ever produced was on an equal level of brilliance. You’ll all have your Bowie album that doesn’t work for you, and mine is Pin-Ups, a great idea ruined by stilted and overthought production that just ends up trampling over a terrific set of mid-sixties r’n’b, beat and psych covers. His take on The Kinks’ Where Have All The Good Times Gone? just about works; elsewhere his mannered and theatrical vocals struggle with lyrics that are anything but that, and there is all manner of musical horrendousness going on, from the guitar riff on I Wish You Would that makes you want to throw your stereo out of the window, to the truly awful mangling of See Emily Play. Really, honestly, the idea of David Bowie covering Syd Barrett should be a match made in heaven, but all we get here is the rough and ready psychedelic shock of the original replaced by needlessly avant-garde and neo-classical instrumentation, overdone harmonised yelping, and a synthesiser that makes it sound as though Zippy and George are about to join in on backing vocals. It’s this more than any other track that makes you wish you were listening to a compilation of the originals instead… and years later, you realise that, well, you can do just that. And it’s brilliant. And maybe, just maybe, that’s what he wanted all along. Clever sod.

‘He Decamped To Berlin With Eno

Robert Fripp, David Bowie and Brian Eno recording 'Heroes' in 1977.

Whether it’s Chris Morris fans reminding you that he’s “a godlike genius”Doctor Who historians and their overuse of the words ’emblazoned’ and ‘black-clad’, or more obscurely the way early seventies sci-fi series Ace Of Wands apparently always “returned for a stylish new series” with “sometimes sinister foes”, off-the-peg cliché lexicon stock phrases beloved of writers who can’t be bothered to think for themselves are always amusing once you spot them, and there is no more ridiculous an example of this than the mainstream rock press’ bizarre insistence on opening any article about the Berlin albums by informing readers that Bowie “decamped to Berlin with Eno”. Quite what this means or what it involved nobody’s quite sure, but it doesn’t half make for a good in-jokey reference point with the other Bowie fans in your life (“I’m just decamping to the bar”).

Transmission, Transition (Repeat Until Students’ Heads Explode)

The Juke 2000 CD Jukebox.

With the arrival of cheaper and more compact digital technology, the Pub Jukebox really came into its own in the mid-nineties, with an easily-navigable flipchart of entire albums to choose from. Unfortunately, this meant that people always chose the exact same things, and after you’d heard Wonderwall and Brown-Eyed Girl accompanied by slurry student caterwauling for the fourteen thousandth time that night, you really did want to take action. Action which may have involved all of your party pooling together as much money as they could and putting on TVC15 as many times as that allowed, until the place was noticeably less full of rowdy singalongs and a weary barman went over and reset the jukebox. Direct action!

Bowie Buskers

And finally, you’ve doubtless all heard buskers take on all of the obvious Bowie candidates, from Space Oddity and The Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud to Rebel Rebel and China Girl. You might even have witnessed some braver souls strumming their way through Wild Is The Wind, When I Live My Dream or Rock’n’Roll Suicide. But you really have to hand it to the ones who jump right into the back catalogue without a parachute, treating puzzled commuters to acoustic guitar-wrested renditions of the likes of Chant Of The Ever Circling Family and V-2 Schneider; two numbers that I have genuinely heard real-life buskers attempt (and creditably so in both cases). They deserve all the spare change you have, frankly. If you haven’t used it to put TVC15 on a jukebox, that is.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, ain’t rock’n’roll, it’s my attempt at wrestling something positive, amusing and uplifting out of some genuinely horrid news. I hope it did the same for you. And now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m ‘Avin ‘Oops!

DCI Gene Hunt from Life On Mars.

This piece is dedicated to Camilla Long and Julia Hartley-Brewer, and to the rich and diverse contribution they have made to art, popular culture, and the improvement of the human experience.

Buy A Book!

You can find features on Tin Machine, Bowie’s wiped early television appearances and the two times that I saw him live – as well as a previously unpublished piece contrasting his ‘New Hitler’ outburst with more recent comments from more powerful figures that nobody does anything about – in my book Can’t Help Thinking About Me, a collection of columns and features with a personal twist. Can’t Help Thinking About Me is available in paperback here or from the Kindle Store here.

Alternately, if you’re just feeling generous, you can buy me a coffee here. Though you’re welcome to sidestep the crack in the sky and hand reaching down.

Further Reading

The Books I Couldn’t Help Thinking About is a look at some of the books, magazines and compilation album sleevenotes that inspired me the most as a writer, including The Complete David Bowie by Nicholas Pegg; you can find it here.

All Dead But Still Alive is piece on how I felt about Bowie – and everything else that had happened since – at the end of 2016; you can find it here.

That’s Motivation is feature on my love of the Absolute Beginners soundtrack, and its three little-heard Bowie numbers; you can find it here.

Further Listening

Bowie’s forgotten single When The Wind Blows was one of James Gent’s choices for Looks Unfamiliar, which you can listen to here.

You can hear me talking about Absolute Beginners on Betamax Video Club here.

© Tim Worthington.
Please don’t copy this only with more italics and exclamation marks.